These LGBTQ+ Creatives Moved To NYC To Be Themselves

Photographed by Alex Black.
If you’ve consumed any popular culture from the last century, you know that people move to New York City to find themselves, chase their dreams, or escape their lives.
This ongoing portrait series by Alex Black documents youth from around the country who made their way to New York City and found a sense of identity. For them, identity and personal style are a daily performance, an important vehicle of self-expression, and a manifestation of their true selves.
I asked them why they escaped, what they’ve struggled with most, and what they wish they could tell their younger selves.
This text has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Photographed by Alex Black.
Harshvardhan Shah, 20 years old, arrived in September 2015:

Where are you from?

"Mumbai, India."

What made you decide to leave your hometown?

"You can only grow so much in one place. I definitely needed a change of environment to support my interests in photography and fashion. At the same time, I was really struggling with my identity. I felt like having the freedom of New York would really push me in the direction I needed to go into."

What did you struggle with?

"I think the toughest part was navigating being gay and Indian. I never saw accurate media representation growing up in Mumbai and almost no media representation at all in the West, so life became a little lonely and scary."

What does your family think?

"There was a lot I had to initially explain to them, about some of the realities of being queer and what it would mean for me. But they’ve always been there for me and supported everything I’ve wanted to do, which I’m really thankful for. I text my parents every day. My mom will always ask if I’m eating well and drinking enough water. I've been here for four years now but it won't stop."
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Photographed by Alex Black.
Spencer McKinney, 25 years old, arrived in October 2014:

Where are you from?

"I was born in South Carolina, but was raised in and around Atlanta, Georgia."

Why did you leave Georgia?

"I was raised in a very religious household and was deterred from doing a lot of things regarding my sexuality and my creativity. I needed to be somewhere that I could be independent and be exactly who I wanted to be, with no fear."

What happened when you arrived in New York?

"I visited for two weeks in the summer before making the move, and met a lot of beautiful, interesting people and they all made me feel so comfortable. I met a boy during my visit and had my first kiss and fell in love. Maybe two months later, I moved to New York with one suitcase. He was my everything, but I wasn't his."

Where is he now?

"Last I heard, he works at Vogue." Laughs

Does your family support your decision?

"My mom and my older brother are the only ones that I've come out to, and they love and support me. My dad is a pastor, so being gay wasn't an option. Femininity wasn't an option. My father made me join the track team when I started high school, because he wanted me to be tougher. I constantly felt like I wasn't what he wanted and it killed me."

Do you talk to your father now?

"I was actually watching Moonlight late one night some months ago, and he messaged me from Georgia and told me he loved me no matter what."
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Photographed by Alex Black.
Jacquelyn Emmarie Alberts, 26 years old, arrived in May 2017:

Where are you from?

"Atlantic City, New Jersey."

Why New York?

"It’s filled with creative people who don’t give a fuck about what others think and who aren’t afraid to be themselves. There’s an undertone of acceptance of differences that allows me to be able to try shit I never would and get direct feedback about it.

"It’s like the weirder you are, the more people fuck with you and respect you.

"It’s crazy, but living here and having a shaved head just isn’t enough anymore to stand out. It’s funny because if I were to go home, I would get stared at from miles away. I can feel their judgement and confusion everywhere I go around there."

What made you decide to leave your hometown?

"I hated the person that I was there. Since there is absolutely no culture, nothing to inspire you or bring value to your life, drugs start to play a major role in leisure activities in order to make life more fun. The majority of the people I knew were on drugs, or worse."
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Photographed by Alex Black.
Amanda Picotte, 27 years old, arrived in January 2011:

Where are you from?

"Albany, New York."

Why did you move?

"What prompted my move to NYC was more my struggles as a woman, rather than my experiences as a queer woman.

"I had grown up in Albany, but before I moved to Brooklyn, I was a freshman at the University of Vermont. A few months into my program, I was raped by a fellow student. He was very popular, and I lost a lot of friends when I decided to get him expelled. What honestly kept me alive during that time was spending time in the darkroom. I would often go days without uttering a single word, so photography was my means of learning how to communicate again and take my mind off what happened. Despite getting the perp expelled, I knew I couldn’t stay in Burlington, so I decided to fully commit myself to photography, which had always been a major passion of mine."

How did you heal?

"Once I moved to the city, I found that the queer community was integral to my healing. I was able to more fully explore my queer identity, and learn to love on my terms, which helped me start to shed the immense amount of unnecessary shame I felt as a rape survivor.

"The queer community in New York is full of so many powerful and brilliant individuals, that I’ve since been unable to separate my art from the people who have inspired me in my years here. Queer individuals have to fight every day to be seen as valid beings, and my experiences as a survivor resonated with the struggle for the bare minimum level of respect."
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Photographed by Alex Black.
Jordan Shelwood, 20 years old, arrived in August 2015:

Where are you from?

"Born in California, but moved around my whole childhood due to Air Force parents."

What made you decide to leave your hometown?

"The last place I lived before moving to New York was a small town near Dallas, Texas. I never liked it or had any intentions of staying and that definitely wasn't anywhere for me to pursue a film career or even fully express myself."

