We were there: House of Latex Ball

Photographs by the Drunken Photographer

The Roseland Ballroom went dry this past Saturday for the 20th annual House of Latex Ball, the all-ages drag, vogue and fashion competition sponsored by the Gay Men's Health Crisis to promote safe sex within the urban LGBT youth community. If you've ever seen the seminal documentary Paris Is Burning, you have an idea of what goes on here, but to really appreciate the legendary extravaganza attendance is required.

Performances by the likes of Sahara Davenport (from season two of RuPaul's Drag Race) and trans recording artist Nikki Exotika warmed up the crowd, but the real festivities kicked off two hours later with a litany of awards, such as the Dorian Corey Wisdom Award and the Hector Xtravaganza Xcellence Award, both named in honor of individuals who have shaped and defined ball culture. The principal support network here is the house, a surrogate family of sorts for youth in the scene, and following the awards housemothers were introduced, each parading down the catwalk to a barrage of call-and-response superlatives from a trio of MCs. Only then could the full function begin. Performers took to the stage to battle it out for supremacy in an exhaustive list of categories, running the gamut from "butch face" to "realness" to "oldway vs. newway vogue."

More striking perhaps than the mesmerizing athleticism, outr costumes and "realness" of the participants is the high degree to which ball culture is largely inaccessible to the outsider. The memes may wend into a wider lexicon—indeed, anybody who attended would be hard-pressed to walk out without an overpowering urge to append the words legendary and icon to everything and everyone on the street—but the true purpose of this camp is to empower a continually marginalized community. GMHC launched the House of Latex in 1989 to address the impact of HIV/AIDS on urban populations. Twenty years later, LGBT youth of color continue to be at increased risk for infection. Throughout the evening, organizers and performers urged attendees to avail themselves of the free testing being done on premises, and condoms, lube and dental dams were liberally distributed, dressed up with Mardi Gras beads and glow sticks. Saturday was a celebration of everything we've accomplished over the past two decades, but it was also a reminder of how far we still have to go.