Earlier this year, videos emerged of members of the ballroom community voguing in hazmat suits, holding “kiki” battles via TikTok and creating hand washing tutorials with new coronavirus-inspired beats and chants. Then came the videos of members cat walking with protesters, dropping into “dips” in front of police cars, voguing at impromptu protest balls and marching the asphalt runway while holding Black Lives Matter signs.
Through our voguing, we grieve, we resist, we show resilience.
This month marks the 30th anniversary of The Latex Ball — one of the largest voguing events in New York — which was started by GMHC, then known as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, as a way to create awareness around H.I.V. and AIDS in the ballroom community. This year it was canceled for the first time because of the coronavirus.
The ballroom scene began in the 1970s as a competitive arena for drag queens, who are grouped in “chosen families” called houses, and later as a haven for black and Latino L.G.B.T.Q. people. More recently, the focus during the coronavirus pandemic has been on survival and support. Now, the community has shifted to a call for justice and a collective grieving for black lives lost.
The deaths of Tony McDade, a black transgender man, who was shot and killed by police in Tallahassee, Fla., last month; Nina Pop, a black transgender woman who was found stabbed to death in Sikeston, Mo., also last month; and the recent news that New York City’s Department of Corrections will not be bringing charges in the case of Layleen Polanco, a transgender Latina woman who was found dead in her cell at Rikers Island last year, have all galvanized the community.
“As far as ballroom, we’ve always been there, fighting for our community, and fighting for visibility, respect and acknowledgment,” said Leiomy Maldonado, a ballroom icon, choreographer and judge on HBO Max’s competitive reality series “Legendary”. “So being part of this movement is natural to us.”
While the protests have provided a space for people to vogue as a form of grief and protest, social media has provided a platform for remembrance and connection.
Voguing on the web
Ballroom culture exploded online as clips from balls and voguing highlight reels of icons and legends found their way onto YouTube in the early 2000s. But it wasn’t until this March that Precious, a ballroom commentator and ball promoter, threw the first virtual ball via a Singapore-based app called “Bigo Live.” After stay-at-home orders went into effect, Precious knew her “Bigo Balls” would be a way to stay connected to the community and give people something that they could take part in from home. The first ball garnered over 2,000 viewers and inspired a new era of virtual balls.
Isla Ebony, the godmother of the West Coast chapter of the House of Ebony, was one of the people inspired by Precious. Isla Ebony held the first “Werk From Home Ball” via Zoom with quarantine-themed categories that included creative masks and transman “executive realness,” which required contestants to demonstrate their best work from home look. After Isla Ebony’s balls for the month of May and L.A. Pride in June were canceled, she and her husband looked for alternative ways to support the scene.
“A lot of my ballroom family lives alone,” said Isla Ebony, “I immediately felt the loneliness and looked for how we evolve from here.” She noted how the pandemic had a unique impact on elders in the community who were quarantining by themselves. She wanted to use the balls as a way to bring people together.
Recently, with the closure of clubs and public spaces, people in the community began creating their own highlight reels as per the #IAmAWomanChallenge, a video reel challenge spearheaded by ballroom commentator, music producer and ballroom icon Kevin JZ Prodigy. The online challenge acted as a digital stand-in for a “Legends, Statements and Stars,” a.k.a. “LSS,” which is the roll call at the beginning of a ball where the commentator calls out to noteworthy people in the community to show their signature moves on the runway.
Looking toward the future, remembering the past
Luna Luis Ortiz, an AIDS activist and GMHC community health specialist, said the pandemic has made it harder for agencies to provide services to their most vulnerable members. Access to agency offices like the Hetrick Martin Institute and GMHC during the day are crucial to L.G.B.T.Q. youth, as they provide a safe space, hot meals and face-to-face check-ins with community specialists like Mr. Ortiz.
Gisele Xtravaganza, the “mother” of the House of Xtravaganza, said that checking in with house children now must be done via apps like FaceTime and House Party, impairing her ability to provide extra support.
When discussing the impact of the H.I.V./AIDS epidemic and today’s crisis on people of color, Jack Mizrahi Gucci, founder of the House of Gorgeous Gucci, noted some parallels between then and now: “When we were looking at all the numbers of people who were dying of H.I.V. then and then you look at all the numbers of people who are dying of Covid: black male, Latino male. Those are the high numbers all over again.”
Mr. Ortiz also said that the stigma around the virus and the overt racism that the Asian-American community is experiencing is all too reminiscent of what gay and bisexual men and transgender people experienced at the peak of the AIDS crisis.
And what about when this is all over? “I think all of us together will be exploding with creative force,” said Mr. Gucci.
Tim Tobias, founder of Ballroom We Care, an organization that does mental health and substance abuse outreach in the community, said that the ballroom community’s reaction to the coronavirus underscored the reason the space exists in the first place: to support one another, come together and “stand up against injustices.”
“We have had so much we have had to endure,” said Mr. Tobias. “AIDS hit us hard and we were able to come through it. It’s because we were able to come together.”
“We shouldn’t be screaming, ‘Trans Lives Matter,’ but we have to,” said Ms. Maldonado. “We shouldn’t have to be screaming, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but here we are. With what we’re dealing with in the world, we have to. And with ballroom, ballroom plays a good part. We’re strong and we’re here to fight.”