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A Tea-Spilling Lawsuit Upends a Hell’s Kitchen Gay Club

Just how woke can a megaclub hosting underwear parties really ever be?

Photo: Bryan Clavel
Photo: Bryan Clavel

Everybody knows what a Hell’s Kitchen gay bar is supposed to look like: a little sexy, a little kitschy, and full of clean-cut young men — plus a few daddy types to buy them drinks and not a few tourists out for a sloppy good time in the big city. There should be Pride flags, drag shows, toned bartenders (maybe in cowboy hats), even-more-toned go-go boys, overpriced but reliably stiff drinks, and a DJ playing all of those one-named ladies (Madonna, Cher, Gaga, Beyoncé) that get the twinks and the hunks to the dance floor. It’s a time-tested formula.

To the edgier sensibilities of a younger queer generation that lives and parties mostly in Brooklyn or Queens, and whose nightlife is often hornier, raveier, and more explicitly inclusive, it’s also a bit basic; they wouldn’t be caught dead going out in midtown. Then the Q club opened during Pride month last year as lockdown wound down and promised to be something different (according to one of its owners, they even discussed “building a bridge to Brooklyn” by hiring transportation to the Q). Its press rollout was impeccable, advertising that it was backed by celebrity gays Billy Porter, Zachary Quinto, Charlie Carver, and Jake Shears and that one of its co-owners and its creative director would be Frankie Sharp, the well-connected, green-haired party promoter who’d most recently been working at the East Williamsburg gay club 3 Dollar Bill. He declared his intention to create something new — not just “another gay bar” — something that would represent new nightlife values, too. “THE Q provides affirming, welcoming space for all to enjoy. Violent rhetoric or action, non-consensual touching, or any form of racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, sizeist, ageist, ableist, conduct will not be tolerated,” reads their website (that Q stands for “queer,” of course.) Soon after its opening, the club was hosting Drag Race winners, ballroom families, all the right DJs and nightlife personalities, and even Bushwig on 8th Avenue. It seemed like a winning new strategy.

Then Sharp was fired from the Q in May, after which he accused his partners, Bob Fluet and Alan Picus, and Bar Fluid LLC (aka the Q) of breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, and unjust enrichment and accounting in a tea-spilling lawsuit. A PDF of the suit was soon being texted around club-kid circles (Instinct, the gay magazine, first reported it on their website). In it, Sharp alleged that Fluet had touted him as a co-owner to give the club cred (Sharp has been throwing popular parties in New York for years), took advantage of his connections, and then let him go before his ownership clause kicked in. As Sharp wrote over email, “Among other things, I have come to believe that Bob and Alan wanted to keep me compliant long enough to ensure a steady customer base, good press, outside investment, and critical success.”

Many of Sharp’s followers were shocked to read that he was not actually a partner in the club, but it was his behind-the-scenes allegations that were what really got people worked up. Among other things, Sharp claims that Picus, a former ad executive and fellow party promoter, was mostly interested in making the club “comfortable for white twinks” and told one job candidate, “I don’t need to break my back to hire people just because they’re black or trans.” He also alleged that Picus openly had sex with customers inside the club — there was a hidden darkroom after all — created a permissive environment around underage drinking and drug use (Sharp alleges Picus once complained about security, “They’re taking our boys’ GHB” — a popular disinhibiting party drug — “away”), and wanted to steer the club’s “Latin nights” toward “the good kind of Latins. Not Blatinos.”

Thus began a micro-reckoning in club-land, featuring more than a few Instagram posts opining on what had been supposedly happening at the Q and the DE&I hopes and dreams of gay nightlife. After all, how much “diversity” is even possible at a gay megaclub in Hell’s Kitchen with underwear parties and Tom of Finland plastered on the walls? Never mind any club in this feverish world of drugs, booze, sex, late nights, and big-fish-small-pond egos. As gay nightlife fixture and frequent host at the Q Linux told me, “This isn’t a hurricane shelter in an elementary school. This is not a community center. This is a fucking nightclub in Times Square with hundreds of crackheads outside. There’s a whole room dedicated to fucking and grinding on each other. This is a gritty nightclub in the heart of New York City. That’s what it is.” In that possibly cynical light, some of the pearl-clutching about how Picus “would allegedly have a ‘squad of much younger guys who he would ply with drinks,’” as a story about the Q being a “toxic” workplace that ran this week on NPR says, feels a bit overwrought to some. But by the time it was published, Picus had been fired.

The Q, in the meantime, is trying to get its groove back. To replace Sharp, Fluet hired Luis Fernando, a much-liked DJ, trained immigration lawyer, and onetime public defender, and later announced he was promoting him to executive producer. Whether that is enough to make up for the allegations is difficult to know. One thing is clear: Despite early insinuations on the part of Fluet that Sharp’s “demons” caused the rift, which “put me in a situation where I had no choice,” Sharp has been winning the public-relations battle.

