Getting to know Brian Bartlett, an altruistic advocate for the LGBTQ+ community

In this article we turn our attention to Brian Bartlett, a selfless champion for the LGBTQ+ community. I was fortunate enough to ask Brian a series of questions.

Tell us a little about yourself, where your from, grew up, what H.S./College you attended, etc.

Hi there! My name is Brian Bartlett. I’m 33 years old, use he/they pronouns, identify as gay/queer, and am born-and-raised in Rochester, NY (East Rochester to be exact). I’m one of three siblings in a family of creatives; my brother is a cinematographer, my sister an actor/singer, my mom a visual artist, and my dad in the art of pharmaceutical sales. I went to Pittsford-Mendon High School and later Finger Lakes Community College/Monroe Community College with a focus on fine arts. Today I work as a Community Health Specialist for Trillium Health specializing in HIV/STI testing and outreach services, as well as a DJ at various club gigs/events including Roar Nightclub. I am also a co-creator of the monthly queer dance party ‘Juice Box’.

What inspired you to get into LGBTQ+ advocacy? Early experiences worth sharing?

My family’s unwavering support in me during my coming out process helped me see my queerness as an important and beautiful part of my identity, and this played a major role in my interests in LGBTQ+ advocacy. By age 16 I was regularly attending groups every Sunday at the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley Youth Center (later and formerly the Out Alliance), led by Toby Greenfield and held in the Auditorium Theater on Prince Street. It was here that I was first exposed to the wide diversity of identities, backgrounds, and personalities that make up the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Eventually I was volunteering a lot of my time there, helping start up the GAGV Youth Center’s annual Big Gay Prom, DJ’ing various youth dances/Day of Silence rallies, and attending events at the Men of Color Health Awareness (MOCHA) Project on Liberty Pole Way (now MOCHA Center Rochester on West Main Street).

Outside of the GAGV, I’ve been actively working/volunteering in Rochester’s LGBTQ+ community for almost 15 years. My involvement began as president of FLCC’s Spectrum Club, organizing their first on-campus drag show in 2008. Since then I’d been attending and creating events for Rochester Pride (Q Day at Sea Breeze Amusement Park), earning certifications in queer leadership training (Out Alliance’s SafeZone training and The United Way of Rochester’s Pride Leadership Development Program), advocating for HIV education and de-stigmatization (the NYS Dept. of Health’s ‘HIV Stops With Me’ marketing campaign, Don Casper and Charmaine Wheatley’s 2018 art/docu-film ‘Don’t Define Me’, The University of Rochester/Memorial Art Gallery’s 2022 HIV/AIDS poster collection exhibit, “Up Against The Wall”), and employment history with a few of Rochester’s LGBTQ-owned and adjacent businesses (Equal Grounds Coffee House, the Bachelor Forum).

Talk about a time where you have faced adversity/conflict and have triumphed.

Most everyone involved in LGTBQ+ advocacy work has a common goal: the improved freedoms, equity, inclusion, well-being, and safety for all LGBTQ+ folks. The fight for LGBTQ+ rights has always had adversity on the outside, but I’ll be honest in that the work is not without internal conflict, egos, or head-butting. I recognized this early on in my own experiences (and the experiences of others) in Rochester. Yet most if not all of the conflict I’ve ever personally encountered has been resolved with five key things: open and honest communication, empathy, knowing the importance of listening over talking, large-heartedness, and sincerely meeting people where they’re at. If there is mutual and genuine effort in intention for change, then it can be resolved; but it has to be mutual, and it has to be with that intention in mind.

What do you believe sets you apart from other LGBTQ+ advocates?

I don’t really know if there’s anything that sets me apart from other LGBTQ+ advocates, but what I’m told is appreciated is my candidacy, and my willingness to be vulnerable about my own life. I often lean into the concept of being “human” with others regarding challenges I’ve faced in my past, if anything for the sake of others to not feel alone, judged or rejected in an already ignorant and difficult world. Coming out of the closet is a terrifying experience that leaves us looking to folks that outwardly embody the kind of fearless, unapologetic queer authenticity we want to be for ourselves; the same can be said for folks living with HIV, survivors of sexual assault, folks diagnosed on the neurotypical spectrum, or folks struggling with/recovering from an eating disorder (I identify or have lived experience with all of these). Giving an approachable, human face to something feared, misunderstood, or stigmatized to others creates an opportunity to remove shame, educate the uninformed, and let folks experiencing the same know that they are not “broken” or lost causes. While I am still learning and healing from these experiences, it helps folks on the outside to see someone openly living their truth, and thriving in the process. I have nothing to lose in doing so (from those that don’t deserve losing me), and the rest of the world has everything to gain from it.

