Making Change: A House of Our Own

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I remember sitting on the Christopher Street piers one Friday evening in 1999, the last summer they were open. A Latino youth–about 15 years old, his straight black hair cut into a bob and tucked just under his ears–darted through the West Side Highway traffic to make his entrance at the pier. He was still toting a book bag from school, from which he pulled a new pair of black chunky-heel pumps, gleefully showing them off to his companion. Trying them on, he got up and worked the concrete strip of land as if it were a runway during Fashion Week in Paris.

A crowd of a dozen or so youth formed a circle and egged him on. Someone brought out a boom box, and a “battle” ensued as young dancers–male and female, butch and femme–jumped into the circle to challenge each other’s “vogue” and “stunt” skills. (“Vogueing” is a dance involving highly stylized movements and poses, the name suggesting models on a fashion runway. “Stunts” are more advanced forms of vogueing, which showcase a dancer’s strength and flexibility.)

After 10 minutes or so, the battle ended and everyone went their separate ways–off to Uptown, Bed-Stuy, and the other black and Latino neighborhoods that most of the queer youth hanging out at the piers called home.

In a city where cultures are defined as much by the place they claim as the identities they represent, the young people I watched that night were essentially refugees–pushed from the gay community by racism and edged out of black and Latino communities by homophobia and transphobia. Queer people of color throughout New York City share their landless status. Revealing episodes like the scene at Chelsea’s View Bar last September–when dozens of people of color successfully shut down a blackface drag performance of “Shirley Q. Liquor,” which was to open to a sold-out house that night–drive us from largely white, mainstream gay spaces. But if we retreat to black and Latino neighborhoods, we are greeted with what is at best indifference. Last January, when a black gay man was shot in Harlem in an apparent bias crime, most of Harlem’s black organizations responded with silence.

Community-building activists have typically addressed this problem by carving out space for queer people of color within largely white gay worlds. But the organizers of a circuit of drag balls, popular among the young people who once staked a claim at the Christopher Street piers, have begun showing us a new way. Once primarily heads of social clubs, these event planners are becoming full-fledged community organizers who are creating new safe spaces for their members in the neighborhoods they call home.

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The ballroom community revolves around collectives called “houses,” which have familial structures headed by “mothers” and “fathers”–a designation that is not based on biology. The houses offer members a network of friends and, when needed, a place to turn for informal support services. But their most prominent role is to organize balls, at which the houses compete for cash prizes in performance art battles like those staged on the Christopher Street piers.

“I worked on Wall Street for over 15 years,” says Kevin Omni, “Legendary Father” of the House of Omni, in describing his house’s eclectic mix–and challenging what he sees as a popular misconception that the ball scene’s members are “depressed, starved and everything else.”

“The current Father of the House is a schoolteacher and a minister,” he adds. “All of our members are educated, articulate and creative people. The Balls were and are our creative outlet.”

Drag balls were born in Harlem, and date back to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. But when the Depression hit, and Harlem was no longer in vogue, many of the neighborhood’s progressive artists and intellectuals moved downtown and helped establish a heavily queer and multiracial community in the West Village. By the 1980s, the strip of Christopher Street west of Seventh Avenue and down to the piers was the main social space for the black and Latino queer community, including the ball scene.

The piers were attractive to youth in particular because they were free public spaces where people could meet dates, dish the dirt, network and practice new stunts. They were also far removed from the sometimes homophobic eyes of parents and, not insignificantly, a relatively safe place to sleep if you were homeless. Identifiably queer homeless youth, particularly transgender ones, were often more comfortable there than in city shelters, some activists say.

Nobody knows this better than Mariah Lopez, a transgender youth activist from People of Color in Crisis who is involved in the ball scene. Lopez recently won a discrimination lawsuit against the Administration for Children’s Services, which had forbidden her from dressing in clothing to match her gender identity while she lived in a Brooklyn foster home. “I was told that I was sick by a supervisor,” she says. “There was a point where they would intentionally use wrong pronouns or call me by my wrong name.”

