For Document Fall/Winter 2020, the musicians discuss coming up in the club underground and subvert established narratives by presenting their own—in all their urgent complexities
DJ Honey Dijon has called court with her longtime friends and fellow musicians Nomi Ruiz and Juliana Huxtable, who are separated by oceans, time zones, and a pandemic. Yet they all share New York. It’s where, in the late ’90s, Dijon brought her education from the primordial Chicago house scene, infused it with elements of disco and techno, and became a club legend, finding ardent fans in ravers as well as blue chip fashion designers Kim Jones, Rick Owens, and Riccardo Tisci. Whether commanding the booth from a hazy warehouse stage or setting the tone for a Louis Vuitton runway with a thumping custom mix, she’s all business, and her international brand continues to expand. Her winking debut solo album, The Best of Both Worlds, dropped in 2017, followed by the 2019 release of an expletive-spliced line of graphic tees and leather accessories, Honey Fucking Dijon, created in collaboration with Comme des Garçons. “Let’s go, because mama is on a schedule,” she says, the first on the call.
New York is where Dijon met Huxtable, the poet, visual artist, and DJ behind the roaming, trans-inclusive party Shock Value. Originally from Texas, she joins the conversation from Berlin. The two have received equal billing on various occasions: In one case, for a 2015 anniversary party toasting Discwoman, an art collective and booking agency championing women and gender-nonconforming DJs. In 2014, they appeared alongside other underground cultural figures in the music video for “My Offence” by the nu-disco group Hercules & Love Affair, its rotating cast once spotlighting Ruiz as vocalist. Brooklyn native Ruiz left the group in 2009 to form the electro-pop band Jessica 6, and by that point, she and Dijon were already good friends. Introduced by the multimedia artist Anohni, who enlisted both performers for a 2006 tour across Europe, the pair later collaborated on the slow-grooving track “Why.”
Electronic music, New York, and a spirit of self-determination have been formative for each artist, and their work is united in defiance against the confines of any particular genre, scene, gender, or identity. For her exhibition at Reena Spaulings Fine Art in New York in 2019, “Interfertility Industrial Complex: Snatch the Calf Back,” Huxtable appeared in her own photographs as a trans-species pinup to explore the mutability of identity as facilitated through the internet, while simultaneously pantomiming the sensationalism and policing found within its bowels. Ruiz’s essays find the transformative properties of her own desire, and in being desired. In a 2019 piece for The Advocate, she wrote candidly about the confusion and excitement she felt rediscovering her body, and her orgasm, post-surgery. So when Dijon wanted to have a frank, intimate conversation about sex and “this cultural moment of trans-awareness” in all its violent complexity, she knew whom to call.
Honey Dijon: Trans-awareness has been in the cultural conversation, I would say, since 2015, but I also feel like we have not been able to tell our own narratives, in our own voices, about our own sexuality. It’s normally through the gaze of a heteronormative or homonormative person in the media. Everyone tends to focus on whether or not you’ve had gender confirmation surgery. They focus on what partners you’ve had, and their sexual orientation comes into question. It deflects from us owning our own narrative about how we have pleasure, how we seek pleasure, and from people who find pleasure from our bodies in a positive way. At the end of the day, it’s about sex and love. Those are universal things that a human person experiences. I think the fact that we’ve had multiple experiences in many gender expressions [means] we have a really magical perspective about it.
“I don’t believe in casual sex; I respect the fact [you are] sharing your body, sharing energy, sharing space. Sex for me is a sacred thing. I don’t look at it in a patriarchal way. I look at it in more of a shamanistic way.” —Honey Dijon
Nomi Ruiz: It’s important to humanize us in that way; sex is such a huge part of human life, and it’s something that’s often ignored or neglected with us. The juxtaposition is that a lot of people’s first time ever discovering trans people is through porn, or something related to sex in a way that’s not really humanizing—it’s objectifying and keeps us in this ostracized realm. There’s no reason there should be so much shame and secrecy around our sex lives. There’s so much sex-positive information out there, but not for us.
Juliana Huxtable: It’s important to think beyond the limitations of the act of sex. So much of the discourse that both trans and intersex advocacy have inherited and been forced to negotiate is specific to gay and lesbian struggles, which are understood by most of the public to be a question of sexual orientation and desire. How, who, and what I desire in relation to my—presumably cis—gender identity establishes identities, communities, and specific political struggles. My narrative is complicated as I first dealt with being intersex, the reality that I did not function physically or chromosomally within the dimorphic sex essentialist model, and then later decided to take estrogen and further feminize my body. I think the biggest and most important shift that needs to take place is allowing people to determine their own realities. Medical intervention should only occur if someone desires it and on their own terms.
