BOGOTA, Colombia—On a recent Friday night, people adorned with neon wigs and elaborate makeup packed a closed street in Bogotá's gay neighborhood Chapinero. Wearing cocktail dresses, lingerie and wedding gowns, they embraced and posed for photos. Every possible presentation of gender was on display as contestants strutted down an improvised catwalk to a cheering crowd, showing off their most intricate and raunchiest moves.
They had gathered for a ball, but also for a protest.
Earlier that week, Theatron, one of the largest gay clubs in Latin America, had announced it would be hosting a dance and fashion competition known as a ball with the House of Cobras, one of the “houses” in Colombia’s emergent ballroom scene.
José Toledo, known as Madre José Cobras, had planned the event with Theatron, the city’s iconic three-story gay club, for gay pride month.
But the day after the event was announced Toledo began receiving backlash from her community. Theatron, many say, has a history of discrimination.
Contestants at the "Anti-Theatron Ball" competed in three categories: Runway, Sex Siren, and Vogue Femme as they showed off their style, raunchy moves and dance skills to a cheering crowd. Photo by Cristian Garavito Cruz for VICE World News.
Since it was founded 19 years ago, Theatron has become more than a gay club. It's a staple of Bogota nightlife where a $16 fee covers unlimited drinks and access to 16 dance floors—each with a different style of music. But it has also been the target of allegations that its security staff is elitist, racist, and transphobic in choosing whom to allow in.
“These establishments are LGB, which is fine, but they won't include the T," said Sofía Gallego, a 23-year old communications student, trans activist, and webcam model who was at the street catwalk on June 4.
Seeing an opportunity to mediate a long-standing tension, Toledo said she asked the club to apologize and clarify that it is a safe place for all. When the club refused, she cut ties.
Instead, in collaboration with other houses, the community hosted an “Anti-Theatron Ball” on a street they blocked off outside El Muro restaurant. Theatron, which usually welcomes up to 7,000 people, is closed due to COVID-19, so the event was planned for El Muro, which is associated with the club.
“It was a very beautiful moment,” Toledo said of the event. “When we realized the number of people who were in the street, the number of people who walked that ball and all that it meant to be there, to protest in this way, it was very symbolic.”
Ballroom, the underground LGBTQ subculture of dance and modeling competitions that reached its cultural peak in 1980s New York City, was made famous in the United States by the documentary Paris is Burning and more recently by television shows like Pose and Legendary. Its trademark style of dance, “voguing,” was brought into the mainstream by Madonna.
The scene was pioneered by Black and Latino members of the LGBTQ community, many of whom had been kicked out of their homes and created alternative family structures of “houses” with mothers and fathers. Ballroom culture in Latin America has started to emerge over the past eight years, more recently arriving in Colombia around 2016.
The owner of Theatron, Edison Ramírez, strongly denied the allegations that the club excludes people.
Several hundred people from Colombia's ballroom community gathered on June 4 in Bogotá's gay neighborhood of Chapinero outside of El Muro, a restaurant associated with the famous gay club Theatron. Using a makeshift runway on a blocked off street they held an 'Anti-Theatron Ball' in protest of the club that they say is classist, racist and transphobic in who it allows to enter. Photo by Cristian Garavito Cruz for VICE World News.
Since Theatron was founded, "they have told us that we discriminate, that we do not let people in,” he said, arguing that he could not fill his club if he limited access only to Colombia’s elites. “You have to put a little logic and numbers to this. I have such a giant site.”
He added: “What is the rush to enter if we are so bad, if we are so evil?”
The only reason someone would get turned away, he said, is if the person is suspected of being underage or drunk—or had caused trouble at the club in the past.
Gallego said she went to the club on November 7, 2019, for a party to celebrate the victory of the country’s first openly gay mayor, Claudia López, when the bouncer turned her away. She had been rejected before, she said, but had accepted the occasional discrimination.
But this time was different. Only weeks before, she had been a panelist at an event hosted at Theatron by the Mayor’s Office where she recounted her experience of being turned away for being trans from the very same place where she was sitting.
On that November night she was filled with rage and despair. When she pressed the bouncer, he said to her “because you’re a man,” even though her ID reflects her female identity, Gallego told VICE World News.
“At that moment when they de-legitimized my identity, that's when I got worked up and started to react angrily,” she said.
Ramírez pointed out that the club hosts drag queen competitions like Miss Gay International and fashion shows that feature trans models. He was exasperated at the complaints and called Gallego’s allegation “absurd.”
“I think they have to move past this little victim plan, which no longer suits them,” he said. “Why don't they empower themselves and create their own place?”
Toledo said that even though Theatron opens its doors to drag queens and trans models, its events reinforce a traditional standard of beauty that emphasizes “cis-passing,” as opposed to the ballroom community, which celebrates a variety of non-binary identities and aesthetics.
That was clear to Edwin Palacios, a 22-year old art student who is non-binary and Afro-Colombian, when they say they were turned away from the club in 2018. Later, they recalled, the same bouncer let them in but with one difference—Palacios’ hair, which previously had been long, in an afro, was cut short.
“I realized that it was a matter of exclusion, that I had to hide my roots in a certain way,” Palacios said.
Mauricio Godoy, known as Pantera, said they had also been turned away arbitrarily but had previously been allowed in with a partner who had a membership card.
Ballroom is an LGBTQ subculture of dance and modeling competitions founded in New York City by Black and Latino gay men and trans women and brought into the mainstream by Madonna's Vogue. Over the past eight years it has started to reach Latin America, arriving in Colombia around 2016. Photo by Cristian Garavito Cruz for VICE World News.
“You can see it, the people they let in have a particular dress code, they express themselves in a particular way,” they said. “They have a physique that maybe corresponds to a person of high birth or social stratum.”
While official numbers are hard to come by, Toledo, Palacios, Gallego, and Godoy say these anecdotes of exclusion are commonplace within the trans community.
Gallego described the process of getting into Theatron as a game of “Russian roulette.”
“For girls like me, who are a little alternative, they really closed the doors on us,” Gallego said.
The Anti-Theatron Ball was also about more than just one club, Toledo said—it’s about an establishment that refuses to engage with the concerns of its own community.
“I think if I had a place and a person told me, ‘Hey, I felt attacked in your place.’ I would at least try to find out what happened and apologize,” she said.
“But their reaction all the time is, ‘We aren’t going to accept anything that people are saying.’”