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"Give me a beat, DJ. This child wants to walk!" demands Jojo Infiniti, who is MCing the House of Quest's Awareness Ball at club Oz this past November. As the music starts, a lanky man waiting by the side of the dance floor in a petulant pose begins to strut as if hawking the baggy jeans and oversize flannel he wears on a haute-couture Paris runway. The young man, a member of the House of Legacy, sashays, prances, pouts, and strokes his dreadlocks in front of a panel of judges as cheers and catcalls rise up from the crowd. His look is hard and serious, as if he's daring someone to snap his picture. The music builds, and his fluid moves transform him from an average kid on the street into a fierce diva, despite his everyday appearance.
It's Sunday night, and instead of catering to regulars, the Little Havana nightclub is full of gender-bending waifs and machos dressed in fur vests, tight polyester shirts, and various grades of faux leather and vinyl. Women pose along the edges of the dance floor in bold gang wear, and transsexuals, such as Vanessa Mizrahi, Nicki Exxentrika, and Poizon Ivy, clad in curve-hugging gowns, slink about the room with the affected haughtiness of slumming starlets.
They are members of Miami's fledgling ballroom scene, an underground world that attracts gays and lesbians in their late teens and early twenties to cliques called "houses." Rather than fraternities or sororities, these houses are more like gay youth gangs for the fey and fabulous. Instead of proving their might in drive-by shootings and rumbles, these bandidos duel by walking in stilettos, throwing attitude with sunglasses and cigarettes, and voguing under a disco ball. "I refer to houses as gangs," says Simon Rodriguez, the mother of the House of Infiniti. "The only thing missing is the violence. We're kind of like the army. In a ball you can be all that you can be."
Simon's "children" walk on the wild side. When a ball is called, they dress to thrill in designer labels and compete for trophies on teen nights at local gay dance clubs. In the ballroom world, boys can be girls and girls can be boys, but most of the so-called children fall somewhere in the androgynous middle. All that matters, Simon points out, is that the illusion they are selling be convincing, whether it's that of a street thug, business person, space alien, or harlot. To succeed ball kids parading for judges must make a statement and his or her "realness" must go unquestioned.
At the House of Quest Ball and the recent Jingle Ball at Fort Lauderdale's Club Coliseum, the members of several South Florida houses came together to compete for trophies in at least 29 categories, ranging from Butch Queen Up in Pumps (males dance dressed as men except for their shoes) to Femme Queen Performance Cat Fight (boys fight like girls on the dance floor). In one category called Transformation, contestants swagger in their toughest street-thug wear and then appear an hour later dressed in micro miniskirts, wigs, and halter tops. Perhaps most intriguing is the Femme Queen Everyday Realness competition, in which transgenders, mostly men who live their lives as women, must prove to the judges beyond a reasonable doubt that they are women. At the Quest ball Chastity Latex, a waitress at a Fort Lauderdale diner, outdid her competition when she tore off her black tube top, exposing her breasts to the judges. They were real enough to win her a trophy.
"It can get pretty cutthroat. A ball is like a regular sporting event," explains Alexis Rodriguez, who recently retired after seven years as the father, or leader, of the House of Lords. "You have to stand out. You can't just be a part of the crowd. You have to prove yourself."
At stake is not only a cheap metal statuette, like the ones given out at Little League championships, but the reputation of an entire house. Two groups, the House of Lords and the House of Infiniti, each with about 30 members, dominate the scene here, though several groups, such as the Legacies and Exxentrikas, are building a strong following. The House of Quest, sponsored by the South Beach AIDS Project, works to promote safe sex and AIDS awareness as does the newly formed House of Latex, which is loosely affiliated with New York's well-known house of the same name. None of the groups has the equivalent of a frat house, a place where members reside. Instead they set up shop at the clubs they frequent. The Lords, for instance, can be spotted most Friday nights hanging around the stage at Club Coliseum. To become inducted into a house, a person must display a certain flair, whether it be evident in his dancing, dress, or attitude when he walks into a room. Some houses require that their members win a trophy at a ball before joining. While members do not legally change their last names, they often adopt the house title as a nom de guerre when they walk the balls.