Photos by Kevin Amato
Though less than eight miles apart, the Bronx Pride Center couldn't be more different from the better known, much better funded Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center in Manhattan's West Village. There are no Keith Haring murals adorning its bathroom walls; in fact, its second-floor toilet doesn't even have a proper handle. If not for its modest canopy sign -- right next to a butcher's prominent MEAT MARKET lettering -- you'd pass the dilapidated building without so much as a cruising glance.
But for some of New York City's most marginalized LGBT youth, the Bronx Pride Center is one of the few places in the borough where anyone cares if they live or die.
The Mott Haven neighborhood where it is based has one of the highest rates of AIDS-related deaths in the city. It's also in one of the poorest congressional districts in the United States. That lethal combination of poverty and disease makes the queer kids who call these streets home particularly vulnerable.
It is here where the underground ballroom drag scene, observed by much of the world for the first time in Jennie Livingston's 1990 Paris Is Burning, still sizzles. On any given weekday, you can find queer kids hanging out on the center's second floor practicing duck walks, hand performance, spins, and dips. Faced with the task of simply staying alive, they catwalk. Just feet above the streets where they could have the shit beaten out of them for acting so flamboyantly, they vogue to their spirits' content, arms flying freely.
Ballroom drag events account for about 80% of the center's first contact with the 4,000 youth they service each year. But getting them off the streets and onto the dance floor is an act of triage that creates its own undesirable side effects, the center's executive director Dirk McCall acknowledges.
'There are kids here who have seroconverted,' says McCall, 'and they're selling their HIV medications on the street for money to buy their clothes for the balls.' Concerned, the center plans to start a fashion workshop, so kids can use their facilities to make their own clothes from donated materials for free.
Not that making your own outfits would get you into, say, the House of Milan or the House of Mizrahi. But it may get you a walk on the 'kiki' circuit, the junior league that evolved for kids wanting to get into ballroom before they're old enough.
The runway is where many shattered young queers have turned to feel beautiful when their own families have rejected them. And when those selective ballroom "houses' won't give them the time of day, they come here. The Harlem River may be a poor substitute for the Seine, but here, Paris is burning hotter than ever.
'This is a shade-free zone!' cries out Pony, a dance instructor who has the look, energy, and moves to pull off his name.
'Throwing shade' at someone is ballroom slang for dissing them, and Pony will have none of it in his Tuesday afternoon vogue class.
'How many of you have ever walked a ball?' he asks the 15 or so drop-ins. Only three -- including an alluring, confident girl named Jenovia -- raise their hands. 'How many have ever walked a kiki ball?' The same three hands go up.
The group is very different from what you'd expect if your main exposure to drag was La Cage Aux Folles or RuPaul's Drag Race. As cliquish as it can be, there's room for everyone in ballroom drag, especially kiki. There are categories for boys and girls of all body types, many of which have nothing to do with cross-dressing. 'Thugs,' whom the untrained eye wouldn't suspect of being gay, let alone drag queens, look nothing like those walking 'BQID' ('butch queen in drag').
The thinnest member of this class is more than six feet tall -- a boy, now dressing as a girl, who appears to have begun taking hormones. The largest is a boy with a sweet face who looks like a young Biggie Smalls. There is at least one 'real' girl among them, a quiet Latina who seems to speak only through her heartfelt dancing.
'Why are you here?' Pony asks them. 'Biggie' raises his hand. 'I'm here because I want this more than anything,' he says, his eyes twinkling.
Pony gets them up on their feet and working in groups. In silhouette against a floor-length window, they look like a living, breathing Kara Walker installation. He exhorts them to 'show up' in their dancing, and to translate that to other areas of life.
One of the few people straddling both the real and kiki ballroom scenes is a runway model named Twiggy, who walks 'butch queen European runway' for the House of Garcon. She works at the Bronx Pride Center (officially under given name Ryan White) as an HIV peer health educator. Twiggy/Ryan fuses the two in teaching the center's runway class and producing their kiki balls.
Kiki is largely for kids from New York City. For most people from other places, the entry point to the city's ballroom scene is Paris Is Burning.
