New York City was burning Saturday night as the legendary children stepped out for the GMHC’s 21st annual Latex Ball. The theme this year was “Controversy Through Time,” which seems fitting considering the drama leading up to the Ball, as well as some of the shade flying under the roof of Terminal Five in Hell’s Kitchen.
Earlier this year, the ballroom community was calling for a boycott of the Latex Ball since there was some discrepancy over where the money from last year’s event went. In other words, they were telling the GMHC:
Apparently there was a reconciliation as the Houses of LaBeija, Xtravaganza, Ninja and others that made Paris burn turned out to turn it out. To be honest, we only made it through the first half (according to the program, there were three halves) of categories before sashaying out the door around 2 am. As Dorian Corey taught us, balls are notorious for being extremely long, drawn-out affairs.
Highlights included the high energy voguing battles (the deathdrop should be the real national pastime), the beefcake and cheesecake being served for daze, and the Labels category, during which Stephanie Milan gagged the audience with her high fashion sense. Deigning to step outside of Jersey, Ms. Milan came with trunks on trunks on trunks of couture.
But the show literally came to a stop during the Women’s Performance category. Women from around the world duck-walked for glory against each other with Russian minx Karina Ninja inevitably slaying the competition. However, one competitor, a trans woman, almost didn’t get the chance to compete.
She was initially not allowed to walk because, according to the hosts and some of the judges, she was not a bioloooogical woman. At one point, the hosts asked the audience if they should allow her to walk and were met with a chorus of boos. What should have been a safe, all-inclusive space threatened to devolve into some sort of transphobic witch hunt.
To her credit, the would-be voguer stood her ground, even going so far as to begin stripping to prove her womanhood. Before the Ball turned into a Burlesque, a few other trans women came to her defense and addressed the audience. No doubt each had come face to flawless face with transphobia, both in and outside of the gay community.
No tea, no shade, the trans voguer was eventually allowed to perform, but we reached out to the GMHC who offered this explanation of the incident:
The House and Ballroom community has traditionally been inclusive of multiple gender identities and expressions, as well as multiple race and ethnic groups, even though it is primarily a community of color. It is a ballroom cultural norm to have categories for competition that apply to specific identities that are commonplace throughout the community. Transgender persons have historically been among the pioneers of the community, and a category called “Femme Queen” and variations upon it are traditionally walked by transgender women, both pre- and post-operative. Because the community has consistently included a significant minority of biological women who participate in balls, a category is usually provided called “Women’s Performance.” Another category, “Female Figure,” has been utilized at balls to include all who express their identity as female, regardless of their sex at birth or, in the case of male-to-female (MTF) transgendered persons, pre- or post-operative status.
At the Latex Ball 2012, the category of “Female Figure” was included in the program, and transgender women after that ball requested to have their own category in the next ball. Thus, for Latex Ball 2013, categories for “Women’s Performance”—as traditionally understood to be a biological female category—and “Femme Queen Performance”—understood as a transgender category (pre- or post-op) were included. These are the kinds of measures generally taken in the community to ensure inclusivity in ballroom performance events, and which the community members request from GMHC.
On Saturday night, one contestant who identified as a transgender woman wanted to walk in the “Women’s Performance” category. This has not been seen in the House and Ballroom community. It was unexpected and an open debate arose as the various commentators and judges had different interpretations for the category. The contestant suddenly grabbed the microphone from one of the commentators and took the commentator by surprise. One MC for the event sought to bring back order to the event. GMHC staff also intervened to ensure that the contestant was able to finish competing in the category and successfully exit the runway. In response to the incident, and at the urging of the contestant, a GMHC staffperson who was also one of the MC’s, made a public statement from the runway to note that the community and this ball in particular have always been trans-inclusive and that the issue of gender identities in categories is larger than this ball. Community leaders need to continue to work on defining categories as new boundaries are explored. GMHC remains committed to serve all of our communities of which the House and Ballroom community is central.
Why this was such an issue is beyond us, since if someone — particularly in the ball scene — self-identifies as a woman, she should be treated as such. But there are apparently rules agains this sort of thing, which to invoke her memory once again, reminds us of something Dorian Corey once said: “After they’ve laid down these little categories, then they try to become a stickler for exact interpretation.”
Identity politics aside, the Ball — at least what we saw of it — went off without further hitch. And judging from the amazing photos, the children owned everything.
Photos: Luna Ortiz