By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Ballroom houses are not just places for young gays and lesbians to party and compete with one another. As those involved repeatedly maintain, they act as secondary families where members can get support when dealing with the pressures of dating, coming out of the closet, or feelings of alienation. The leaders of each house, typically two men, are referred to as fathers and mothers. It's a multiethnic world populated by Latino, African-American, and Anglo kids drawn together by sexual rather than racial preferences. The South Florida houses, unlike some in New York, are open to both men and women.
"The reason we call ourselves a family more than a house is because we are there for each other when someone needs help," says Alexis Rodriguez, the House of Lords' former leader. He says he cannot count the times he's had to get his children out of jams in the seven years since he formed the house. "I've been called at three in the morning to juvenile hall to bail out a kid whose boyfriend beat him up," he recalls. "Another kid showed up on my doorstep because his mom beat the shit out of him because she found out he was gay."
Rodriguez puts up youngsters at his West Kendall home while they work out problems with hostile parents and temperamental lovers. For members of the ballroom culture, the friendship and family support found in the houses is as central to their participation as their prancing and voguing.
James Paul usually can be spotted dancing on top of speakers at the Club Coliseum as a member of the House of Lords. Standing about six feet tall, Paul has an athletic build and wears his hair pulled back in thick cornrows. His rhythmic popping and contorted dance movements distinguish him as one of the top, or "legendary," house children in the South Florida scene. But while his moves are mesmerizing, Paul has not always been so flashy.
Growing up in a strict Haitian-Bahamian home, Paul felt constantly repressed and masked his true identity day in and day out. Even as a boy he was expected to act like a grown man, and the rules for boyhood were rigid. "I had to dress different. I couldn't act the way I wanted to act," Paul recounts. "I had to listen to a certain type of music and was expected to bring girls home."
The stifling family code continued until he moved into his own apartment four years ago, at age eighteen. "I needed to come out. It was a big step when I moved out of the house. It opened the door to my life." Since revealing himself as a gay man, he has been one of the more colorful and controversial members in the South Florida ballroom scene. He joined the house after a few of the members spotted his moves at the Coliseum and recruited him. Paul dances tough in the Butch Queen Vogue category, usually in jeans and a T-shirt, or skips and prances in Femme Queen Vogue. When he dances in a ball, he competes in a frenzy, mocking his rivals, spiraling down to the floor and convulsing his body to the beat of the music, twisting his arms and torso in endless fluid contortions. As the sweat builds, so does his attitude. At the Quest Ball, Paul stormed off the floor after an extended showdown with Simon Infiniti. Vanessa Mizrahi, using her status as a New York legend, disqualified him for a dancing style that was too masculine for the Femme Queen category. There were curses and histrionics, but no punches were thrown, no weapons brandished. Instead, when the drama subsided, Paul hugged and kissed his competitors.
"Was born a Lord, I will die a Lord," Paul professes. He has developed deep friendships with his house family, which he says will last a lifetime. That feeling is common among the members, as they often finally have found a place where they fit in, where they no longer are ostracized. And each brings something unique to a ball. Whether it's Face, Body, Everyday Realness, or Bizarre, there are categories for just about everybody.
At 260 pounds, five-foot-eight Orlando Pineda is the regional champion of two ballroom categories: Big Boy Vogue and Big Boy Runway, in which paunchy men get to dance or model for the judges. Walking the balls, he says, is a way of expressing himself like he's never been able to before. "I enjoy performing for my house," admits the 24-year-old television technical director. "It feels really good to let people know you don't have to look like everybody else to win." His favorite category is walking Runway, where he gets to strut in the latest outfits he concocts for the balls. At the House of Quest Ball, Pineda won the category wearing a tight gold lamé tank top with a matching glittery cowboy hat and oversize sunglasses. The outfit did nothing to hide Pineda's girth. Instead it emphasized his size. He changed his look at the Jingle Ball, where, decked out in basic black Kenneth Cole, he walked away with a trophy.