activism

The First Openly Gay Mr. HBCU Is Getting Out the Vote in 'Ballroom' Circles

"When you don't vote, you allow people who are being voted on to do whatever they want to do," Jauan Durbin insists.
September 16, 2020, 7:28pm
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Meet the first openly gay Mr. HBCU.

Jauan Durbin made history when he won the coveted title of Mister Historically Black Colleges and Universities for 2019-2020, a leadership role won in a competition among all HBCUs. His reputation as an activist solidified in freshman year at Morehouse and spanned his college career, more recently extending into the LGBTQ “ballroom” community. He spent much of Atlanta’s Pride Weekend making sure those members were registered to vote and had a plan in place for the 2020 election.

“There's a huge relationship between ballroom and activism, because when you build a community, you're able to organize in community, ” says 22-year-old Durbin, known to his ballroom family as Valentino Balenciaga. The ballroom culture — a specific subset within LGBTQ life where groups (called houses) gather and have competitive walk-offs--  is a safe space for queer and trans individuals to be able to express themselves and to fight together against the oppression they experience, Durbin explains.

Durbin’s activism started in high school in Washington, D.C., when his class marched to the White House to protest the vigilante killing of Trayvon Martin. “I was so captivated by the opportunity to be able to not only speak my truth or speak my thoughts and my ideas but to amplify the voices of others.”

His social activism grew substantially from his time attending the all-male Morehouse College, which he credits with helping him define who he is. “I think every HBCU alum, not just Morehouse men, can identify with finally not being marginalized,” he says. “Going to an HBCU …gave me the Band-Aids and the armor that I needed to go into the world that I knew was kind of stacked against me.”

Things didn’t start out easily for him at Morehouse, though. Freshman year, he walked into a room as a class senator but people didn’t taking him seriously because of his sexuality. It bothered him so much that he vowed from that day on to be judged only by his work and to demand respect. As a freshman, he wrote a resolution that spoke to the Student Government Association affirming the identities of queer people, trans people, non-binary individuals at Morehouse. “It passed unanimously. No one voted against it.”

In 2018, when Durbin witnessed voter suppression during Georgia’s gubernatorial elections when Stacey Abrams narrowly lost to Brian Kemp, it was a tipping point for him.

“When you don't vote, you allow people who are being voted on to do whatever they want to do,” he insists. “But when you vote, you are giving a key to someone and you're telling them, I'm giving you this key because I trust you. But if you break that trust, I'm changing the locks and that key won't work anymore. You have a key. It just won't let you into this house.”

During Atlanta Pride Weekend, he had the chance to speak to a large group of his fellow House of Balenciaga members — new inductees as well and people visiting from all over the country for the ball. He stressed the importance of voting for people whose ideals align with your own values, and he spent the first part of the ball at a voter registration table that he helped to set up in partnership with the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda.

“In order to change and make policy that reflects that black lives matter, that trans lives matter, that queer folks lives matter, it has to be reflected in policy. And policy is created by the people that we vote into office,” he says. “To make that a reality, we have to vote. And that has fueled my activism.”