Words by Paul David Flood
Photos by Gianluca D’Elia
Picture this: New Year’s Eve at Photo City Music Hall. You walk in and see lively chatter at the bar to your left, a group of friends taking a photo on the stage to your right, and silhouettes dancing to Gina G’s 1996 Eurovision hit “Ooh Ahh…Just A Little Bit.” Straight ahead, a colorful DJ performs in front of a banner that says “Juice Box.”
After grabbing your drink, you greet friends wearing outfits that range from spectacular, floor-length, sequined custom pieces to nothing but a leather harness and jockstrap. As you hit the dance floor, you’re surrounded by friendly folks of various identities, ranging from cis gay white men to Black trans women, all of whom comfortably coexist without fear of judgment or exclusion under the flashing lights of the event.
Queer joy, pride, and love abounds as you dance the night away and ring in 2023 with Rochester’s diverse and vibrant queer community. These were the sights and sounds of the “New Queers Eve” party hosted by Juice Box, a Rochester-based collective that has curated pop-up dance parties for Rochester’s queer community since July 2021.
Juice Box was co-founded by three friends who sought to reinvigorate Rochester’s queer nightlife scene in the wake of the pandemic. Brian Bartlett (@brianbuttlett on Instagram), a Rochester native and one of Juice Box’s resident DJs, wanted to get back into DJing in a space where he could perform a “more familiar sound, bridging underground and mainstream music.”
Maximus Seng (@maxxie1129), who moved to Rochester in the fall of 2016 to pursue graduate studies at RIT, wanted to develop his skills in event planning; he handles Juice Box’s social media, professional communications, and finances.
Both Bartlett and Seng approached Tom DeBlase (@tomdeblase), a Rochester native who organizes and serves as the resident DJ of Sole Rehab (@solerehabroc)—another Rochester-based queer dance party held regularly since 2015—with a similar idea in early 2021: a new nightlife event that would bring Rochester’s queer community together in the post-lockdown era.
As vaccines for COVID became available in 2021, the three grew increasingly optimistic for queer nightlife’s safe return to Rochester. DeBlase stated that Juice Box would offer a space for collective remembrance and reunion after a pandemic that overshadowed multiple record releases that were wildly popular among queer audiences. This includes releases such as Lady Gaga’s “Chromatica” and Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia.”
“We were hurting and missing this sense of socializing, and we knew everyone else was, too,” said DeBlase. “These huge events have happened in queer popular culture that were not even being acknowledged.”
Bartlett and Seng, citing DeBlase as Juice Box’s “spiritual advisor” in jest, were inspired by DeBlase’s work with Sole Rehab. Seng says that Sole Rehab parties are all about community: even if you are new to the space, people will still look out for you. Motivated, Seng wanted to create a space in the post-lockdown era that echoed Sole Rehab’s focus on Rochester’s queer community, but with a different, more varied musical aesthetic.
Bartlett uses three words to describe Juice Box’s mission: intention, listening, and giving.
From the music performed by the DJs to the decorations at Photo City, nothing at Juice Box goes without specific intentions. Each party has a specific theme, be it a holiday like “New Queers Eve” or particular events or figures; previous party themes include “Queer Prom,” “Queers in Space,” “Studio 585,” and more.
Once the trio decides on a theme, they pick three DJs to curate setlists that capture the sonic essence of the theme. This process allows the trio to elevate up-and-coming queer DJs in Rochester and beyond. The New Queers Eve lineup included Bartlett, Rochester’s Dorianne Gay (@dorianne_gay), and Pittsburgh’s Formosa (@formosa.exe).
The trio prides themselves on giving the queer community what it wants: a space with safety, consent, and their interests in mind. Although Photo City is not a queer-owned or queer-operated space, their partnership with Juice Box—and with other Rochester-based dance parties beyond the queer community—allows the three co-founders to see out their mission. Because of this, Juice Box has access to essential resources such as a spacious dance floor and trauma-informed security.
“The beautiful thing that I love about [the] queer community,” Bartlett said, “is that we create our own spaces. We migrate, form, and create that culture wherever we go. As a community, it’s so unique and special; not many groups of human beings are capable of that in the way that we are, and I think that’s something that resonates with Juice Box.”
This idea of queer placemaking has inspired Juice Box’s sister project, Rendezvous. These parties, primarily organized by Seng, take Juice Box’s vibes outdoors: August and October 2022 saw Rendezvous parties at Durand Eastman Beach and Genesee Valley Park, respectively. Both of these public, decidedly non-queer locations were transformed—albeit for an evening—into queer spaces by members of Rochester’s queer community.
Parties like Juice Box, as well as Rendezvous and Sole Rehab, provide essential spaces for unapologetic queer expression. But the extent of their giving is by no means self-serving: Juice Box donates a portion of every party’s proceeds to a dedicated charity that is either based in Rochester or based on current events affecting marginalized communities in the U.S. and abroad. A portion of the ticket sales for the “New Queers Eve” party benefited the Good Judy Garage’s Club Q Victims and Survivors Compassion Fund which helped cover funeral, medical, and healing expenses for the November 2022 shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Queer spaces in the U.S. have a long social history of being made by the cis white muscle gay for the cis white muscle gay, often excluding queer people of other races and body types. Part of Juice Box’s mission is to combat this formula by advertising their events as welcoming to all queer people, particularly those most marginalized even within the queer community.
“There are so many women and femme-identifying folks who come up to me at our parties to say ‘thank you’ for that space,” said Bartlett, “because for women, nightlife anywhere in this country feels like a mission to get home alive. They thank us for having intention behind making a safe space to just dance.”
Juice Box’s prioritization of safety and inclusion offers something to be said about Rochester’s queer community at-large. Seng noted that the members of Rochester’s queer community are particularly accepting.
“If you go out here in Rochester, or Buffalo to that extent, and you don’t know anyone, there will be people willing to talk to you and get to know you.”
Compared to other cities he’s lived in, Seng calls Rochester the best place he’s lived so far.
“Whatever kind of queer you are, whether you’re very queer or prefer to not be that visible, that’s fine,” Seng said. “Just come, have fun. We don’t judge anyone, you can be whatever way you want. As long as you’re cool and bring good vibes to the space, we welcome everyone, whether you’re straight or not.”
Juice Box can be found on Instagram and Twitter @juiceboxroc.