In what way could you not express yourself?

"I would wear some pretty eccentric outfits and other kids would make me feel uncomfortable all day at school, but for some reason I couldn’t stop myself."

What’s your favorite part about New York style?

"I never had any examples of genderless or androgynous fashion around me until moving here."
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Photographed by Alex Black.
Michael Rulli (aka "Faguette"), 23 years old, arrived in 2015:

Where are you from?

"Farmingdale, New York, which is the center of the center of Long Island."

What made you decide to leave your hometown?

"It wasn't really my decision. Unfortunately, both my parents had passed away from alcoholism, so after that happened there wasn't much of a reason to ever go back to Farmingdale. I finished up my degree upstate and the day after I donned my cap and gown I packed the moving truck and drove straight to New York."

You do poetry performances. What are they like?

"My performances are spoken word poetry, but over time I added a visual element. Not just the reading of poetry, but the outfits are also poetry and the makeup."

Advice on moving to New York?

"I mean, it is incredibly hard, but you can't be afraid of it. You can do all the planning in the world, and you can save up for years but New York will either let you in or it will spit you out, so you might as well just jump in."
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Photographed by Alex Black.
Ky Naylor, 22 years old, arrived in July 2017:

Where are you from?

"I grew up in a small Victorian town called Bellefonte, near Penn State University."

Why did you leave?

"When I was in Bellefonte, it’s not that I felt like I didn’t fit in, it was more that I had to really look for a place where I did belong. I found comfort in theatre and acting and the people who did theatre were so strange but accepting at the same time.

"When I was in middle school, I was called gay before I ever even knew it.

"Dating in college in Pennsylvania was so tough for me. As a queer individual and someone who did drag, I was definitely perceived as very femme and the gay community in the town I lived in was very hung up on masculinity."

Advice for anyone going through the same thing?

"My advice to someone in a small town is to not pay attention to what people say about you or if they look at you in a different way. There is no right or wrong answer to who you are, and by focusing on surrounding yourself with accepting people, it will be ok."
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Photographed by Alex Black.
Olya Anikina, 27 years old, arrived in 2012:

Where are you from?

"A town called Yakutsk, in North East Siberia, Russia."

What made you decide to leave your hometown?

"Originally, I left when I was 17 years old to live in China. The official reason was school and the secondary one was to get away."

Get away from what?

"Historically, Russia is not a place where having your own opinion or standing out in any sense, is encouraged. For me, it has always been natural, and not necessarily wanted, to dress a certain way."

Do you have any memories of this?

"As a kid, I remember wanting to be dressed in pink fluffy dresses, which all the cool girls wore in kindergarten. But because of a shortage of any unique clothing, my mom used to make it herself for me. She had to sell them standing outside at a market in the cold Siberian winter. It truly was a difficult time to raise a child in Russia. We’re talking about the 90's and falling of the Soviet Union, crime, and poverty.

"So, later on I appreciated her eye and sort of built up my own aesthetic because of it. Which was a problem growing up in Russia. I had this weird urge for self-expression that I couldn't control. I’m glad that it wasn't destroyed by the societal norms."
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Photographed by Alex Black.
Skyler Hawkins, 20 years old, arrived in April 2017:

Where are you from?

"A small town of 800 people an hour south of Dallas, Texas."

Why did you leave?

"In these smaller towns in Texas if you’re anything but a straight white man you’re nothing. I did my senior year of high school online because I couldn’t take how people made me feel, and still to this day I deal with the feelings of that time."

What would you tell yourself if you could speak to high school you?

"I would tell myself to dress how you want. Wear makeup. Don’t stop yourself from being flamboyant."

How often are you modeling and what has been the highlights of your career so far?

"I shoot probably every other week. I’m in castings at least every day or every other day right now since it’s fashion week. I just did a shoot for Kaltblut Mag and the story was about a queer kid living his last day of summer before having to go back to school and conform to society again."
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Photographed by Alex Black.
Jalen Dominique, 23 years old, arrived August 2017:

Where are you from?

"I’m from Dallas, Texas."

What made you decide to leave your hometown?

"I made the decision to mentally leave Dallas years ago, to be honest. I love my hometown but, it’s not a very free place to live and thrive."

Why is that?

"It’s the conservative south, and I found it so difficult to express myself in the most honest ways without the utmost judgment from the not so open minds around me.

"I’m queer and black and that already comes with a set of stereotypes and stigmas. Moving didn’t erase that problem completely, but I was able to create my own space and thrive within it without so as many conservative ideas being thrown at me.

"But I’m grateful to be from Texas because it’s a certain twang that it gave me and I don’t think I’d be exactly who I am, in all my ratchetness, if I weren’t from there."

What advice would you give a kid in the same position you were in, living afraid to be their true self in a conservative place?

"Throw your middle fingers up and live."

Who are some models and creatives that you think pushed the boundaries for diversity in fashion?

"Hands down, Mother Grace Jones. Naomi Campbell. I’m into Imaan Hamaam. Also, Duckie Thot. Hands down, Fenty Beauty. Can we say representation at its best? Everyone can use and relate to the brand because everyone is covered. From the fairest skin to most melanin-enriched."
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