The Grit and Glamour of Queer LA Subculture


If the wish to be in on the secret is part of what keeps the cool hunters forever sniffing around the ball scene [...] the public performance and dramatic display of the openness of the secret is what keeps them clueless and forever guessing. - Tavia Nyong'o. 

Founded in 1992, REACH LA is a Los Angeles based organization aimed at providing HIV/AIDS testing, prevention, and treatment for youth of color. Throughout the 1990s, the organization used substance-free dances as a site for community building and education. In the early 2000s, REACH focused on collaborating with its demographic to produce media and art. Youth involved in their programs wrote and directed short videos that were entered into festivals like Fusion (a film festival for LGBT* people of color).

In 2006 REACH was granted CDC funding addressed to Black and Latinx gay men, men who had sex with men, and trans women as especially vulnerable demographics. Because many of REACH LA’s new community members were involved in the house/ball scene, the organization homed in on this subculture, seeing an opportunity to connect creatively with their extended community. In 2006 REACH LA and the Legendary Sean/Milan Garcon hosted the first Ovahness Ball. Admission was $5, and free HIV testing and counseling were provided. Ovahness has become a popular annual event, now charging $40 admission upfront, while attendees who get tested for HIV at the door are admitted for free.

Featured below is a promotional video for the 2015 Ovahness Ball, produced by Sean Milan and Gina Lamb, REACH Director of Art and Technology Programs from 1999-2009. The following showcases ball performers as they prepare for the event, giving both outsiders and participants themselves a dramatized glimpse of the "work" behind the scenes of the ball and a fantasy scenario of a professional fashion shoot. 
For Professor H. N. Lukes and Postdoctoral Fellow David J. Kim's 2016 course, Critical Theory and Social Justice 337, " Queer LA: Cruising the Archive," Occidental College forged an ongoing partnership with REACH LA. Early in the semester, our class took a field trip to REACH's South LA headquarters to introduce students to the practice of analyzing raw collections. Here we sifted through a huge amount of institutional documents, photos, ephemera, and old-format video housed in a storage room and makeshift library. As documented in our field notes, we left excited and a bit overwhelmed. Indeed, REACH itself seems to be a bit overwhelmed. As our guide and board member Joe Stewart stated, "“REACH LA has been so busy and overworked since the beginning that it hasn’t had a chance to look back at and document its own history.”

While Lamb's video shows the glamorous aspects of ballroom culture through its "houses," Oxy's CTSJ 337 decided to take a less glamorous and arguably more gritty (or at least grainy/pixelated) approach. Our "Archive" section strives to give credit to the taxonomic system of scene's own invention as it continues to produce its own lasting categories like "butch queen" and "virgin face." Students Promise Li and Maggie Mather collected and organized videos taken at balls over the years and linked them by performance category to the program for the 2015 Ovahness Ball. In addition to a structured media gallery of materials that we scanned for REACH, Adrienne Adams produced a short documentary film, "Ovahness & Opulence," using the organization's archival footage and excerpts from the 18 oral histories that they conducted with REACH members.

Across this chapter, we investigate what an archival engagement with this community organization and subcultural scene might look like through the lens of new and old technologies, as well as legacy repertoires and emergent archives. Accordingly, we address theoretical questions about the difference between documentaries, archives, and repertoires framed by the aftermath of Paris is Burning and ongoing questions about archiving and displaying queer of color collections. 

Ultimately, we want our project to attract funding for REACH to hire professional archivists to catalog and digitize their vast and rich collections documenting 25 and more years of queer-of-color life in Los Angeles and the non-profit's unique approach to HIV awareness. It is our hope that this multimedia Scalar presentation will begin the process of looking backward, and forward, for this crucial organization, for the communities it serves, and yes, even for the cool hunters.

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