Top: OTA (Open To All) Performance in Something Red. Bottom: Kemar Xclusive Lanvin showing his appreciation of Face winner Tiffany. Linda-Cristal Young Photos.
Dressed in a blue-and-white snapback, neon yellow shirt, suspenders and black pants, the Legendary Divo Ebony hopped from the stage of the Whitneyville Cultural Commons, and glided right into a voguing routine on the floor below. Around him, attendees parted to make an impromptu oval in which the dancing was in full force.
Over the music, the applause was immediate: cheers and cries of "Yas!" bubbled up around the circle. As Ebony dipped and lifted themselves immediately, the room pulsed with energy. It seemed that even the twinkling lights above were moving in time with the routine.
Welcome to the inaugural Greater New Haven Visibility Ball, held last Friday at the Whitneyville Cultural Commons in Hamden. Sponsored and organized by A Place to Nourish Your Health (APNH) with support from performers from across the region, it kicked off weekend celebrations of New Haven'snow-annual Black Pride, held at APNH's 1302 Chapel St. headquarters.
Top: Runway in a Red Shoe Walking. Bottom: Organizer Jovanni Cabanas, Commentator Karma Versace, and Performer Stout. Linda-Cristal Young Photos.
The Visibility Ball was born earlier this year, when APNH Safe Space coordinator Jovanni Cabanas—who readers may know more intimately as plus-size Afro-Latina queen Xiomarie LaBeija—gathered with other members of Connecticut's ballroom community, and started to talk about the living history and legacy of ballroom.
Over multiple discussions, Cabanas realized that they wanted to pay homage to the past—and make clear that ballroom is still very much a thing of the present.
They shouted out theNew Haven-raised performer Stout and Kemar Lanvin, a MFA candidate in directing at the Yale School of Drama, for helping bring the night to fruition.
"It's amazing what happens when you come together with a community, and the magic that comes out," Cabanas said. "I just wanted to make sure I created a beautiful space, a safe space for our Black and Brown community ... It doesn't matter where you come from. As long as you move from a place of love, we'll all succeed."
Top: OTA Performance in Something Red. Bottom: And the category is ... Hand Performance in a Red Glove. Linda-Cristal Young Photos.
Cabanas added that the name—which implies the act of seeing and being seen—came because "it was time for visibility." The last time Cabanas saw serious ballroom performances in the state was 2017, they said. And yet, the history—popularized by tv programs like Pose and Legendary—was and continues to be integral to telling the full story of the LGBTQ+ community.
When they landed at APNH in 2021, they made it part of their work "to continue to create these spaces," Cabanas said.
It also comes at a time when LGBTQ+ rights, particularly for queer and trans people of color, are under attack. Currently, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)is tracking 491 anti-LGBTQ bills across the country, from bans on gender-affirming care to new laws that regulate school bathrooms, playing fields, and K-12 libraries.
"It's being visible, being loud, being proud to be Black and Brown [and] from our community." Linda-Cristal Young Photos.
"It's being visible, being loud, being proud to be Black and Brown [and] from our community," Cabanas said. "Especially in the ballroom scene, where they [white people, cis people] always like to put us in music videos, but don't want to give us the proper recognition and the proper platform to be able to shine as bright as we're gonna be shining tonight."
Friday, that mission was crystal clear as performers took the floor, leaving judges awestruck as they strutted, vogued, dipped, split, and kicked the night away. From hydrant-red leather boots to performers who arrived without a touch of makeup out of place, it kept attendees literally on their toes, cheering their way right into the weekend.
Before the end of the night, Cabanas said that Friday might have been the first Visibility Ball to grace the area, but it certainly wouldn't be the last. They fêted it as an "amazing start" to a weekend dedicated to Black and Brown queer people.
Top: Host Sparkle A. Diamond takes pictures with attendee. Bottom: Makeda of Makeda Bead & Soul (@makedabeadsoul) test fits a belly band on Ala Ochumare. Beside Ochumare is her wife, MiAsia Harris. Linda-Cristal Young Photos.
On Saturday, that flowed right into Black Pride, which last week braved a last-minute move from the Dixwell Community Q House to New Haven’s Dwight neighborhood. Outside APNH's building—a place that has become a social service hub, lifesaving stop and safe space to so many in New Haven—vendors and performers spread out across the parking lot, soaking in the bright summer sun after a week of ominous skies, hazy air and smoke from Canada's wildfires.
Organizer Tim Mack, director of prevention services at APNH, said he was thrilled to see the event unfold not just in New Haven, but at a space that has made self-expression, LGBTQ+ health and wellbeing, and a celebration of queer culture such a central part of its mission.
Four years ago, Mack started Black Pride in New Haven after seeing a number of Pride events that seemed geared toward white people, despite New Haven's kaleidoscopic diversity and deep Black roots. When he attended those, he said, he rarely saw the Black representation that he hoped for. At some point, something clicked.
Top: Crown Ron sings for the crowd. Bottom: Acacia and Debra of CommuniCare passing out stickers and pens for "responsibleplayct.org." Linda-Cristal Young Photos.
"I thought it would be a really good idea for us to have a Black Pride in New Haven, so that we could focus on our Black, queer artists and make sure that they're represented, and get their time to shine," Mack said as performers took a makeshift stage nearby.
Since starting the event in 2019, Mack said, he feels like there's more community support, in part because word has gotten out about the event. This June marked an unprecedented number of phone calls, email messages, and requests before the event. Saturday, the impact was clear as hundreds of people cycled through.
As music pumped over the parking lot, host Sparkle A. Diamond made her way through the vendors, highlighting this year’s event offerings of free food from Black chefs—which gave the event a cookout feel—free health testing from APNH, vaccines offered by Griffin Health, a number of Black queer and ally vendors, and even a short free massage from Spa at Home.
The sparkling performers on stage included Crown Ron, Giri Spades, and Mz. Clementine Kulayd, plus DJ Edgewood and an Open Mic run by Laiylah Alf Wa Laiylah.
Top: Nox Amore, Kirill Staklo, Ronan, and Tiff, representing Trans Haven. Bottom: Drag King Giri Spades entertains. Linda-Cristal Young Photos.
"It just makes me feel like I'm doing something right," Mack said, thinking back to the first Black Pride he attended in Washington, D.C. years ago.
Now, he's already looking toward next year, which will mark the event's five-year anniversary. He's planning to be at the reopened Q House, which has become a focal point in Black New Haven history, and expanding the celebration to include dance, storytelling, more performances, and more trans-specific events.
Mack added that at APNH, Black Pride extends to the whole year, and has a holistic, full-person approach. In the coming months, APNH is planning to expand its work with Gilead Sciences, hold HIV testing days, run its weekly voguing nights, add more drag performances, and focus on financial literacy.
"I want people to know that we're here, and you know, we're ready to be seen!" Mack said. "And show that we are also a part of the queer community and show people what we can do."
First Photo: CyDni, winner of Lil Miss Westie Grand Supreme of West Haven. Second Photo: Trell Walters, Mr. Connecticut Leather 2023. Announces there will be a Ms Connecticut Leather competition in the fall. Third Photo: Getting free mini donuts from Many Donuts' (@many.donutss) Cedric Emery and Anita Mclean. All food and ice cream were served free to the communityFourth Photo: Tim Mack, organizer of Black Pride, with Jovanni Cabanas. Linda-Cristal Young Photos.
To learn more about Black Pride or get involved in next year's event, email Tim.Mack@apnh.org. Lucy Gellman contributed reporting.