Honey: I’d never had positive sexual experiences with men until my current relationship. It was always me having to make others feel comfortable. My sexuality was always in relation to someone else’s, or in relation to the comfort of men, or in relation to the comfort of people knowing what gender I had. I just got to the point when I was like When do I get to have a say about my body, for me? When do I get to have pleasure for me? When you own your body, regardless of whoever you’re attracted to, it’s a privilege to share their body with you. I don’t believe in casual sex; I respect the fact [you are] sharing your body, sharing energy, sharing space. Sex for me is a sacred thing. I don’t look at it in a patriarchal way. I look at it in more of a shamanistic way.
Nomi: Becoming in tune with my body and my sexuality has been this journey, and at first I wasn’t so confident. I would use my body and sex for validation, in ways that were very unhealthy. It took me a while to get to that place [of] this is a sacred thing, and I have to be very careful and precious. It is a privilege to let someone into your home, into your body, into your space.
Juliana: I think sex is as sacred as life is sacred. I’ve had lots of sex in my life, sex I would consider profound and spiritually shattering, and cheap, masochistic sex, where all I wanted was to be used by a brokenhearted man whose temporary redemption was in the absolute control of my body. There are times in my life where I couldn’t see sex as sacred, where I had to confront parts of myself that stood between me and myself. I had, for lack of a better term, a sex addiction for large parts of my life. I’ve come out of months where I don’t know how I remained healthy and intact.
I had an ayahuasca ceremony in February of 2018, when I was in a ‘happily unyoked’ period. I was free with sex and psychedelics and somehow kept ending up with men who, while I was in the throes of fab sexual entanglements, all ended up bringing emotional chaos into my life. During the ceremony, I had this revelation that sex was a very direct and dynamic exchange of energy and that maybe I was introducing chaos into my life via the sex I was having. It was less a moral indictment of promiscuity than a reckoning with sex as more than just the feeling I had in the moment.
Coco Romack: You all work in music—and, to an extent, in nightlife. Does that affect how you interact with people and maintain relationships, given that’s often a sexually charged and transient space?
Honey: [During] my formative years in New York, nightlife, clubs, and music were safe havens for the creative community. Not just trans people, but a lot of different types of artists, and a lot of different types of gender expression. Clubbing in New York, before it became entertainment, was a subculture. It was a place for all people who were nonconforming. There were a lot of different ways to make your money without doing sex work or dealing drugs. That’s why I’m so vocal about it: Club culture, for me, is not just entertainment.
“Definitely my best sexual experiences have been when I was emotionally attached. There’s been this safety there. For me, I need to just feel safe and allow myself to feel pleasure, not just be a vessel for someone else’s.” —Nomi Ruiz
Juliana: New York was obviously a fertile ground to discover what self-determination means. [The nightlife scene] is always evolving, [but] I don’t think there was a division or separation of subculture and entertainment. If anything, entertainment and subculture are inseparable, which animates the possibility of life defined by novelty and an avant-garde sensibility that allows one to experience all aspects of life as a reflection of the galaxy of cultures constantly cross-pollinating.
Nomi: I would go to Honey’s parties, and those were my moments to feel free and liberated. I did feel more in tune with my body just there, present and dancing. Those were the only times when I felt like I owned my sexual energy and my truth. It attracts people to you in that way.
Coco: How much of what you’ve learned about sex, work, and life in general has come from your community and your queer family?
Honey: Sex, in my experience, has always been complicated. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago; I grew up in the house music culture. I never had mirrors of affirmation about trans-ness or what sex meant. Sex, for me, was always about which straight guy I could get to sleep with me. What you learn, from doing this repeatedly, is not one person can give you your sense of womanhood or femininity. I was always doing it by following tropes of how men treat women. I thought if I was treated so badly by a guy, then I must be fierce, because this is what real women go through. That was at a time when even your own community was telling you, ‘You need to get a pussy to be happy.’ You’d have trans women telling you, ‘Unless you have a vagina, it’s gonna be impossible.’ You need to go here to have a silicone surgery, you need to go to Mexico to this shitty doctor that’ll mutilate you. You’re coming up in a community, and they don’t even have the right information. There was so much stuff that I had to navigate on top of my sense of self, trying to find work—not feeling I deserved love or sex at all.
Nomi: That never ends. We’re always exploring and evolving and learning about ourselves and being more confident. These conversations are so important because we’re so isolated and think we’re the only ones going through this stuff. When people hear [about our experiences], they’re like, ‘Oh, right, I’m not alone in this process. We’re all here, we’re all discovering ourselves and growing.’
