“I don’t think the world has been fair to me. Not yet, anyway,” the late Octavia St. Laurent said in the groundbreaking documentary Paris Is Burning. “I believe that there is a big future out there with a lot of beautiful things, a lot of handsome men, a lot of luxury. I want to live a normal, happy life…I want so much more.”
This is what every little girl hopes for. And this hope was vibrantly alive in my mind as I walked into the Roseland Ballroom in Midtown Manhattan on Saturday night for the 21 Annual House of Latex Ball.
See photos of Janet and the stars of the Latex Ball
I was a guest of Ayana, whom I met after she invited me to speak on a panel at the Hetrick-Martin Institute in July. She was announcing the establishment of her very own house: the House of Christian, which she told the crowd was her way of giving back to the ballroom community that helped raise her from a pretty young thing to a practicing health professional helping the transgender community through medicine.
I felt honored to witness such a monumental moment in her life, and she was gracious and patient enough to answer many of the questions I had about what to expect at the evening’s event since I had never been to a ball.
I’d spent the weeks leading up to the Latex Ball YouTubing and researching anything I could find about the ballroom scene. It’s only been a month since I was introduced to Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary that followed New York’s underground ball scene where young LGBT people of color paraded in front of one another. I was immediately transported into a subculture I didn’t even know existed, one where vulnerable “at-risk” women and men created their own families. These networks of oppressed individuals held hands and collectively built a house where they could live and support one another.
That was the resonant message of the documentary to me, a story I could understand intimately myself.
When I was in the 7th grade, I was introduced to a group of young trans women outside the rec center where my best friend Wendi and I played volleyball after school. Wendi, who was light-years ahead of me in terms of trans-identity, knew many of the women and drag queens because she had a fake ID that enabled her to go to clubs where they performed. Though Wendi wasn’t a performer herself, I can only imagine how being around these glamorous women inspired her to become the glamazon-maker that she is today, working as a makeup artist.
But I’ve come to realize how those older women impacted my adolescence; how just being exposed to their swaying hips, made-up faces and impenetrable sisterhood inspired me along the way. As expressed in my Marie Claire article, “They were a revelation, and I was emboldened just watching them.”
These women were brave enough to be themselves, and they helped pave a path for me to transition. I remember them calling a regal, voluptuous woman who watched over their routines as they practiced, “Queen Mother.” I asked Wendi why they called her their mother, as she obviously didn’t birth them.
“She’s the mother that they never had,” Wendi said, rolling her eyes at my naivety. “They can just be with her.”
It was then that I understood at 13 years old that many of the women who shared the journey of being trans like me weren’t fortunate enough to have a biological mother who was open enough to allow them to express who they knew they were. I was one of the lucky few. And this privilege enabled me to eventually transition as a teenager without being disowned by my family.
I thrived outside of my home because I had a home.
Now, some people have to find that sense of home, and that is the lasting message that Paris is Burning and the ballroom scene has shown me. (“A mother is one who raises a child, not one who borns it,” Hector Xtravaganza said of his mother Angie, who died of AIDS-related liver disease, at her memorial service in 1993.) The film showed me that some LGBT and gender-nonconforming people have to seek out this sense of place, this sense of home, this safe space, and in the ballroom scene with its abundance of runway categories, you could be whomever you believed yourself to be.
“In a ballroom you can be anything you want,” the late drag performer Dorian Corey said in the film, in which she offers an abundance of wisdom (watch the clip here at about 3:40). “You’re not really an executive, but you’re looking like an executive. And therefore you’re showing the straight world that I can be an executive. If I had the opportunity I can be one because I can look it. And that is like a fulfillment: your peers, your friends are telling you, ‘Oh, you make a wonderful executive.'”
Inside the Roseland Ballroom, I saw how this sense of imagination and wonder triumphed over a sometimes harsh reality for many of the Latino and African-American LGBT people in attendance. Stevie Lewis, who wrote about the ball for Blackbook magazine, said of the 2011 ball, “The Houses provide refuge from a backward world and an opportunity to find out who they are and how to express themselves and make their mark.”
Watching Ayana take the stage to announce her new house after her “children” walked the runway before her, I was lifted. Here was a nurse practitioner with her doctorate who happens to be a black trans woman, slithering down the runway like the goddess that she is to applause and awe from young LGBT people, who can now aspire to be more than just a pretty young thing.
Ayana was an example that a kid from the ballroom can do more than present and pretend. They can be a real executive, a doctor, even, and serve their community with grace and class, and yes, beauty.