Sequins, feathers, homemade pasties: D.C.’s queer nightlife is in bloom

Sequins, feathers, homemade pasties: D.C.’s queer nightlife is in bloom

Flower Factory’s monthly style-forward dance parties invite participants to ‘show up and show out’

John Kim dances at Zebbie’s Garden during a Feb. 12 gathering hosted by Flower Factory. The collective’s style-forward parties attract anywhere from 600 to 1,300 guests per event. (Photos by Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)


On a dreary Sunday in February, heavy and relentless rain pounded D.C.’s empty streets. But inside Zebbie’s Garden, gray turned to Technicolor as patrons packed into the Dupont Circle nightclub for a day of queer revelry. Shedding their coats and umbrellas, they unveiled an explosion of sequins, feathers, leather chokers, sparkling pasties, body harnesses and mesh fabrics as they shimmied onto a flashing dance floor. Along the way, a pink neon sign glowed its instructions: “Be a bada– with a good a–.”

With its dangling pink cherry blossoms, rose-covered walls and twirling disco balls, Zebbie’s Garden is a fitting setting for Flower Factory, a queer DJ collective hoping to spearhead a more inclusive LGBTQ nightlife scene in D.C. Since June 2021, the group has thrown the style-forward parties every second Sunday of the month, roving between a handful of host venues across the city and drawing anywhere from 600 to 1,300 guests per event.

“Everyone’s just kind of bringing their best, weirdest and most entertaining selves to these things, and it’s really just paying off,” said co-organizer Kris Sutton, who, along with five other friends, makes up the collective. The group boasts a mix of seasoned party throwers and DJs who also have demanding careers by day — balancing jobs across politics, law, academia and medicine. And they all share an interest in testing boundaries. “We strive to be somewhat experimental and to create a space that invites other people to experiment with different aesthetics and musical styles and their fashion as well,” said co-organizer Gene Smilansky.

The dance parties also provide an outlet for the group members to explore their musical tastes, which span house, techno, club, disco, trance, bass, pop and hip-hop. “We’ve all, I think, been able to play things to this crowd that we might get a little more pushback if we played them at a bar, and that is very intentional,” said co-organizer Chris Kochevar. “People come to the party kind of open to hearing something that they haven’t heard before, and … I’m personally proud of that.”

Experimentation for Flower Factory extends beyond music and fashion. At the heart of its mission is a desire to create a safe space for gender expression and LGBTQ individuality in D.C. “I think the aim has always been — even though we’re all guys — to make the party more open to people of all genders,” Kochevar said.

The organizers say the monthly event — which starts in the afternoon and ends early — also draws on the tradition of gay tea dances that began in New York and sprouted across U.S. cities in the 1950s and ’60s. At a time when same-sex dancing was criminalized and club raids were common, the afternoon soirees functioned as discreet spaces for gay and lesbian people to socialize safely.

In D.C., where queer nightlife has waned and beloved venues have shuttered since the pandemic, Flower Factory has fostered a growing community of partygoers seeking a safe space for pure entertainment and expression. “I think that’s the vibe,” Sutton said. “It’s a Sunday afternoon. … Just come out, have a good time, dance your butt off and hopefully don’t get too hung over before you go to work on Monday.”

Revelers, who shunned the Super Bowl and braved the rain for last month’s party, shared how Flower Factory has helped them find their community in D.C.

Occupation: Tech policy analyst

“The first Flower Factory I ever went to in October 2021 is where I, at the time, connected with my now-girlfriend. December Flower Factory is when we started spending more time together. And the June Flower Factory is where we first went out as an official couple. So that’s a lot of words to say that not only is this event very warm and welcoming and inclusive, but it does actually bring people together in a meaningful way.”

Occupation: Artist and designer

“Flower Factory, in a lot of ways, was my introduction to queer nightlife in D.C. because of the pandemic. So it’s like a really beautiful way to start out. … It’s magical to have.”

Occupation: Sales operations analyst

“D.C.’s really filled to the brim with a lot of cisgender White gay men, and me moving from India with this accent and everything, it was really difficult to learn where I fit in. So when I learned that something like this actually exists, I thought, ‘My God! This is f—ing amazing. Like I belong here. I love it.’”

Occupation: IT programmer

“I have a lot of things I use as a mantra. One is a real simple phrase, ‘I am me,’ which I very much cling to. The idea is I am who I am. This is an expression of who I am, and I want the world to see it.”

Occupation: Communications specialist

“As much as D.C. is a queer space, I do feel like it’s predominantly a male queer space, just like any other city in the United States is. We don’t have a lot of spaces for femme, so it’s dope to show up, show out.”

Occupation: Event production manager and pole-dancing drag performer

Pronouns: “Anything.”

“I made these pasties right before we got here. I am very into an apocalyptic futurism — ‘Alien Superstar,’ if you will.”

Occupation: Digital journalist and drag king performer

“Flower Factory is one of those places where people show up and show out, and I’m a king that loves contrast. So I [wore] a hoodie and a long overcoat and just … one contrasting statement piece, which would be my headpiece, the gele. It’s representative of where I’m from. Both of my parents are Nigerian, and I was born here, so I love it. I feel like my dad swagging out when he used to be in the streets at Howard in the ’70s and ’80s.”

“We love Flower Factory. We try to bring that Black representation. … All the closures have just messed up our culture. Our routine has changed a lot because of covid. But the gay life is starting to come back; it’s definitely on the rise.”

Occupation: Aerospace engineer

“I come to Flower Factory and I see my friends every month. I know I’m going to see my b—-es here. I don’t see these guys anywhere else, but I’m going to see them here.”

Occupation: Drag performer

Pronouns: “All of them.”

“I focus less on like the RuPaul rules of drag, even though they’re amazing — this is not a dig — but they are an established set and standard that a lot of us live up to and try to work towards — and I do, to a certain degree. But when it comes to the actual performance, it’s about the story. So if it involves me getting ugly for the role or messy in any kind of way with it, if I am sweating, I’m just letting it happen. Because it’s supposed to happen.”

Occupation: School administrator

“We have some designers in Spain that we absolutely love — Numero 8 Spain. … [And] ESENSHEL is a Black milliner in New York who makes our hats.”

Occupation: A vice president at the Housing Authority of Baltimore City

“I like the fact that you have people from so many backgrounds and workspaces that you don’t really know who you could be bumping into. Everyone’s out with their hair down, relaxed, just enjoying the moment. You don’t have to worry about, ‘Who’s looking at me?’ … Everybody’s having the same fun, the same energy.”

Occupation: Digital fundraising director

“I came out as nonbinary while I’ve been living in D.C., and I will attribute it in no small part to Flower Factory and being able to come to a space where I feel safe wearing heels and earrings. My first time here, I wore some thigh-high pink boots and a pink tank top, crop top situation, and I just remember I was going through a weight-loss journey, so I was a little uncomfortable wearing that sort of outfit. But I came and I had the most fun that I had in D.C. ever. And I was like: ‘These are my people. This is my vibe. This is where I’m going to find my community.’”

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