It’s summer in the city, and the people are loving the sunshine along New York City’s famed Christopher Street. Many Pride events have been cancelled, while a handful shifted from street marches, festivals, and club events to virtual meet-ups. Simone holds court reading palms in Sheridan Square—a literal stone’s throw from the Stonewall Inn, the site of a riot in 1969 that brought us the LGBT movement and Pride celebrations half a century later and counting. In this little triangle of a park, old friends are gathered on this day in June, almost all donning face coverings ranging from the stylish to the surgical, all to protect against the virus that causes COVID-19. Without a particular destination in mind, Luna Luis Ortiz approaches the block with his gay daughter Nicodemus Ciccone.
Ortiz isn’t expecting anyone to recognize him, let alone to receive fanfare this afternoon. The old friends in the gardens surprise him, yelling out, “Luna! Luna! Luna!”
Ortiz looks at Ciccone, one of his newest kids, a bit startled.
“How do they know that it’s me? I’m wearing a mask,” Ortiz said. “Maybe I should have covered my eyebrows.”
As gay father and daughter approach the benches in their masks, hugging and storytelling commence. Testimonials of Ortiz’s decades of advocacy are flung among the old friends.
Ortiz is sitting there, listening. Ciccone has not heard these stories yet.
“I’m just sitting there, bashful,” Ortiz said later. “It was beautiful. It felt really nice. But also, I was just like, ‘Oh my God, will you guys just keep it down?’”
This is the kind of daily gathering of Black and Brown LGBTQ folk that has happened every day, for decades, along Christopher Street from Stonewall, moving west down to the West Side piers. In New York City, June really is Pride month, as each borough has its own pride celebration, along with some neighborhood prides (like Harlem Pride). But one of the main attractions is a major ball hosted by one of the oldest HIV service organizations in the country. And Ortiz has been at the center of it for many years.
Balls have served as safe havens primarily for Black and Brown LGBTQ people, originating in New York, but now the houses have chapters in many U.S. cities and around the world. Part pageantry, part fashion show, part athletic competition, balls gather the most esteemed houses for a memorable night of community affirmation, competing for trophies in a number of categories.
Luna Luis Ortiz, also known as Luna Khan (of the House of Khan), has been a fixture at the balls, earning Legendary Icon Hall of Fame status. He is also a community health coordinator with Gay Men’s Health Crisis. And he’s also a professional photographer, stage manager, and the face of GMHC’s Latex Ball, an annual soiree of about 3,000 people and a bevy of houses, including the houses of Xtravaganza, Garçon, Mattel, Blahnik, and many others. During the Latex Ball, Ortiz is an orchestrator, making sure the stage is set, all trophies are accounted for, and that each house has their table with a clear view of the runway. Behind the scenes, Ortiz is making it all look easy and run smoothly.
But the Heritage of Pride Parade isn’t the only event in New York City that COVID-19 canceled this year. The Latex Ball was supposed to be epic. It’s the event’s 30th anniversary, but the coronavirus forced GMHC to cancel the ball. The decision was announced on April 10, but many ballroom members are still lamenting its absence.
Mermaid Garçon, 30, eagerly anticipated making her Latex Ball debut this year, competing in the Female Figure Runway category.
“The Latex Ball is like the Emmys for ballroom,” Garçon said.
“The fact that it’s not happening this year is crazy to me,” she added. “I was really looking forward to this year, being able to be on that floor. It’s kind of a bummer, but health is more important. With everything that’s going on in the world, ballroom has taken a step back. But Latex Ball is so major in so many ways. It really does suck that it hasn’t happened this year, but hopefully it’ll be back next year if all things go well.
“Runway is literally my love. I look forward to any major ball that I know a group of the houses are going to be there, because I love being with my house members. Whenever there’s a major ball, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a huge event with all of the Garçon,” she said.
While the ball is definitely a celebration, it also serves a function as an HIV testing, outreach, and education event. The “latex” in the ball’s name references GMHC’s concerted campaign to encourage condom use. GMHC has staff there at the ball offering HIV tests and—along with other vendors—pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) services, legal services, support groups, and linkage to care services. The key is to provide what people need by coming to them, but prevention and care are adjusting, Ortiz said.