Do you have other interests or hobbies?

A lot of my favorite hobbies can be divided between socializing in queer nightlife/dance parties, and weekends of travel/being immersed in nature. DJing is an interest from college I revisited during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s blossomed into both a career venture and a personal passion I really enjoy (public reception has also been very encouraging). I love the energy music creates, and the sense of community on the dance floor it cultivates. I’m also a big fan of nature, wildlife and the outdoors. In the summer months I’m outside a lot of the time, and I often travel to the New England coast to visit whale watching boats I used to work on. Outside of that I enjoy gatherings with family and friends, running or staying active outdoors, and I’m an adventurous baker/cook in the kitchen.

Any projects you have out or or currently working on?

I tend to keep myself busy with lots of projects, but one I’m currently very proud of is ‘Juice Box’. My friend Tom DeBlase, a staple of Rochester nightlife and dance culture, came to me and my friend Maximus Seng during the pandemic about a new idea for a monthly dance party in Rochester. We envisioned something bright, bubbly, energetic, unapologetically queer, and accessible in style/sound for folks to enjoy. Our first party was Rochester Pride in July 2021 at Photo City Music Hall, and the reception has been overwhelmingly positive since. For each party we invite a fresh lineup of DJs to perform ranging in styles and experience, and we enjoy utilizing our events as a platform to showcase their talents to the crowd. There’s usually a theme that attendees fully commit outfits to (Halloween, disco, etc.), and with each party we donate a portion of our ticket sales to a local nonprofit organization to give back to the community.

We’ve thrown a dozen parties now, and with each one it grows this unique effervescence I’m still trying to place. You read the room and it’s a queer sea of familiar faces mixed with new ones from all walks of life, together on a dance floor of vibrant colors. Definitely a celebration that centers joy, creativity, freedom, queerness, and self-expression, and it feels like a safe space to be unapologetic in who you are. It’s electrifying. A lot of projects I’m involved in are usually by association, be it through my queer identity or my HIV status; and while that work is important, Juice Box is the first time I’ve had this much of a hand in something that feels so tangibly impactful. We started something truly special, and I am so happy with the reception and what it provides to those that experience it.

Where would you like to see yourself in 5 years?

It’s hard to say where I’ll be in five years! If there’s anything we all learned in the past two years, it’s that life throws curveballs we do not expect that can rewrite a lot of our intentioned plans. Most of my adult life felt rather directionless until my work in LGBTQ+ advocacy/community healthcare, both of which assimilated comfortably with me before the pandemic. I also never anticipated getting back into DJing after a decade-long hiatus, and it’s become one of the most personally fulfilling decisions I’ve made in a long time. I daydream about moving from Rochester, being closer to the ocean, but the work I do here always brings me back to a sense that my being here is fundamental right now.

I guess where I would like to see myself in five years is personally successful, in a place of balance, fulfilled by life, surrounded by love, and blooming wherever I’m planted. And I tend to find all of these things in my life now.

What advice can you give in regards to individuals looking to enter your line of work?

Some of the best advice I can give for anyone interested/involved in LGBTQ+ advocacy is to remember that queerness is a massive umbrella, covering a spectrum of lives outside our own and layered with intersectionality. It is vital to remember that intersectionality, and to remember that there is and should always be room at the table for every person of lived experience when the common goal is absolute queer freedom: while mine and your story matters, they are not the only stories, nor are they not laden with privileges and biases that can impact or disrupt true progress. Practicing introspection, listening and learning from your neighbors and peers of different lived experience, and acknowledging the disparities and imbalances under that umbrella, will be important in actually reaching that end goal we aim for.

How can we follow along in your journey? YouTube? Social media? Sites?

You can follow my journey on social media! My Instagram (@brianbuttlett) has become my most active platform for sharing my experiences and work, and I keep things updated regularly. You can also follow Juice Box’s account at @juiceboxroc, where we regularly share info and updates regarding our parties, dates, DJ lineups, collaborations, tickets, and COVID-19 safety protocols.

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