Honey: It’s great that there’s this conversation now about people who are nonbinary, or who are trans but choose not to do hormone therapy or [decide] they don’t need surgery. We grew up at a time when passing was life or death. You either fit in, or you got your ass killed walking down the street. And whoever you dealt with sexually, their shame would be put upon you, and you’re navigating all of this shit because your community doesn’t have the right information; the world misguides, mislabels. The thing I always find funny is that straight people don’t even have it right. So how are we supposed to get it right? Straight heteronormativity isn’t working—for anybody. Cisgender tropes aren’t working for anybody. So then we’re trying, as trans people—and this is why we need to realize our power—to assimilate to something that isn’t working.
Juliana: Dimorphic sex understood as a legible, biological reality—in chromosomes, ‘primary’ sex organs, or reproductive capacity—has been a tyrannical truth fabricated largely through the medical regulation of intersex bodies. Our most basic ideas of subjectivity depend on the idea that sex only exists in two forms that presume a coherence among [chromosomes, sex organs, and reproductive capacity]. It is a misreading of and disservice to the realities intersex people navigate to read it through the lens of identity or choice, as the central issue for so many of us has been the historical lack of choice in what we do with our bodies.
Coco: What was your first positive experience with sex?
Juliana: I first had sex in a pickup truck in the parking lot of an apartment complex, with light sifting through the leaves of the tree overhead. It was that dull rose-amber light that comes from American streetlights; it has a sort of sepia film quality. It was so amazing. I had done everything but fuck, and when he entered me, it was so, so sweet. He had one of those Captain Hook uppercut cocks that made me melt, my heat expanding in heavy exhalation that fogged the window. This literally sounds like a romance novel, but it gave me that feeling! I loved my body through his loving of my body, and I had a full-body orgasm.
Honey: I think my most positive experience is the one I’m currently having with my partner, because I’m seen as a human being. We’re right on the conversation of having an open relationship, which I’m not quite—you know, [with] the new modern kids, I feel like I’m a bit old-fashioned. The reason why I like monogamy is because it’s taken so long to find something special that I want for me. My partner is a six-foot-seven Swiss white guy. Sex for him has been a choice. I don’t have that choice. So when I finally found someone that saw me as a human being, of course I wanted to keep that close to me. I’m going to have to vocalize it to him. I’ve started allowing myself to have pleasure for myself—through masturbation, through what my body responds to with pleasure.
Nomi: The older I get, the more I feel safe with my choices and with my body. It’s been a journey, like I said, to even please myself. Sex, for so long, was just about pleasing others, being desired, and being sexually successful. Now, I’m like, This is for me, this experience is for me, and pleasure is for me. When you start thinking in a certain way, your environment changes and you start attracting different kinds of partners. Definitely my best sexual experiences have been when I was emotionally attached. There’s been this safety there. For me, I need to just feel safe and allow myself to feel pleasure, not just be a vessel for someone else’s.
“I don’t think loving one person means there’s an absolute rule that desire can adhere to. Like any guiding principle, should one choose to abide by it, the love I have for my love guides how I navigate the world.” —Juliana Huxtable
Coco: Nomi and Juliana, what is your relationship with monogamy? Do you believe in it?
Nomi: I believe in all of it. I respect ethical non-monogamy. I think it’s about honesty and communication. I definitely am a monogamy kind of girl. I’m a little bit old school in my relationships. But I have been open to the idea of other formations. I’m always talking to my partner about that, even though we have a monogamous relationship. I always say, if something changes, I think it’s okay for us to try different things. I don’t ever want my partner to feel trapped, and neither do I. We live in a world [where] we meet people constantly. We’re human beings. We’re always going to be attracted to other people, and there’s a way to navigate that with a partner.
Juliana: Monogamy seems, to me, less something to believe in and more of a choice. People have different understandings of monogamy. I don’t have the space to love more than one person at this time in my life. I am obsessive by nature and am really bad at juggling—I tried this also, very unsuccessfully. I don’t think loving one person means there’s an absolute rule that desire can adhere to. Like any guiding principle, should one choose to abide by it, the love I have for my love guides how I navigate the world. It’s not a mandate, nor is it an imperative. It is the boundary through which the liquid of my want flows, but it is not a box within which my desire sits static. I just like my love to be what it is. I am deeply in love with someone now, and it is exactly what it is.
Coco: Honey, I was reading your interview in Pin Up, and you spoke about having rubber sheets, which I thought sounded so cool, kind of next-level. What is the bedroom situation like? What sets the mood?
Honey: For me, music is quite important. That’s why I can’t go to sex parties, because the music is always so bad. I can’t have sex with bad music. I approach sex from an energy sort of place, so I need music, and scent is very important to me. I always need to have candles. What’s been really interesting for me lately is that I’m discovering tenderness in sex. For so many years, I thought it had to be super aggressive, like my pussy had to be torn out of the box. I’m discovering softness in sex, I’m discovering gentleness in sex, and I’m discovering that it doesn’t have to be acrobatic.
