There's a lot worth pausing for, rewinding, and then watching over and over again until the electric charge of the images and the raw dialogue stay with you forever in Sara Jordenö's ballroom documentary Kiki. It's not the first time a documentary has been made about the ballroom scene appropriated by Madonna for her David Fincher–directed "Vogue" music video. In 1991, Jennie Livingston's Paris is Burning served as a time capsule for the 80s New York ballroom scene that was the inspiration for current hit TV show RuPaul's Drag Race. That documentary can now be seen as a prologue to an era where more and more trans characters are popping up in the mainstream. However, we still have a long way to go when it comes ending problems like homelessness, HIV, poverty, and gender discrimination that impact young queer people of color. The homophobic attack in Orlando that killed 49 people at a gay club is a reminder that safe spaces for LGBTQ folks are still desperately needed, something that the Kiki scene provides.
Long before ballroom dancers popped up on Rihanna tours and at H&M designer collaboration launches, there was Harlem's drag circuit, which held masquerade events, eventually graduating to a competitive scene throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, reminiscent of today's ballroom culture.
The Kiki scene emerged out of mainstream ballroom and was started by members who were active in community-based organizations like the Gay Men's Health Crisis. It embodies the concept of community through houses that consist of chosen families and enforces the idea of self-empowerment.
As Symba McQueen, who serves as the father of the House of Juicy Couture, puts it, "We often become the parents we never had." A house father and mother are responsible for taking care of kids who might have been rejected by their families or are experiencing homelessness. The house becomes integral to the LGBTQ kids' quest to find love and support. A large portion of young black folks in the Kiki scene are impacted by HIV, which is why there is a strong presence of HIV prevention services, testing, and counseling at the balls.
In 2010, Twysted, the founder of the Kiki Ballroom Alliance in Toronto, was contacted by Mike Ebony from House of Pink Lady in New York about starting a Toronto chapter. After getting a Youth Line's Spirit of Will Munro Award, Twysted was able to help launch Toronto's Kiki ballroom scene.
"I brought three kids with me to New York in 2011, and we officially performed. You have to perform to be in the community, if you're not seen in the ballroom scene, it never happens," says Twysted.
What makes Kiki distinctly different is that it digs deep into the lives of the members of the Kiki ballroom world, revealing what led them to the scene in the first place. It closely follows the seven main characters as they deal with transitions, homophobia, isolation by loved ones, being HIV positive, and homelessness—issues that are noticeably absent when the ballroom culture is appropriated solely for entertainment.
Gia Marie Love, one of the stars of the documentary and House of Juicy mother, discusses the need to pair voguing with critical dialogue about the lived experiences of people who are part of the Kiki scene. She says when ballroom dancers are invited into mainstream spaces the performance aspect is often the only thing highlighted.
"Outside the larger queer movement, you see a lot of appropriation of ballroom," she tells VICE. "You see vogueing in movies and commercials, but you don't really know where it comes from and the community that's the most impacted by it. Ballroom is a great platform because it visualizes the talents we use to cope with the stress of what we have to deal with because we're so different in society's eyes."
One of the most important scenes in the film that captures the state of LGBTQ rights today and why we need Kiki now is when Twiggy Pucci Garcon, founder of the Opulent Haus of PUCCI, is invited to the White House where Obama is celebrating the legalization of same-sex marriage. During the visit, Twiggy, who works with Cyndi Lauper's True Color Fund to end LGBTQ youth homelessness, gets a call from his landlord that he is getting evicted without notice or a reason.
Although marriage equality is important for queer couples who choose to get married, the scene speaks to the harsh reality that LGBTQ people still have to fight for basic rights like housing because of discrimination. In fact, 40 percent of homeless youth in America identify as LGBTQ, a number that is disproportionately high considering that 7 percent of young people in America is LGBTQ.
During the rough week, Twiggy manages to find support and help from his Kiki family. "We still gotta fight for LGBT homelessness, we still gotta fight for trans rights, there's so much left," muses Twiggy after leaving the White House, shortly after finding out that he's getting evicted.
As Toronto gears up for its first ever pride month in the shadow of the Orlando shootings, the need for safe spaces for LGBTQ youth is more evident than ever. Twysted says the city's Kiki scene is one of those vital spaces.
"We challenge what's masculine and what's feminine, and we really have nowhere else to do that. We weren't able to express ourselves before. Some of us are coming from oppressive places that are very homophobic. So we made our own world."
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