On a recent rather empty Thursday night at the club, a passerby handed guests in line outside, including a number of unaware tourists who found the place on Google Maps, fruit snacks, each package advertising a rival party in Brooklyn (called Fruit Snax, of course). A security guard seemed unfazed: “People come by saying ‘I’m not coming here’ and stuff like that. They say ‘No, no, no! Fuck the Q!’”

If there’s one thing the Q can promise that you won’t be able to find in Brooklyn or elsewhere in Manhattan, it’s the fact that it is a proper multi-environment club of the sort other cities (like South Beach and Minneapolis) have had for years, with four floors, up to five DJs playing at the same time (even in the bathroom), and a bar around almost every corner (even in the darkroom). It can entertain over 1,000 guests on a single night and often employs between 50 and 100 performers every week for drag shows, cabarets, dance parties, and lightly veiled sex parties, all advertised on super horny digital flyers. Each room in the club even has its own queasy name: the Disqo, the Qruise, the Speaqeasy, and the Qabaret (the downstairs restroom area is just called the… bathhouse). One might argue that the mega-ness of it being a megaclub was also an overpromise — really there’s only one workable dance floor — but that didn’t seem to bother the many gays who pass through its “Thanks Babe, Cum Again” exit sign every night. Michael Musto compared it to Bloomingdales — a nightlife department store. One current barback who moved to New York after watching Paris Is Burning told me about going there for the first time: “It reminded me of, like, Studio 54. It’s this three-star nightclub with disco balls!” Though, we all know how Studio 54 found its end.

After being fired, Sharp got ahead of his former business partners with his suit and a social-media push, writing on Instagram, “I was, in a word, gas-lit.” In a post that followed, he continued, “I was shown the door BECAUSE of my REPEATED attempts to address the problematic behavior and dangerous mismanagement of the Q … the law belongs to ALL of us, not just the wealthy and powerful.” Sharp and Picus were apparently only minority partners in the club — “There was to my mind always a peculiar emphasis on the FIRST word in that phrase,” says Sharp — and were legally nothing more than “at-will” employees of Fluet — a legal term that essentially meant he could fire them and they had little recourse. Sharp is alleging that Fluet inserted the at-will clause “in bad faith,” taking advantage of the fact that Sharp is, in the words of the lawsuit, “unsophisticated in business and with only a high school education.” Asked about Sharp’s termination, Fluet wrote over email, “Unfortunately there is ongoing litigation and I cannot comment. Any discussion on this in a public forum will just do a disservice and take away the focus from The Q and all the talented people that rely on it for their livelihood.”

In some ways, the reckoning was accidental, surfaced by this wrongful-termination dispute, but online, many in the gay nightlife community stood by Sharp and rightfully expressed displeasure about the allegations against Picus. One go-go dancer wrote, “I fully stand with Frankie Sharp, and support the community of performers and employees of the Q who are currently trying to salvage shows and collective years of work they have poured into nightlife.” DJ Mike Trotter commented, “I’ll never forget those first few gigs and the opening weekend! It felt ‘right.’ It felt super inclusive and exciting! A new era … Now it has become the cookie cutter of all things that are wrong in the queer nightlife scene!” And drag queen Julie J said, “Any space that I am a part of must hold values of inclusivity and respect at the absolute minimum … Speak truth to power.” Jada Valenciaga, who was supposed to perform her Billie Holiday–inspired Lady Gay show at the Q on July 4 canceled immediately after she heard about the lawsuit. “I, a Black trans human being, was about to go into work on Independence Day to work for a man who has no regard for my life,” she told me. Soon the conversation moved beyond the Q: An Instagram page popped up alleging more bad behavior at the gay club Motel 23 in Chelsea.

Others were generally less surprised that any of this could be happening at the Q. On an Instagram Live for a podcast called ByLatinMen, one of the hosts, Angel Cartel, who’d hosted a party there last year, said, “I always felt that the Q was very directed toward white people only. Even with the music they play, the crowd when I go, it’s usually white people … The Q was always a last resort for us.” Ironically, Cartel and his fellow hosts prefer Boxers, another Manhattan gay bar owned by Fluet, where they say, “You get to see a little bit of everybody. You’re guaranteed to see someone who looks like you. You don’t stick out like a sore thumb.”

According to Fernando, despite the blowback online, the Q didn’t lose any full-time workers after a staff-wide meeting assuaged their concerns; said Fluet, “They really were mad at me and felt that I let them down as the owner. And rightfully so” (he also declined to comment on the reasons for Picus’s termination).

