Thousands Flock to House of Latex

GMHC’s outreach to gay youth of color hosts its annual spectacular

The Crew Foreground:

Dutch, Titan, Shadow; background: Minx, Masque, Ark, Volt, Suave, Glitch, Fable, Alloy, Fenix.

Despite a formidable snowstorm, the House of Latex (HOL) managed to draw a crowd of almost 2,000 people to Roseland Ballroom in midtown Manhattan for its eleventh annual ball on Saturday, December 6. HOL is one of many “houses” which comprise the New York City drag ballroom community, and is also an anchor program of the Institute for Gay Men’s Health at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC).

Although the ball scene in New York City dates back to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, it experienced a major boom in both membership and media attention following director Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary, “Paris is Burning,” which featured interviews with “legendary” members of the ballroom community such as Pepper Labeija, and followed them in their preparations for “walking”—or competing at—the balls. The “kids” in a particular house adopt the name of the house as their surname to signify that they are a family unit. Each house also has a “mother” and a “father,” chosen by their level of participation at balls, as well as their commitment to and involvement within the community.

In the case of HOL, the jobs of House Mother Aisha Diori and House Father David Rodriguez are to educate, provide space, and inspire creativity for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth of color involved in the ball scene.

Born in 1989 out of a collaboration between GMHC and members of the ballroom community who were concerned about the growing presence of HIV and AIDS within the ball scene, the House of Latex has been committed to outreach and prevention, primarily among LGBT youth of African American and Latino descent, for 14 years. The name “Latex” was given to HOL by members of the community because one of the house’s primary functions is to distribute condoms at balls and other events. Most other houses are named after famous designers or famed community members.

HOL became an official “house” in 1993 and held its first annual ball, which quickly developed into one of the largest events held by any house in the New York City ballroom community.

This year’s ball was themed The Latrix, a play on the Hollywood blockbuster, “The Matrix.” Arbert Santana, assistant director of counseling and education at the Institute for Gay Men’s Health, and a member of HOL, explained that the theme was chosen because the movie is a pop culture classic in which the “reality” of day to day life turns out to be an elaborate façade created by machines that control the “real” world. This relationship, he said, parallels the attitude many people display toward the “machines” of HIV and AIDS—instead of fighting back through prevention and education, they deny the truth and passively accept the authority of the disease. The Latrix, the evening’s program explained, aimed at allowing members of the ballroom community to tackle issues such as racism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia, HIV, and AIDS head-on by competing in over 40 different categories and sharing their talents and creativity with the community.

“Our chances lie in the acknowledgement of these issues,” the program read. “If we free our whole community we can survive. There is hope.”

The doors to the event opened at 7 p.m. with tabling by various organizations dedicated to HIV and AIDS awareness.

“The House of Latex works in partnerships,” stressed Santana “Our partnerships with other agencies are very important.”

HOL’s partners include People of Color in Crisis and Gay Men of African Descent, among others who were present to distribute literature and safe sex packets. The David Geffen Testing Center at GMHC was also on hand to provide free HIV testing. At 10:30, the runway came to life with several performances by members of the community who are trying to make it as entertainers outside the ball scene. Performers included singer/dancer Harliquin, fashion diva Princess Xtravaganza, rapper Inhance, and the punk rock sounds of Blue Doll. This was followed by a short awards ceremony in which allies of HOL were awarded for their activism and creative use of their talents. One notable award went to Selvyn Givenchy, who won the Eric Christian Bizarre Lifetime Achievement Award, which is bestowed upon a community member who carries on the legacy of the late Eric Christian Bazaar, a renowned ballroom commentator who died of AIDS in 2001.

Before actual competitions commenced, HOL held its “Grand March,” which is the traditional way for the host house of a ball to present itself and its theme to the community. The Grand March for The Latrix 2003 featured HOL members dressed as characters from “The Matrix” parading their elaborate costumes down the runway and acting out a skit which featured HIV and AIDS as the enemy to be destroyed through awareness and education.

“HIV and AIDS can be defeated,” implored House Father David Rodriguez. “All the houses must band together as one.”

Following the Grand March, members of the community competed in dozens of categories—competitions continued until almost 4 a.m.—with the goal of freeing the most souls in order to win the Grand Prize. Saturday night’s Grand Prize went to the House of Allure.

Santana was quick to point out that HOL goal in all this fun is to get the community involved in promoting AIDS awareness, intervention, and prevention. One category Santana was particularly proud of was the Mini Grand Prize for the best safer sex poster.

“Five houses competed with elaborate messages that must have taken weeks and even months to produce,” said Santana.

The winning poster went to the House of Balenciaga.

In addition to its annual ball, HOL also “walks” balls throughout the year, handing out educational pamphlets and safer sex packets, does outreach on the streets and in clubs, and provides peer space for LGBT youth by holding discussion groups, or “House Talk,” twice a month. Santana explained that HOL specifically focuses on youth of color between the ages of 15 and 25, because “if we are able to provide intervention at an earlier age, we can stop the spread of HIV and AIDS.”

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More information about the House of Latex and the ball scene is available at houseoflatex.org.

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