“We have become a gay mecca for a lot of people of color," says Sean/Milan, the social enterprise program manager for REACH LA. "It's a place where people can go and be safe and be themselves.”
This Saturday, May 27, REACH LA (Realistic Education in Action Coalition to Foster Health), an organization which provides young LGBT people of color with social and sexual health services, as well artistic outlets, will expand its sphere of sanctuary with the inaugural Miss Slay L.A. pageant in Boyle Heights. This nascent drag competition serves as a showcase for aspiring queer talent.
"Through working with queer young people of color for over 20 years, our organization has seen first-hand how social and economic boundaries make it difficult for our clients to showcase their talents and create platforms for themselves," explains Sean/Milan, phoning from the REACH LA offices. "Miss Slay L.A. is yet another opportunity for queer young people of color to not only explore their artistic expression, but also receive acknowledgement for their contributions to their communities."
The winner of Miss Slay L.A. will serve as REACH LA's drag ambassador, representing the organization both diplomatically and artistically.
“Because of our arts programming and social media, organizations such as DTLA Proud or the Boulet Brothers will often ask us to have someone come out and do a performance," said Sean/Milan. "We thought it was important to have someone that speaks [in] the same voice as the community to also represent us at the major events and performances."
Although this is the first Miss Slay L.A., the pageant is a spinoff of the Ovahness Balls, a series of events hosted by REACH LA over the past 11 years where contestants compete by "walking," in the style of models working the catwalk. Most famously chronicled in the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, these competitions, called balls, are judged based on costumes and appearance, which often heavily incorporates elements of drag, as well voguing and other dance skills.
Sean/Milan was one of the founders of the West Coast ball scene, which originated from the Harlem drag balls of the 1920s. Those early events reflected the racism of the time because, while African-Americans were allowed to participate, they rarely won. By the 1960s, an exclusively all-black ball community began to form, and over the course of the '70s and '80s ball communities called houses began to emerge. During these decades, an unprecedented number of black LGBT youth found themselves homeless, largely due to a decrease in funding to social services and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Houses, led by "drag mothers," provided ball neophytes with a positive, family-like support system and artistic purpose, a healthy alternative to the paths of drug abuse and prostitution that plagued young minority members of the LGBT community.
Decades later, many of the factors that necessitated the formation of house culture persist here in L.A., including the same underrepresentation that motivated queer people of color to break away from the original white-dominated ball scene.
In 2015, LGBT African-Americans in Los Angeles lost their last dedicated venue with the shuttering of Jewel's Catch One. Opened in 1973 by African-American lesbian Jewel Thais-Williams, the club was notable for being one of the first black-owned discos in the United States, as well as the longest-running black gay club in Los Angeles, reigning for over 40 years. Iconic musicians such as Rick James and The Fabulous Sylvester performed on its stages for predominately black audiences.
But in recent years, attendance dropped dramatically and Williams, who had already been booking the venue out for years for non-LGBT events, sold the space to Los Globos' Mitch Edelson, who rechristened it Union. Though the club continues to host some LGBT events like Banjee Ball and, this Sunday, a queer punk barbeque, most of its calendar features hip-hop, EDM and industrial nights that cater more to straight audiences, and its days of regularly hosting club nights for gay and lesbian African-Americans appear to be a thing of the past.
This dearth of African-American representation in L.A. gay nightlife also trickles down from venues into individual parties. Options for events that cater primarily to queer African-Americans are scarce. The only notable monthly party is Onyx, alternately hosted at Silver Lake's Eagle L.A. and North Hollywood's Bullet Bar, which serves SoCal's black leather community.
Even in L.A.'s homo haven of West Hollywood, where Santa Monica Boulevard is lined with more gay bars than palm trees, only one establishment, Rage, hosts a weekly party geared towards African-American clientele. Starboy, presented by promoter of color Brandon Anthony every Sunday, features black go-go dancers gyrating to hip-hop beats spun by black DJs. Yet this is a single party, at a single club, on a single night of the week.
Arguably, this lack of representation in West Hollywood nightlife is a reflection of the city itself. According to the 2010 census conducted by the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, WeHo's population was 34,399 people. Of that populace, 84.2 percent were Caucasian. 3.2 percent were African-American.
This demographic imbalance partly motivated the creation of Urban Pride. While the majority of West Hollywood will be celebrating L.A. Pride over the weekend of June 10, Los Angeles' queers of color wait to get their gay on over 4th of July weekend.
"We used to have ATB, an organization which stands for 'At the Beach,'" says Sean/Milan. "Every year, folks of color would go to Malibu Beach, and there would be a big beach party over 4th of July weekend, and a series of promoted events. As more and more promoters started emerging, it became this competition that didn't necessarily need to happen, but it happened. Everybody wanted to give a party during that weekend. Which couldn’t happen because it just spreads the crowd thin. The community for [gay] people of color isn’t that large."
Instead, several promoters, including Starboy's Anthony, assembled to produce Urban Pride, this year dubbed Summer Bash. This circuit party features a number of dance parties peppered across the city, catering specifically to L.A.'s gay African-American nightlife community.
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But is this community as small as Sean/Milan suggests? According to author Mignon R. Moore's Black and Gay in L.A.: The Relationships Black Lesbians and Gay Men Have to Their Racial and Religious Communities, in 2007, 4 percent of African-American adults in L.A. County identified as LGBT. Moore posits this statistic is lower than the actual number because black gay men were less likely to be open about their orientation due to sociocultural pressures. They were also less likely to get tested for HIV, and were more likely to unknowingly pass the virus to others in the community. In fact, a recent study by the Center for Disease Control discovered that "one in two gay or bisexual black men will be infected with HIV in their lives.”
That's why Miss Slay L.A. offers free admission tickets for those who get HIV tests through REACH LA. This is especially important for the organization's youth base.
"In 2015, youths ages 13 to 24 accounted for more than one in five of all new HIV diagnoses," says Sean/Milan. "Getting tested for STIs is the first step for queer youth to be in control of their own choices. We often start the conversation by simply asking our queer youth: What are the five fluids that transmit HIV? Being equipped with that knowledge and getting tested regularly, preferably every three months, are key ways to begin proactively reducing the risk of contracting HIV."
The Miss Slay L.A. drag pageant takes place at 356 Mission on Saturday, May 27. Tickets and more info.