Now Fernando, whose popular HER party at 3 Dollar Bill has attracted the likes of Bowen Yang and Julio Torres, is tasked with setting things right. In his own statement on Instagram, Fernando wrote, “Any club I’m associated with must be more than inclusive: we must be actively anti-racist,” and outlined a number of actions he’d be taking to rebuild their “safe haven” “destination space,” including establishing a (Q)ommunity Center, described vaguely as “a space where organizations can meet, organize and be in community in a fun and lively environment,” and, per the demands of ByLatinMen, donating $10,000 to Destination Tomorrow, an LGBTQ nonprofit located in the Bronx. (Among Sharp’s allegations against Picus: “He wanted special measures taken against customers that ‘looked like they were from the Bronx.’”) Other promised changes included reevaluating the cover-fee structure at the door and establishing weekly check-ins and an open-door policy for the staff. (Within and beyond the Q, several current and former employees note that there is no union for nightlife workers.)

Some regarded these statements as lip service. “It’s not enough for me to hear what has happened so far,” says Jada Valenciaga. “There’s somebody attached to this project who, though not as bad as the other person who was terminated, is still just as guilty of racism and transphobia and homophobia — in a gay community, no less!” Former Drag Race contestant Honey Davenport wrote in an email, “The first thing I think needs to be done by the owners of the Q would be an apology. Simply admitting you wronged someone, instead of gaslighting and pretending the prey is the predator … You can’t change an unfair system if you don’t even acknowledge what is wrong.” Others, like the Brazilian American drag queen Pietra Parker, were slightly less displeased with the changes: “I’m totally against the cancel culture in general. I think if someone or some organization is really sorry for what happened to them and they’re showing they really want to change, I’m not against that.” Joey with the Mustache, a DJ who’d played at the Q, held out hope: “Whether we like it or not, there’s this beautiful venue in Hell’s Kitchen that’s right there for us. Obviously there’s a lot of healing that needs to happen. As a nightlife human, I’m looking forward to learning from others and listening.”

What was actually happening at the Q leading up to Sharp and Picus’s removal is contested by all the very big personalities involved. Several current and former employees confirmed issues with Picus’s behavior (NPR viewed a surveillance tape of him having sex with a customer in the darkroom, which doesn’t really explain why there are video recordings of the darkroom). One photographer who preferred to remain anonymous recalled an experience working at the club: “This person pulled me aside and asked me to follow them outside. Then they pulled a white, skinny, twink-looking person from the line and said, ‘I don’t think you understand what I mean when I ask you to photograph only beautiful people.’ They said, ‘This is a beautiful person.’”

The idea was to keep it sexy, and that definition of sexy was Picus’s — and arguably an old formula. One current employee recalled Picus asking them to invite people to the darkroom who are “hot or sexy.” “As I was inviting this darker Hispanic guy with a beard and muscles, Alan came up to me and he literally said, ‘We can be more selective.’” Inside the darkroom, they remembered, “I saw that Alan was there, and I made eye contact with him, and he was literally standing over two guys having sex, just watching. I was like, Oh my God, this is the creepiest, weirdest thing that I’ve ever experienced. This is the owner of the club in the darkroom, interacting with patrons.’”

When I asked Picus if he ever spent time in the room, he responded, “It wasn’t my night, but I would check up on it and as a guest see what was going on.” As for the photography directions, he said, “The photographer was there to capture the energy in the room. I would never tell the photographer who to shoot.” Picus has his taste: He admits his crowd skews “younger” and “local” — local as in Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea.

Still, one current employee expressed some frustration over Sharp’s whistleblowing, arguing that it ignored the Q’s present employees — not just the bartenders and managers but the security staff, janitorial workers, and bathroom attendants — relying on the club for a paycheck: “I think it’s a fight of egos,” they said. “It looks like Frankie’s fighting for all these rights, but I think he’s fighting for himself. He forgot about all of us: the co-workers.” What does this employee make of Picus? “I don’t think he’s a bad person. He’s just not politically correct,” they said. One former DJ at the Q who described Sharp as “genuine” also admitted, “I like Frankie as a friend, but I don’t really love him as a promoter,” mentioning he’s had to fight with him to get paid for gigs.

At moments, it also seemed Sharp’s Instagram posts were occasionally exaggerated. In one, he chastised Fluet for retaining the law firm of Arthur Aidala, which has represented Rudy Giuliani, Harvey Weinstein, and Alan Dershowitz, though Aidala said in an email, “We do not represent the Q.” Fluet admits, “There was an attorney that works in his office that I spoke with initially but was never retained.” The same post also claimed that the celebrity investors were “taking immediate steps to separate themselves from this doomed collaboration” (Sharp is unable to explain exactly how they are doing so, and representatives for Porter, Quinto, and Carver declined to or did not return requests for comment) and that his former partners were attempting to confuse the public through “suspiciously newly-minted social media accounts” (Sharp says there were two or three and they no longer exist). In response to Sharp’s assertion in the lawsuit that “each night Picus was managing, Sharp’s phone would be flooded with angry texts from board members” about noise violations, a representative from Manhattan Community Board 4 wrote in an email, “To my knowledge, no MCB4 members have sent any texts to ownership.”

