In the 1970s, a Black transgender women named Crystal LaBeija started the House of LaBeija, the very first “house” in what is known worldwide as the House and Ballroom community (HBC).This historic moment solidified the social and competitive network that would become the contemporary HBC (referred to by its adored members simply as, “the ballroom scene”), which has seen a resurgence in international attention through popular television shows like Pose and the HBO competition show Legendary. Not only was this community founded by a Black transgender woman, but it was built as a response to ongoing discrimination and misogynistic violence that Black transgender women and gender nonconforming individuals experience far too often.
And more than simply mourning the loss of those transgender folks who have been murdered, more projects need to support trans people in realizing life goals, dreams, and ambitions. Many trans and gender nonconforming individuals find a home in the ballroom scene as a way to not only find “homes” through the organized house structures, but also to cultivate talent and skills in ways they are rarely permitted to do in society without stigma, shame, discrimination, or violence. But in order to expand the leadership development and skills-building for the community, the Keeping Ballroom Community Alive Network (KBCAN) was formed to help organize members of the ballroom community to be able to advocate for itself and a broad range of social justice causes. In 2017, KBCAN launched a fellowship specifically to support the leadership of trans and gender nonconforming members of the community. The Crystal LaBeija Organizing Fellowship (CLOF) was launched as that initiative. Since 2017, over 25 HBC members have completed the fellowship.
Earlier this year, Black and Brown transgender women took over as leaders of CLOF, including co-directors Jennifer Barnes-Balenciaga and Phoebe VanCleefe Garçon, and three coordinators, O’Miona “Cherry Bomb” Brown, Tracee Durkin, and Siren West. The newly appointed leadership—all of whom are Crystal LaBeija Organizing Fellowship alumni—are responsible for overseeing the fellowship in its entirety.
About the Fellowship
The CLOF is an intensive, nine-month fellowship, open to all Black and Brown, transgender and gender nonconforming individuals who belong to the ballroom community. CLOF was founded with the mission to empower fellows across the nation to address the issues impacting the lives of transgender women, transgender men, and gender nonconforming people in the HBC via community building, economic empowerment, advocacy, and activism through wellness and social justice lenses.
The fellows are responsible for implementing new or improving existing social justice efforts in their locales as a result of fellowship participation. Additionally, fellows participate in group dialogue, complete educational modules, and receive capacity-building resources to boost their social justice endeavors. Each CLOF fellow receives a small stipend and funds to address the issues that most impact the lives of transgender women, transgender men, and gender nonconforming people in the HBC.
Examples of previous and current fellows’ work include the creation of a suit closet for men of transgender experience for job interviews or other needs, fundraising to support HBC fashion designers’ efforts to create masks for COVID-19, the development of Black trans-led art collectives, academic scholarships, runway classes, sponsorship of grand prizes at ball competitions, and ballroom-specific programming at community-based organizations. Jennifer Barnes-Balenciaga, CLOF co-director and LGBTQ liaison for Georgia state Rep. Park Cannon, stated that in addition to CLOF’s work resting at the intersections of community organizing, development, and capacity building, “the current fellows’ community initiatives flourish, in part, because we include fellowship alumni in the current leadership structure, so many of the resources have been gained from the previous cohorts, creating this type of evolving incubator space for community-based work in HBC.”
Such focus on the lives of people who are transgender and gender nonconforming is imperative, especially during in the midst of a global pandemic which may very well exacerbate the existing social injustices and health disparities that Black and Brown people of transgender experience already endure.
In 2019, it was estimated that 44% of Black trans women were living with HIV, while 26% of Latinx trans women and 7% of white trans women were living with HIV. The same stark health disparity has also been documented among Black trans men, who accounted for 58% of the 361 new HIV diagnoses among all trans men in the U.S. between 2009 and 2014, while white, Latinx, and other ethnicity trans men accounted for 16%, 15%, and 11%, respectively, of all new HIV diagnoses during the same time span. With respect to people who are non-binary or gender nonconforming, sexual health data on these communities are scant, due to the traditional focus on gender binary even within the transgender umbrella.
In addition to health disparities, ongoing discrimination and social injustice persist, including employment discrimination, (trans)gender-specific violence in public places, police brutality, lack of access to health care, housing instability, and the cold-blooded killing of Black trans people.
In 2020 alone, there have been at least 17 documented murders of people of transgender experience. We will need community members, advocates, organizers, researchers, and government to work toward generating a robust, valid, and reliable body of public health evidence to promote the health and wellbeing of people of trans experience across the gender spectrum, and more importantly to ameliorate existing health disparities.
“Even in the wake of a pandemic, the ballroom community is experiencing much mainstream visibility,” says Phoebe VanCleefe, co-director of CLOF. “It’s easy to get caught up in the glitz and glam with shows like Legendary on HBO, or to empathize with powerful, striking stories being told in Pose on FX. I think the work that CLOF does is rounding out the narrative of the people you see. We give voice to the needs of people beyond the ball. Ballroom was created out of a need to build freedom for ourselves. CLOF continues that legacy, supporting and promoting grassroots movement efforts, manifesting social and political capital for those who have been cut off from it.”