For decades, Black queer folks have found solace, release, and peace in nightlife. In Baltimore and beyond, dance floors, warehouses, and clubs provide marginalized people the opportunity to be something that they’re often denied in the daylight: free.
VERSION is a queer and trans dance party by and for Black people, started in 2017 by Jessica Hyman, a Baltimore City-based community school coordinator who was born in Harford County. Also known as “Trillnatured,” she serves as the event’s resident DJ.
But VERSION is more than a dance party. It is an incandescent spectacle to behold, taking place at The Crown in Station North on the last Saturday of every month. In a world that has always been inhospitable to members of the LGBTQ+ community, VERSION is a necessary space.
VERSION is an experience. The bass emanating from the speakers can be euphoric. It’s paired with the uplifting and fierce delivery of rapper, DJ, and emcee Kotic Couture. After dancing the night away, you might see if you made it into one of photographer Sydney Allen’s dreamlike vignettes. She documents each VERSION by freezing participants in time, kissing, dancing, and voguing.
VERSION organizers offer pay-it-forward tickets so that everyone can attend, even people who can’t afford it themselves. In this way, organizers have found a practical way of prioritizing values of intention, care, and community.
Initially known as Version 1.5, the event was not always explicitly queer-focused. Organizers say that came later, and the change has only helped make the experience better.
In addition to Hyman, there are two other people on the VERSION team. Allen, who was born and raised in Baltimore City, is VERSION’s resident photographer. Allen also works as an arts educator, with her own freelance photography practice. Couture is the party’s emcee and host. They were born on the Eastern Shore, and their family is from Baltimore. They work for a trans-owned clothing company doing customer service and community outreach.
I spoke with the trio a few weeks before their Memorial Day Edition at The Crown. The group was excited about the opportunity to celebrate VERSION’s magic in the warmer weather. “We getting back in the Let Out Season,” Couture said. “That’s where we be outside for hours after VERSION is over.”
How did VERSION come to be?
Jessica Hyman: I remember Ky and I having some extended conversations about whether to name it a queer event, weighing the pros and cons of that and kind of being unsure about it. It turned out that it had no negative impact on attendance. We ended up getting the right people that were supposed to be in the room. Once we did that, I feel like it just got bigger and better.
It just encouraged us to be just… louder. Just about what kind of event it was, about it being a safe event, a queer event, and a place where trans people could come and not have to pay. And also like a space for Black queer people.
Kotic Couture: I randomly started MCing during one of Trill’s sets. I don’t even know what happened. It was something about when Trill started playing and I was hosting. It matched up perfectly.
One night I had organized a party called Idiosyncrasy in [the Crown’s] Red Room, and Trill was doing Version 1.5 in the Blue Room. And I didn’t know nothing about playing parties, so I was like, you know what, we’re gonna end at 12 and we’re just gonna tell everybody to come over to the Blue Room. When we did that, Trill was like, “well, do you wanna host? Do you wanna hop on a mic?”
And that night was just… it was a crazy night. That’s when Trill asked me if I wanted to be a part of VERSION. And then moving forward, it was hosted by me, but really, there was no real set plan. We kind of just fell into it. Which is the best way for things to happen.
Sydney Allen: Trill asked me to come and photograph in February or March of 2018, and I came for that one time as an event photographer. Then she asked me to come back again next month. In 2018 I was a bit sporadic. I would come and at some point I eventually just kept coming back to shoot every month, and then at one point in 2019, because I had been so consistent, I joined the team in that role as the photographer.
How have you seen VERSION evolve?
JH: When I think about how it’s changed and its evolution, I constantly go back to the fears and anxieties that I had about changing things. Or folks not liking this, or folks not coming back after COVID, and the fact that every time… all of that was just thrown out the window. So I think, for me, it’s been just, like, taking steps that I was a little bit nervous to take. Even when we came back after COVID, I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to DJ anymore. I can’t believe I was even there.
And going into a bigger room and not being sure if we could fill it up. Bringing on other people, and having to make sure that we brought in enough to pay everybody. Just slowly, like, stepping out and making hard choices, but also sticking to not going too far from why I love to do it, and why we love to do it, and why people love to come.
How have you just seen the scene and nightlife change since y’all started this platform?
SA: I will say, for me, I think I’ve noticed some changes, at least from a visual perspective. The photos I’ve taken from VERSION in 2018 and 2019 and right before the lockdown in 2020, they look so different from what I’m doing right now. Before we left and were shut down for two years, the photos from VERSION gave off the energy of a really raw experience. Now it’s more refined and more romantic looking, and I think that really speaks to the love poured into the creation of VERSION as a space and as an event.
JH: I wanted to have a party that I would wanna go to. For different reasons, VERSION is really the only time I go out, it’s one of few that I would really even be excited about stepping out to.
What’s waking y’all up and making you excited? What are you most looking forward to?
JH: The weather! Pride is coming up. I can’t wait for that. Last Pride was our return. We knew what to expect once our advanced tickets sold out. But we didn’t have a rhythm set up, a routine or system. People were like, “why did we have to wait outside all that time?” We’re excited about getting it right this time.
I’m excited about not being nervous about the return of VERSION. I’m more excited about the next VERSION Pride. And getting some VERSION merch out there, because people are asking for it, and I feel like we should give it to them.
KC: Same! I’m excited for Pride. I got an artist residency. I’m going to Paris for two weeks.
We never set out to be a thing. But I just love so much that we have become a thing. But not in a clout way. I like that queer people from other cities want to come here. They want to experience VERSION, they know about VERSION. That, to me. makes me feel good because it just makes me feel like we killing it for our community. And also everybody always has so many crazy things to say about Baltimore. I’m happy for something amazing for people to talk about. There’s so many amazing things.
SA: I am also excited just for the kickoff of summer, and the warm season of VERSION. I really love doing VERSION because as an artist, as a photographer, a visual maker, it keeps me on my toes. I haven’t been shooting anything on my own time. I’ve just been doing VERSION, and I really have been pouring into that. So I’m just excited for that.
After a VERSION weekend, and in general, how do you practice self care? Doing these events takes a lot of energy, so how do you reset?
JH: It is really a lot of work and a lot of energy after VERSION, to process all that comes in. It’s more so like processing it that way. Just accepting and sitting with the dopeness of it and not so much being tired, because it really fills me up.
KC: I feel like I’m the opposite [laughs]. I am like a ball of energy. I literally feel like I’m just makeup and energy and coffee.
Because I’m actually a really introverted extrovert, the next day I kind of don’t do much. Not in a bad way. [VERSION] is very fulfilling. But I find that people like to express a lot, and then usually by the end of the night, people have liquor in their system and it’s just like — it be a lot sometimes, for me. So I take the next day to kind of turn off for a little bit.
SA: VERSION gives me energy. It’s something to really look forward to every month. Every VERSION is so different, energy-wise. As I’m taking photos, some VERSIONs are like, I have a hard time, photographing in the crowd and capturing things, and then sometimes it’s really flowing really well. Usually my self-care practice, ironically, is I will go through the images to see how well the night went. It’s kind of like reliving the night through the images.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.