|Photo by Rebecca Smeyne for the Village Voice|
To the newbies who tagged along with me, it was Nirvana, a realization of a world only glimpsed at in a Malcolm McLaren or Madonna video, or in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary, Paris Is Burning.
Jennie came to The Latex Ball and said a few words. She also produced a very excellent tribute to Paris Dupree, who was the last of the “great mothers” of the Houses of the Ballroom community. Paris Dupree was missing Saturday night. Her passing and the passing of so many others this year and in recent years set a sad tone at the usually happy gathering. The short documentary captured the essence of a legend. Her attitude for the ages underscored the meaning of the whole affair. The Latex Ball is sponsored by GMHC and besides the competitions and awards and performances, they provided education about AIDS and HIV, free on-premise testing and, as far as I can tell, handed out about a million condoms to participants.
The world I live in seems to be becoming less aware of AIDS and HIV as if it were a disease that those “other” people get. It can’t affect me because I’m white, or I can’t get it because I’m older and haven’t gotten it yet, and I can’t get it because I’m straight or safe most of the time, are some of the many misconceptions we as a community have accepted. I think after decades of the crisis taking a toll on our world, we have relegated the problem to the dark corners of our consciousness and tune out the billboards and TV commercials there to help us understand. Although aggressive treatments have made survival a reality for most and living a good life possible, the stigmas and real dangers of HIV and AIDS still persist. At the Ball, speaker after speaker recounted the lost and pleaded with the audience to grasp this concept.
Missing at the Ball were the many groups of people I have seen there before. The Chelsea boys were not in the house, nor were the flamboyant crews that I’ll call the Patricia Fields, Kenny Kenny and Susanne Bartsch crowd. Even the mainstream crowd, that over many years came in to peek, didn’t show. The gathering was mostly Black and Hispanic and mostly young. It has almost always been this way but this Ball lacked the outsiders (one of which, I must have appeared to be). This happened despite a broader understanding and awareness of the House or Vogue Ball culture. Indeed, a lot was missing Saturday night but so much creativity and talent did attend. I saw some of you there and I hope you enjoyed it and discovered this universe of tradition and love that has always obsessed me. I attended my first ball in the early ‘80s and never wanted to miss another. I constantly annoy Ball community members about when the next one will occur. I will attend the KIKI Ball on October 28th. If you want to know more about this society and future Balls visit myballroomlife.com or the GMHC website.
I have lost hundreds of friends and a relative or three to the AIDS/HIV epidemic. The Ball was an important opportunity to educate young people as well as oldsters like myself on the continuing problem of the epidemic. The young Hispanic and African American crowd that were in attendance are at particular risk. I saw a statistic saying that although the African-American population represents about 10 to 13% of the American, population close to 50% of the people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS were African Americans. Although the mainstream American universe seems to be believe this scourge is something under control, the dangers still persist. Flyers and posters underscored the dangers of making bad sexual decisions while under the influence. It is true that many strains of the virus are being treated with increasing success but many individuals do not react well to treatment and the virus continues to evolve into prevention resistant strains. The Ball was sponsored by the GMHC who have always been there to support and educate. They continue to fight this good fight and deserve the recognition and our support.
The Ball was magical. The competitions were fierce and winners graciously took home their trophies and kissed and hugged those who fell short. We went through packs of throat lozenges as we screamed and jumped up and down with awe. We lived for the outfits, costumes, and ensembles. We gasped as “Voguers” leaped higher in the air than ever before. We teared up as the role of the missing and gone was recited. Someone scolded and shouted “Do not forget Willi Ninja!!!” when the list was recalled. How could Willi Ninja be forgotten? Time and numbers make us forget the unforgettable. Willi may not have invented “Vogueing,” but he took it to an undeniable place. I adored him. He was gracious and intelligent and fun. When he was at the door of the Sound Factory, or some other joint, I looked forward to chatting with him.
Many in the Ballroom community fought their way up from a very low place to find acceptance from the community and from themselves. 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. Leaving behind a legacy was a much discussed topic at the Ball. Names of icons, legends, and those who passed too early were recited on stage and talked about in the crowd. Paris Dupree was the last of the original five mothers of the modern Houses. She was preceded by Angie Xtravaganza, Pepper LaBeija, Avis Pendavis and Dorian Corey. Others spoke of Danielle Revlon, Catiria, Nicole Iman, Danny Xtravaganza and the recent passing of Leo Xtravaganza, Leo Milan and so many more. With all that we have learned, people are still dying too young, too soon. It’s easy to slip up, forget or risk just this once but if I took anything from the glorious 21st annual Latex Ball it was I want to see the 31st and the 41st Anniversary Ball. I pray for a time when we get to a point where GMHC isn’t involved anymore because their mission has been accomplished. Have fun, play safe.
Steve Lewis' second of two articles was posted on August 22 at blackbookmag.com