The Latex Origin Story
Thirty years is a milestone, especially considering how HIV has evolved in the public consciousness and how mobilization and pressure brought more resources forward. New York City was one of the hardest hit places for HIV transmissions. By December 1991, New York City alone reported 20% of all of the HIV cases in the U.S. More outreach was needed. The conversations started as GMHC staff members began attending balls throughout the city. The House of Latex got its name from Black gay activist George Bellinger Jr. But it was the late Arbert Santana (who became the House Mother of Latex) who was the person with the idea to create a house and event dedicated to promoting HIV awareness and prevention. The ball emerged after years of building trust between GMHC and the house and ball leaders. Thirty years later, the events blossomed in size, going from hosting a few hundred attendees at Shelter NYC to Roseland Ballroom to Terminal 5—a venue that holds 3,000 people.
Gary Paul Wright, executive director at the African American Office of Gay Concerns in Newark, New Jersey, is a founding member of the House of Latex. He remembers the outreach team going to the balls and handing out condom kits and informational brochures, dressed as Prohibition-era cigarette girls. It wasn’t until a few years later that the house formally began walking the balls themselves, ultimately creating the official Latex Ball, he said.
Krishna Stone, director of community relations at GMHC and one-time member of the House of Latex, described Latex Ball’s significance.
“This is a community intervention. You have a captive audience of thousands of people, most of whom are disproportionately affected by HIV. In a mindful and respectful way, it is a very effective form of outreach,” Stone said. “Though many people are coming there to be entertained or to compete, it is still a way to engage folks with the hopes of those dialogues, those brief conversations. Those moments will continue.”
“It’s about engaging the house and ball community in a very longstanding way and understanding the importance of this community, that they are important to us, and that their health is important to us,” Stone added.
Tens of thousands have attended, hundreds have been tested, and many legends have been made at the Latex Ball.
VIP access has now become coveted. A celebrity or two have made appearances in VIP. Billy Porter, a lead actor in the hit TV series Pose, walked the runway and spoke in 2019. Previous years, Janet Jackson, Estelle, Tamar Braxton, Latoya Luckett, Raven-Symonè, Ryan Murphy, and other major celebrities have been seen in attendance.
“That upper level, that’s bird view eye of the runway. And it was wonderful. That’s the section where Janet Jackson was when she came once, in 2006, to the Latex Ball,” Ortiz said.
A Pride Without Latex
Pride season is going to look different this year. GMHC’s testing site is closed, but as an alternative, GMHC is providing at-home test kits for people residing in the city as well as New York state, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. A virtual vogue competition, hosted by GMHC and TENz magazine, will be held on June 25 with eight voguers and seven battles.
Ortiz is curious about how Pride will be observed moving forward. He remains optimistic.
“I think the future of the Black and Brown LGBT community is happening right now,” he said. “We are visible in shows like Pose and Legendary. We have our trans community on television shows and working on Hollywood films. We have writers like Lena Waithe and Janet Mock changing the narrative. 2020 is the year everyone took their blinders off and realized that we are beautiful, and we are talented, and we have so much more to offer to the world.”
Mermaid Garçon ponders what Pride holds for her.
“Here in New York, to me, Pride is all year round,” Garçon said. “As soon as June comes, that’s when I feel like everybody really feels it, and I’m like, ‘OK, the summer’s here, Latex Ball is about to come. Everyone’s going to be out. We’re going to be on the pier. We’re going to be out just celebrating loving ourselves.’ That’s what I look forward to, because Pride season literally kicks off my summer. And with COVID, everything is at a standstill. Everybody’s just waiting to know what’s going to happen next. But me personally, I just know that I feel like I don’t feel comfortable doing a lot yet, so I know I’m going to be in a little bubble for a little bit.”
The Christopher Street pier is still serving as an epicenter of community. Sharing their experiences, Ortiz describes everyone he knows learning how to adapt to the new usual.
“I’ve had three of my gay kids lose their mother,” he said. “So, there’s a lot of sadness, and I know that Pride usually is a celebration and all of that. I wish that we could still do some sort of type of Pride, but I understand that we need to keep our distance. But I know that people are trying to look on the other side of the rainbow to try to survive all of this.”