They dance to counter bullying – in circles and on catwalks, artfully twisting bodies and falling into perfect splits.
This high-energy, stylized form of dance – known as Voguing – has been created by queer people of color. It is not only a celebration of identity, it is also an act of resistance against anti-queer violence, which is on the rise.
Last month, when Destination Tomorrow, the sole LGBTQ+ center in the South Bronx, held its annual Lilac Ball at La Central YMCA, voguing was definitely in vogue. The ball honors Spirit Day, an annual anti-bullying and LGBTQ awareness day.
“I think that’s a part of the ballroom community’s inception, just anti-bullying,” said Ciara Louboutin, a vogue dancer from the Bronx. “It’s all in the spirit of ballroom.”
Louboutin was crowned the ball’s Supreme Grand Prize winner, taking home $1,000 in prize money.
Other dancers strutted down the runway with signs that memorialized O’Shae Sibley, a 28-year-old gay man who was stabbed to death by a homophobic teen for vogue dancing in late July. Their message: End LGBTQ violence now.
“We have to keep pushing and keep thriving within our community because we have youth folks that we have to protect,” said Dr. Gloria Pope, chief program officer for Destination Tomorrow’s New York and Atlanta Offices.
State lawmakers across the country have passed more than 80 anti-equality bills this year, including laws to ban gender affirming care and remove LGTBQ+-centered literature from schools, according to Human Rights Campaign.
Anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes soared over 19% from 2021 to 2022, and the majority of those targeted were Black people, according to the FBI’s annual crime report.
While preliminary studies show a correlation between gay visibility and anti-gay hate crime, particularly in economically vulnerable neighborhoods, youth-based community organizations can offer refuge from harassment, substance abuse and low self-esteem.
Demi Figueroa, one of the Lilac Ball’s three judges, said events like the Lilac Ball are important to empower LGBTQ+ youth to overcome adversity.
“Voguing is a form of femininity for me,” said Figueroa. “I just want them to feel it. Let the music take over your body and be happy.”
Voguing dates back to the Harlem Renaissance, when gay communities began hosting “balls,” where participants strutted and spun for prizes. Throughout the decades, dancers continued to own their gender expression through ballroom.
“Access is a keyword, especially for black and brown LGBTQ youth,” Pope said. “Trans women are being killed every single day.”
A’nee Johnson, a 30-year-old Black transgender woman, was killed after she was pushed into a road and hit by a car in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 14. She was the 22nd reported transgender or non-comforming person to be killed this year, according to Human Rights Campaign.
Destination Tomorrow provides other monthly programming to care for its queer youth, including Kiki Social Lounges, Vogue classes, GAYmers groups, resource fairs and after-school “drop-in” hours where people can connect and be themselves.
Drop-in hours are every Tuesday through Saturday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Destination Tomorrow headquarters at 452 E. 149th St.
The group also sponsors a Peer Vanguard Program, offering instruction on becoming peer leaders through discussions on conflict resolution, civics and community service and HIV and AIDS 101 education.
“The focus was to create a space that is going to save somebody’s life,” Pope said. “That’s what we’re out here doing every single day.”