Now all three men are moving forward separately. What are they thinking about their time together at the Q looking back? Fluet told me, “Most importantly, I need to be more present than I have and to make sure the staff knows me and knows they can come to me and that I have their back. After opening the Q, I immediately went to work on Hush, and then after that opened, I had to work on Boxers HK and get that opened, so I was spread too thin and unable to give the Q or the staff my time.” Picus responded, “The lesson learned is to be more communicative and make sure that there are channels for people to convey the things that are on their mind or concern them and be heard.” Sharp went his own way: “I will never work with people I distrust ever again.”

“Bob’s reaction to all of this is straight out of the playbook of American corruption: predictable and tedious. He will play the victim, he will disparage my character and reputation, and he will feign ignorance of Alan’s proclivities,” says Sharp. What does he want from all of this? He poses his own questions: “Does it matter who owns our dance floors and our Pride parades? Who monetizes our joy? Who profits from the catharsis of our collective trauma and grief? If these shadowy figures stand diametrically opposed to everything we love and fight for, must we continue to enrich them, unquestioningly, forever? Can’t we New Yorkers, of all people, do better?”

Luis Fernando’s husband says he reminds him of Kathy Hochul. Priority No. 1: Clean up the mess. In the last month, the new face of the Q says he’s worked harder than he’s ever worked before, sleeping only 40 hours in the last week and a half. Fernando, who admits to being an occasional basic gay who likes to dance to Abba, does speak like a newly elected politician, issuing confident, overheated statements like “At the end of the day, I know what I’m doing” and “At the end of the day, kindness prevails” and “At the end of the day, I hope to create a revolution.” Finally, the real goal: “At the end of the day, we’re getting drunk and dancing with each other.”

He’s hoping to rebuild the Q according to what he sees as its mission from the beginning: queer. “And that’s what I stand for. That’s what I love the most,” he says (presumably he also wants to get paid). He’s a true Brooklyn gay, hoping to “convert a lot of people” in the neighborhood to his brand of nightlife. “From the second that I got to New York, I just went out a lot. A million drag shows. A million parties. From Susanne Bartsch to Ladyfag to Frankie Sharp to Whorechata in Brooklyn. I literally picked my apartment because it was close to the clubs.” To those who say he’s Fluet’s pawn to save face: “They’re taking away my agency in the sense that I chose this, I said yes to this, and I’m not someone who was born yesterday.”

Now Fernando’s thinking about how to create diverse and inclusive nightlife and starting to put together some ideas. “At the end of the day, look, it’s not about saying, ‘We’re safe — this is a safe space,’” he says. But it’s kind of always a numbers game, and maybe as simple as just bringing in diverse talent: “If a Black trans woman walks into a room that is filled with 1,000 cis white gays, all shirtless, no matter what music I’m playing, no matter what flyer I put out, she will not feel safe. So I hope to have 20 Black trans women, 30 Black trans women, and 30 Latina trans women and, sure, 500 shirtless guys.” So not unlike Sharp’s own guide for party throwing: “​​​​The way I produce events (and always have) has been from the perspective and the love of what my New York is like. And my New York is Black, brown, white, queer, gay, femme, masc, trans, nonbinary, magnificent, glamorous, bizarre, beautiful, thought-provoking, and honest.”

One debate at the center of the conversation around the Q has been its weekly “Latin” night (an idea some credited to Picus, though Sharp’s lawsuit alleges he was “hostile” to it). Some see it as pandering and belittling, especially considering it was often held on one of the smaller floors. “Latinos aren’t a theme,” says Kevin Ortega Rojas, another host of the ByLatinMen podcast. Others, like one current employee, admit that there is something refreshing about a nightclub explicitly welcoming their part of the community: “It’s amazing to have Latino night because it’s only for us.” In this, a kernel of truth: The thing about nightlife is that, for many people, and especially queer people, it’s a kind of church. “I feel like I work all week and I just need somewhere to go that, in a sense, is out of the straight world — into this alternate universe where we’re the powerful ones, we’re the celebrities, we’re the known ones, and we matter the most,” says Angel Cartel. The uncomfortable part is that often people tend to go to church with their own people.

One of the ways Fernando is seeking to up the diversity of the Q is by considering how to further cater to specific communities — whether through a Latin night or a reggaeton night or even a room for technoheads. His goal is “to offer as many flavors as I can while making sure the people who like those flavors all feel welcome, celebrated, safe and have a fun, sexy time.” In other words, he’s thinking he should utilize the Q’s multi-environment possibilities. To get all the queers together in Hell’s Kitchen, maybe you just have to put them in different rooms.

A Tea-Spilling Lawsuit Upends a Hell’s Kitchen Gay Club