'Seeing that movie was like, oh my God!' says Trace Mizrahi, a transgender woman who walks balls in the 'realness,' 'femme queen face,' and 'sex siren' categories. She describes seeing the film (as a boy who'd do drag in Ohio) and feeling 'like a seed had been planted. There were girls, beautiful girls, who'd been born boys.'
Trace moved to New York and got a job at Bloomingdale's MAC cosmetics counter. Then male, he walked his first ball, 'realness,' at the Roxy, and remembers thinking, 'I'm being celebrated for something I was always put down for. I turned a negative into a positive.'
Despite being the odd white person around, Trace fit well into the scene. 'I'd thought I was gay, but really I was a different gender.' Ballroom helped her on that journey. Trace started dressing as a girl at work and buying hormones on the street.
'I worked at MAC and escorted to pay for the hormones and surgery,' she says, eventually escorting full-time. 'Then I went and got my pussy,' which she says was not cheap. 'My vagina alone cost $15,000.' Her transition complete, she 'graduated' from escorting to stripping.
If it's shocking that Trace survived everything she went through, it's an outright miracle VaNity Xtravaganza is still among the living.
'I always knew I was a girl,' she says, even though she was born with a penis. 'When I was 11, I was on 42nd Street, and my gay mother, Carmen Xtravaganza, found me on the street and said 'You are too beautiful to be a boy.' '
VaNity says Carmen injected her, right then and there, with her first shot of hormones.
Far from being scared, VaNity says she liked it. It was the first step on her long road towards becoming a transsexual porn star and one of the most glamorous members of the House of Xtravaganza.
It was not an easy journey. Many years later, 'I had an operation, and they castrated me,' she says, 'but I woke up in the middle of it and I told them to stop. They'd cut a hole and I told them to sew it up.' She felt she was done.
'I never got fake tits, either,' she says, eyeing her ample cleavage. 'What I've got naturally is enough.'
The House of Xtravaganza lives up to its name. There are some 400 or so 'houses' in the ballroom scene. Each one (Allure, Garcon, Mugler, LaBeija) revolves around a personality or lifestyle, its membership part 'gay street gang,' part family. Houses compete as teams in balls, celebrate holidays together, and sometimes even live communally.
Xtravaganza is among the oldest and most infamous. It was the first Hispanic house in an otherwise black scene when founded more than 30 years ago. As legend has it, Xtravaganzas taught Madonna how to vogue. (These would be fighting words to the House of Ninja, who claim Willi Ninja gets that credit.)
Xtravaganza is the most common last name in the onscreen credits of Paris Is Burning. A generation later, the house is doing well, despite the fact that few members from that era are still alive. The Bronx kids in the kiki scene, who dream of doing something with their lives via ballroom, might do well to strive for Xtravagance.
'We want people to take what they do in the ballroom scene and do it to the world,' says Raul Xtravaganza, a professional makeup artist who walks 'realness.' Among their members are professional models, dancers, and a Cartier executive. No Xtravaganza appears to be struggling financially, if you judge them by their bling. Anthony Xtravaganza -- the house's first black member -- recalls the days 'when we were all snorting coke through hundred dollar bills.' He's now a public school teacher -- not rich, but certainly not homeless.
On a recent Friday night, the house rented a midtown studio for a meeting. They discussed plans to travel to Europe for a ball and to march as a family in the AIDS Walk. Even out of drag, they were dressed to the nines for their powwow. When it finished, they rolled the short distance to Splash Bar in members' own luxury cars and proceeded to take over the lower level.
Wherever they go, the feeling of family is palpable. Sonia Xtravaganza has been a member since the early '90s, even though she doesn't really walk herself. 'I was a single mother of two boys,' she says, 'and all these gay men were there for me, helping me raise my kids, even when my own family was not.'
La familia extends even to straight guys. 'When they recruited me, I told them I wasn't gay, and they said, 'That's cool, we just want you to hang with us,'" says Jungi Xtravaganza, a buff dancer who was performing when he was propositioned. He's only walked once -- 'sex siren, so I could say I had done it' -- but he's proudly Xtravagant.
'What people don't understand is that, in the absence of my own family, this fills that need,' he says. 'These people are my family.'