Nomi: [Laughs] Pulling stunts in the bedroom.
Honey: One of the things my boyfriend first said was, ‘I don’t really have this animalistic attraction to you, but I have this softness for you.’ At first I thought that meant that he really wasn’t into me. But then I really started to think, Why is that bad? Why is having someone having a soft sexual energy towards you a negative thing? And that’s opened me up to, like, Wait a minute, not every guy wants to be the porn star.
Nomi: I’ve been learning to not have music. I like music, but sometimes I just wanna hear the sounds of the breathing and the bodies together. I raise the sound even with porn, I need to have headphones on.
Honey: I turn the sound off.
Nomi: Really? I need to hear the breathing, I need to hear the little moans, every detail.
Honey: It’s hard for me to watch commercial sex. I never see people of color, other than Brazilian girls, and they’re usually light. I never see well-dressed people. It’s always cheap. And I don’t think sex has to be cheap. So I’m like, I made the records I wanted to hear, so do I need to make the porn I need to see? I’m toying around with presenting trans work and trans bodies—especially trans bodies of color—from an artistic point of view and in a very sophisticated and chic way.
“There are no mirrors of affirmation for trans women of color, anyplace. Even in fashion, it’s mostly white trans women that are celebrated, that are getting the beauty contracts or walking runways. I don’t see myself anywhere.”
Juliana: I find most depictions of sexuality with trans people almost intentionally garish, caricatured, and cruel in its gaze. I dissociate when I see most porn with trans people and am usually left with the feeling that it was made in poor faith—fodder for a Catholic’s transgressive jerk-off session, ripe for the discarding after orgasm. If this is how I see the pornographic gaze, the television and film portrayals are tragic, pitying lenses.
Nomi: On television shows, I would love to see a more human narrative with a trans person and see sex scenes where there’s love and intimacy attached to that too.
Coco: Can you think of a scene in film or television that you saw as being a really positive and good representation?
Juliana: This happens rarely, if ever. I had a Tumblr at one point to save sexual scenes that resonated with me. Although this was not specific to sexual media that included one or more trans people, that was part of its scope. I had maybe five photos and videos total with trans people. I much prefer furry porn to anything with ‘real people.’ I would give you the references from my Tumblr, but it was deleted for violating anti-porn regulations.
Honey: There are no mirrors of affirmation for trans women of color, anyplace. Even in fashion, it’s mostly white trans women that are celebrated, that are getting the beauty contracts or walking runways. I don’t see myself anywhere.
Juliana: The more interesting spaces, for me, to think of [in terms of] dynamic representation would be in pornography, literature, and music.
Nomi: I’ve been getting into film a lot lately, which I’m loving, as a writer and also an actress. Humanizing trans women and all the work they do has always been really important for me, even in my songwriting. I want to expand that using other tools in media and entertainment.
Coco: Is there anywhere you find erotic pleasure outside of sex?
Nomi: Music, for sure, is very sexual. And performing— that’s another thing I’ve been missing, the performance aspect of things. There’s so much sexual energy there that I haven’t really been able to tap into these days.
Honey: I think I’m a bit of a sapiosexual because I am supremely turned on by confidence, and witty conversation, and swag. If the motherfucker is confident and has swag, that to me is such an aphrodisiac.
Coco: Given that trans-ness is more in the public eye, and it’s more marketable than ever, I wondered if you’ve felt that legibility to a cis audience is helpful or necessary for success as an artist?
Honey: Yes. There’s a lot of discussion about, ‘Is being trans trendy?’ I’m like, ‘Well, what’s the alternative?’
Nomi: We live in a world where in order to be accepted, you have to be marketable. The first step in being normalized is, like, being able to be famous. It’s so superficial, but it’s literally the world we live in.
Juliana: I think it requires much more [than visibility] to shift the Overton window. Relying on visibility assumes that the tools to comprehend, empathize, and interface with what is being rendered are already there, which I don’t think is the case given that increased visibility has often come with increased violence. This isn’t to say that certain forms of visibility can’t be successful in shifting collective ideas.
Honey: If you’re going to put yourself out there, you’re going to have to take the vinegar with the sugar. Not everyone’s gonna like you, and you have to be very thick-skinned regardless of gender expression or who you are. You can’t have the glory without the story.
Coco: What’s the riskiest thing you feel you’ve done in your career?
Honey: Walk out of my front door.
Juliana: Quitting my day job in 2013.
Nomi: Writing really personal essays and talking about abusive relationships I’ve been in, and being really raw about sex, sexuality, and my body.
Honey: The riskiest thing for me to do in my career is to stop being afraid of showing my body. Regardless of the trans thing, for female artists, our art isn’t considered as valuable when we use our sexuality. That’s bullshit. That’s some man shit.