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How the Black and Latino queer community made voguing a form of resistance

Dancers, Voguers, Drag Performers and and Sailors from Various Broadway shows attend the 40th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in Times Square on June 25, 2009 in New York City.
Dancers and drag performers at the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in Times Square, 2009.
  • Since its inception, ballrooms have been safe spaces for Black and Latino LGBTQ communities.
  • Voguing has been used as a social, political, and cultural means of expression for decades.
  • Recently, there has been a growing wave of anti-drag legislation in the US.

When Raul Rivera was 12 years old, he snuck out of his house after bedtime with his book bag and a map of New York City. On it, he'd circled Christopher Street. It was 1992, and he'd grown curious about the neighborhood after seeing an MTV special on HIV awareness, which depicted the Christopher Street Piers as a haven for the LGBTQ community.

Rivera hadn't come out as gay yet, but as he got off the 1 train, he saw a sight that would soon change that.

"I saw a group of queer Black men prancing, putting their arms up. I was like, 'That's what I saw in 'Paris is Burning,''" Rivera said, referring to the iconic 1990 documentary about New York's drag scene. "I had never seen a group of gay people together like that before, but I immediately identified with that."

Rivera had been bullied in junior high, but voguing — which he'd discovered so viscerally and vibrantly that night — became an outlet for self-expression.

"Sex was not a part of my coming out experience," Rivera told Insider. "My first gay experience was the ballroom scene. That was my first boyfriend."

paris is burning
"Paris is Burning" is an iconic 1990 documentary that chronicles the ball culture of New York City and the Black, Latino, gay, and transgender communities involved in it.

Like Rivera, who goes by Tyhierry Blahnik Mizrahi in ballrooms, many others have found havens in their "houses," where chosen families come together to dance and "walk" — a celebration of their identities amid a persisting history of persecution and discrimination.

In February, Tennessee passed a bill restricting drag performances in public or in front of children, leading a nationwide wave of anti-drag and anti-trans legislation pushed by GOP lawmakers in at least 15 states. The language in the legislation could be interpreted more broadly to apply to trans people doing any kind of performance — not just drag, critics warn.

But members of the ballroom scene are undeterred. Voguing, after all, has always been a force to overcome resistance.

"The ballroom scene is one of the loudest communities to make change. Sometimes we fight back through the performing arts, by creating balls and giving people the platform to be themselves," Rivera said. "Sometimes, the fight is through our visibility. So long as there's a ballroom scene, drag queens are gonna still be born."

A history rooted in resistance

The ballroom scene emerged in the wake of the Harlem Renaissance in the early 1960s, which shaped a distinctly Black and brown LGBTQ culture. Black and Latino drag queens, frustrated by the racism they experienced in established drag pageant circuits, began to organize their own competitions.

These experiences were reflective of the cultural climate of the early 20th century, when drag balls were considered illegal and taboo by the outside world, driving competitions underground.

Drag ball in 1988 in New York City, New York. Pictured: Octavia St. Laurent.
Model and AIDS activist Octavia St. Laurent at the Harlem drag ball in 1988.

Drag and voguing — a stylized dance inspired by poses in fashion magazines that gained mainstream exposure through "Paris is Burning" and Madonna's song "Vogue" — are both central parts of ballroom culture.

The precise origins of voguing are disputed: One theory is that drag performer Paris Dupree took out a Vogue magazine and began mimicking the poses to the beat of the music. Other accounts note that voguing was created by Black gay men who were incarcerated at Rikers Island.

Since the beginning, drag queens have long demonstrated how gender is a performance through dance, donning extravagant clothing and flashy makeup before an audience.

"Drag balls emerged as a safe space for Black and brown queers, and that history has continued," Michael Roberson, an activist who teaches about vogue at the New School, said.

Vogue dancers Derrick Xtravaganza Huggins (bottom) and Cesar Valentino perform at the Copacabana nightclub, New York, New York, May 25, 1989.
Vogue dancers Derrick Xtravaganza Huggins (bottom) and Cesar Valentino perform at the Copacabana nightclub, New York, May 25, 1989.

A form of activism

More than just a space for acceptance and liberation, ballrooms are important hubs for social and political activism.

KaJuan Hill, also known as the Legendary Khaos Lanvin, began his work advocating for LGBTQ communities of color after seeing how many people in ballroom are affected by HIV/AIDS. Hill is currently working to fight the dismantling of the 340B drug pricing program, which ensures that HIV patients have access to the necessary medication.

KaJuan Hill
KaJuan Hill.

"We've seen a lot of our friends come and go," Hill told Insider. "It's a lonely experience, and you want to be a part of people who know about it and understand it. Ballroom is that."

Voguing has also been used as a call for justice during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, where dancers, clad in stilettos and masks, vogued down the middle of the streets in an expression of solidarity and resistance.


The political power of voguing has reached global prominence as well. Akhil Canizales, an artist and activist in Bogotá, Colombia, uses voguing as a way to make public political statements. When Colombians protested against corruption and tax and healthcare reforms proposed by the government, Canizales took voguing to the streets, dancing among heavily-armored riot police.

"Through dance and art we express what we cannot say, we show the realities that are not shown and that affect society," Canizales told Them in 2022.


Voguing as resilience

For other members of the ballroom community, voguing is simply a way of being, of existing. And existing itself is a form of resistance.

"Culture is resistance in every aspect," Devon Webster, also known as Pony Zion in ballrooms, said. "Being gay was more of a cultural and spiritual than a political thing for many people. So the resistance was there."

Hill similarly saw the creation and enduring existence of voguing as evidence of its resilience.

"We're still in a society that is judgmental. We weren't accepted, and we didn't need to be, because we created our own world. It's interesting how the world wants to be a part of us now," Hill told Insider, pointing to shows like "Pose" and "Legendary" as examples of how the mainstream media has recently sought to showcase voguing.

Voguers hug on stage after their performance in Madrid 2021
Voguers embrace after their performance "Our Fight Never Ends" at a dance hall in Madrid, Spain, 2021.

Rather than an active resistance, voguing is a celebration of a community's resilience in the face of adversity, according to Webster.

"Vogue has always been a celebration in resistance because of the lifestyles that we chose," Webster said. "Ballroom is the resistance, but voguing is a celebration. Voguing as resist? No, it's irresistible. It's about feeling good about who and what I am, and not because of something else."

Read the original article on Insider

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