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EF62 the Wee Hours by Gail Force One

“I have to show you the drag closet downstairs.” Gene Smilansky was leading me through his living room and past an upright piano with a sweet but mischievous grin and a buzzing confidence. It’s the weekend of Washington DC Pride 2022, and the closet he shows me at the base of the stairs holds a maximalist trove of feather boas, of highlighter colors, of heels, dresses unabashed, accessories of joy, baubles nested within more baubles, on and on. Unknown to me at the time was that Gene’s optimism and voraciousness for life stands as an American success story, and so in retrospect the parallels between this drag closet and the American dream feels like kismet. It’s a metaphor.

Gail Force One was born in western Ukraine in a beautiful city called Lviv, which at the time was the Soviet Union, in 1982. In the Soviet Union, Judaism was considered an ethnicity rather than a religion, and the identification as such was even listed in government IDs like passports. Unlike a religious identity that can be donned and shed at the person’s will, ethnicity based sorting means that the label remains for life, whether you practice the traditions or not.

With this mandatory categorization combined with rampant anti-semitism, the Soviet Union was a hostile place to be Jewish. Whether the Jewish people can be categorized as an ethnic or religious group has been debated, but the effects of their alienation are undeniable. His parents’ stories together began under this pressure, with his father telling his mother when he proposed that if she wanted to stay in the Soviet Union, she should say no and find somebody else, because he was leaving the first chance he got. There would be little nostalgia for what they would leave behind.

When they were 27 and Gene was 6, the Soviet Union stripped them of their citizenship as “traitors of the Motherland” following their application to leave the country. It would take them another two years to sort out the paperwork, an interminable bureaucratic purgatory of waiting for approval, a holdover in Vienna as they decided where to go, and another wait in Italy before receiving sponsorship from the Jewish community center of Nashville and refugee status in the United States. This process always took a long time, and there was no guarantee of success.

For Gene’s family, Tennessee was a faceless land of the unknown. They would arrive in December of 1989 with no connections, where Gene would absorb American culture with the type of zeal that can only be born from safety, hope, and curiosity. He was exposed not only to country music but also the MTV Top Hundred music video countdown, which he studied meticulously, while learning the language and rarely feeling homesick. The opportunity to reach for a masters degree in Engineering for his father and to continue computer programming for his mother not only signaled affirmation of their equality, something previously unrecognized, but also enabled Gene to thrive. He would go on to study abroad in the UK, go to Yale for a BA in Economics, and then law school at NYU, before boasting his current position as an attorney for the civil service where he currently works in environmental law. This enormous yet steady stream of accomplishments would have been unthinkable had his family been forced to stay in Lviv.

After moving to DC in 2012 with his partner, Smilansky found a thriving underground nightlife scene with artists like Shea van Horn, who would both DJ and perform as a drag artist. He recognized spaces that were valuable to him, made his life better, more full, and more joyous. Parties like the NeedlExchange, curated by Baronhawk Poitier, Tommy Cornelis, and Bill Todd, were throwing warehouse raves and bringing in queer talent from all over.

Being surrounded by a constant creative energy from performers, DJs, designers, and photographers allowed a space for Gene to evolve with the corresponding confidence that unfolds when a person becomes closer to their true self. It was spaces like these that gave Gene the inspiration to contribute something back. Inspiration and service often are sisters.

It’s not uncommon for people in this city to work for the government or participate in community activism during the day time, and in almost every direction on the dance floor you will find those who have committed their professional lives towards something other than themselves, towards helping out people they don’t even know, might never meet. While this dedication is necessary for any growth in our cultural consciousness, it can be difficult to find time and energy for a creative outlet.

To create a sense of balance with his day job, Gene would work with his partner Chris Kochevar (JoAann Fabrixx), Kris Sutton (KS), Tyler Cherry (Rose), Will Narracci (PWRPUFF), and Jake Stronko (Yasha), to build the behemoth of the party Flower Factory. Out of nowhere, the crew has moved in lock step to build a community like out of ether, gathering throngs of eager supporters at every event. This creation allows an outlet and community that provides a non judgmental place to be true to oneself, practice creativity, and take artistic risks.

Flower Factory feels a lot like Gene and Chris’ drag closet. Largely encouraged by Yasha’s photography, party goers show up in outfits and moods that declare provocative statements of freedom. Leather, feathers, and fish nets of deep hues and bright shades are a no brainer. The dance floor, adorned with lush flora and cascading lights, becomes a sanctuary where the boundaries of gender blur, and love transcends definitions. Ecstatic dancers, adorned in sparkling attire, mirror the effervescence and beauty found in the blooming world of flora and flow like petals.

The residents themselves join in on the festivities with open arms as they man the helm of this queer utopia. With their own flavors of pomp, they are stunning visions of grace and kindness as they embrace a kaleidoscope of expression amidst an enchanting realm of their own creation. This celebration of individuality invites partygoers to unleash their authentic selves, immerse in the euphoria, and revel in the freedom.

The party cultivates a vibrant spectacle that transcends the ordinary nightclub experience. Every gathering is a meticulous testament to the emancipating power of dance music. Curated to create a safe and inclusive space, all attendees are encouraged to embrace their truest forms towards a more accepting world where the dance floor becomes a canvas for loving, where the colors of the human spectrum can merge towards something beautiful. Experiencing Flower Factory is like wandering through a garden of dreams, where colors and sounds blend and intertwine into something harmonious but otherworldly.

The music, selected by visionary queer DJs and performers, creates an artistic sanctuary with house chords and techno rhythms towards unification, self-discovery, and liberation. The members of this chosen family embrace and find solace in each other. The infectious happiness can feel intoxicating.

As this country lives through cycles of vilifying foreigners, fear mongering and ignorance serve to confuse us and make us afraid of people we have more in common with than we know. Under the guise of being a welcoming place, a haven for the weak and persecuted, we make the same mistakes of closing our doors and building our walls. But to vilify those we don’t know is the easy way out.

The weight of the American Dream, and the complexities and significances that come along with it, calls for continual and iterative introspection. All dreams have the capacity to transcend boundaries and ignite buds of progress, no matter who is dreaming them. The ideal should stand as a beacon of hope in the vast landscape of human aspirations, an embodiment of the very essence of the human spirit. Our truest strength should lie in our willingness to challenge inequality towards making the American dream not just a symbol of hope but a tangible reality.

The extraordinary achievements between an Ivy League university, the US civil service, and the spectacle of Flower Factory are a testament to this boundless potential. Gene embodies this courage to envision a better tomorrow that’s buttressed by a lasting influence of the resilience to overcome obstacles, with the audacity to pursue the seemingly unattainable. Falling into complacency isn’t even considered. The fight is worth it.

Gene proves that over and over again.

Find Gail Force One on Instagram and SoundCloud. Follow Flower Factory for news on their events.