But by 1999, things in the West Village had changed. That year, in order to make room for the Hudson River Park’s development, the waterfront that once held hundreds of people was reduced to a bicycle path with a heavily enforced 1 a.m. curfew. With the piers closed, hundreds of youth found themselves able to socialize only on the street corners of a five-block area of the West Village, which led to overcrowding of the streets and additional noise. A campaign spearheaded by “block associations” (most notably Residents In Distress, or RID, an acronym that many of the youth took as an allusion to a brand of lice remover), prompted heightened policing of the area. With little community beyond a few local bars to stick up for them, the neighborhood quickly became extremely hostile to black and Latino queer youth.

“I blame the city because they closed the pier,” complains Harmonica Sunbeam, one of the city’s most popular drag personas. “Now they’re trying to remove us from Christopher Street too.”

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As a result of all this turmoil, there is no longer a clearly defined place where young people new to “The Life” can find solace. And for those of us who have been working as organizers for those youth, it begs an uncomfortably self-critical question: Why aren’t we doing more to create safe spaces for LGBT young people of color in the communities where they live?

Gay Men of African Descent, an advocacy and social service group, began to change things when it relocated its office from Chelsea to the heart of Harlem in 2001. But the move came after years of criticism charging that the organization, which doubles as a community center, was not accessible to the communities it aimed to serve.

A more complete uptown movement is building through the houses. A decade ago, Chelsea’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) created the House of Latex, an HIV education outreach program modeled after the houses. In recent years, Latex has had to spread its wings to continue filling its mission. “The piers were a great place to do outreach, because so many people went there,” explains Arbert Santana of GMHC. “But with the piers closed, we have to go where the people are.”

Latex now works with ballroom legends like Omni to put on events such as the Harlem ball during Black Pride NYC–one of a couple dozen black-specific gay pride festivals around the country. Omni was among the MCs at the 2001 event, where he and other house leaders drove home the event’s overt community-building theme. Giving off attitude, or “throwing shade,” is part of the fun at any ball, but the MCs at the Pride event cut the competitions off whenever they became too negative, reminding performers of their common bond and constantly slipping in messages about positive self-images and HIV prevention.

Omni hopes a documentary he and filmmaker Wolfgang Busch have produced, called How Do I Look?, can similarly offer positive reinforcement for the ballroom scene. I remember seeing Madonna’s 1991 film, Truth or Dare, for the first time when I was about 16 years old. She referred to her black and Latino gay dancers (who inspired her hit song “Vogue”) as being “emotionally crippled.” Later that year, I saw Paris Is Burning, which introduced mainstream America to drag balls, and it nearly convinced me of Madonna’s truth. Omni wants his film to set the record straight. “Paris is Burning created a lot of misconceptions about the ball community,” he complains.

The film has generated a lot of buzz, having been screened several times this fall both in New York and at Cleveland, Ohio’s Black Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.

He and Busch also want to use the film as the cornerstone of a larger community-building project. “This is more than just a documentary,” says Busch. “It is a tool to showcase our talents, bring the ballroom community together, gain artistic–and human–respect, and provide hands-on training to people in the ball community.” Proceeds from the film will go into community organizing campaigns and, not insignificantly, to pay the artists for their contributions.

“We are setting up a college tour around the country to have panel discussions, exhibitions, talk about HIV/AIDS awareness, transgender and sex education and how we can empower the artists in the ballroom subculture,” says Omni.

The houses’ ability to subtly reach their members is one of their greatest organizing assets. The stakes are high: One 1999 study found that nearly a fifth of 15- to 22-year-old black gay and bisexual men in New York City are HIV positive, and that nine out of ten of them are unaware of their status. Stats like these keep outreach workers who found an audience at the Christopher Street piers up at night, wondering what has happened to youth like the young man I watched perform that night in 1999. Maybe they will all someday be ball legends. But unless we find them someplace to truly call home, we may never know.

Kenyon Farrow is a freelance writer in Harlem and an advisory board member of FIERCE!, a queer youth advocacy organization.