The Grit and Glamour of Queer LA Subculture

A Reflection on Reach LA

By Adrienne Adams

I first visited REACH LA with our class on March 17, 2016. Professor H. N. Lukes, post-doc David Kim, and the nine students in the Occidental College course “CTSJ 337: Queer LA: Cruising the Archive” drove in two separate cars to the organization’s office, located in the heart of the Los Angeles Produce Market district. As we ventured through LA traffic, I fantasized that building an archive and historical narrative for REACH LA would seamlessly integrate me into the House and Ballroom scene as a “daughter" in an alternative family that I only knew from Paris is Burning. Once our cars arrived on top of one building, we saw REACH LA board member Joseph Stewart waving his hand on top of a building right across from us. In other words, our class had landed in the wrong place.

At the end of the semester, I continued to work with REACH LA as its official archival intern by securing grants from Occidental College’s Career Center and the Elton John AIDS Foundation. At the end of my internship, I was hired as a Programming Assistant in REACH’s Social Enterprise Department. Over my two years at REACH, my labors have included facilitating oral histories with 18 stakeholders about the history of the organization; creating an archival exhibit for the organization’s 2016 World AIDS Day Event; developing video and social media content for public displays of the organization’s history; helping organize the Ovahness 11 and 12 balls, the first Miss Slay LA Drag Pageant, and West Hollywood’s first Sunday Funday Mini Ball; and co-hosting a public event showcasing the organization’s history at the Whitney Museum of American Art for REACH LA co-founder Laura Owens’ mid-career retrospective.  While I now feel myself to be a part of REACH LA’s broader community, getting there illuminated for me how often the task of archiving and archival research presumes an arrival that is often another destination, another “parking lot.”
My first metaphorical “wrong parking lot” arose in my presumption that access to objects equates to access to people. As I sifted through the archival materials at REACH, I realized that even though I was able to recite who won the “BQ [butch queen] European Runway” competition at Ovahness 10, the affective and embodied dimensions of the ball scene felt farther away than ever. The discrepancy between my original presumption and subsequent realization opened my eyes to performance scholar Diana Taylor’s crucial distinction between the archive and the repertoire. In this context, REACH LA’s repertoire includes participation in the various performance forms, such as “runway,” that this organization supports through the House and Ballroom scene. At this point, my own repertoire consisted only of my social navigation with REACH staff, and it was not as if House parents were browsing the REACH archives for new adoptees. While I conceptually understood Taylor’s claim that “[the archive and repertoire] work in tandem,” I struggled to conceptualize how to engage each mnemonic form without privileging one system over the other.[1]

As scholars of oral history attest, however, this “live” methodology can yield plenty of its own “wrong parking lots."[2] It was easier for me to schedule oral histories with individuals who have been disconnected from REACH LA for 20+ years than with House and Ballroom individuals who are currently involved. Out of the 18 individuals with whom I conducted oral histories, only three were active participants. Whereas I had na├»vely hoped to interview today’s young Legends and use oral histories as a site of bonding (as well as material for my academic thesis), I became acutely aware that the logistical complications of House members’ individual daily lives made scheduling such interviews too difficult. I now recognize that I tried to build connections with them on my own terms, in some ways recapitulating the paradoxes that attend the legacy of Jennie Livingston’s documentary gaze.

Yet sometimes the wrong parking lot ends up being the better one. As I transcribed the oral histories, I initially felt frustrated that even the audio recordings did not fully capture the bodily transmission of mannerisms or emotion of the narrators. In other words, conducting and transcribing the oral histories complicated and expanded my understanding of the staying power of the repertoire. “Embodied memory,” according to Taylor, “because it is live, exceeds the archive’s ability to capture it."[3] Yet oral histories blur the lines between repertoire and archive. Even if the process of audio recording falls within the realm of the ephemeral experience, and even repertoire, Taylor would consider video recordings of events a mere transcription. To be sure, I was not capturing the essence of the Ballroom’s liveness.  I nonetheless found myself documenting, for the first time, the history of REACH LA through the oral performances I was recording and physical collections I was organizing.

A turning point during the summer internship was the presentation of my archival work at a staff meeting in late July. My provisional thesis was simply that REACH LA has significantly contributed to the social and political landscape of queer networks in Los Angeles over the last 25 years. Including the Director of Development, who has been with the organization since 1999, the staff responded enthusiastically to my presentation. After that point, staff started handing me materials that they thought should be incorporated into the archive. They asked for my opinions about new and ongoing initiates more frequently.

These interpersonal relationships at the organization positively shaped the construction of the archival survey and archive of REACH LA. My interviews with former stakeholders, especially two of the founders, have in some cases led to their renewed involvement with REACH. Intergenerational contact is as implicit in the House structure -- with its mothers, fathers, and children – as it is in the Ball circuit repertoires (e.g “old vs. new way” competitions). But my archival work has seemingly generated a newfound desire among a few young and older Ballroom legends to ensure that they are documenting and publicizing both their personal histories in and impact on the West Coast Ballroom Scene.

Arguably, neither the low-income LGBT* youth of color that REACH collaborates with nor the non-profit itself have time to historicize. The Legendary Sean/Milan Garcon, REACH LA’s Social Enterprise Director, has frequently stated to me that “it is not an issue of telling our history or finding creative ways to showcase it. The issue comes down to the resources and time.” My work is a testimony to how one semester of college community-based learning is also not enough time to do justice to either community members, community organizations, or students.

That said, my ongoing work with REACH is also a testimony to how usable histories make better organizations and communities. In light of Taylor’s thesis that the archive and repertoire should work in tandem, my experiences at REACH LA have steered me toward bringing the archive to the very scene of the repertoire. Activating the archive, in the form of presentations at balls and fundraisers, has opened up more avenues for me to engage with the organization and community.

For the World AIDS Day Event on December 1st, 2016, I designed an exhibit to illustrate how REACH LA’s current endeavors fit within a longer lineage of its innovative programming. This exhibit consisted of postering flyers from the organization’s 25 years worth of programming, projecting sex-positive slides from Club Positive over these flyers, and mounting two iPads. One iPad featured the media annotated flyer of Ovahness 10, while the other iPad showcased my video that incorporated footage from past events and oral history testimonies. The digital version of the Ovahness 10 flyer was an exciting moment for the many ballroom individuals attending the event meant to pay homage to both the organization’s support of their community and their role in shaping the organization. The physical, analog material also generated enthusiasm among ballroom individuals and other attendants about the personal growth of ballroom individuals who have supported REACH LA for over a decade.

Concurrent with the planning of World AIDS Day, the Legendary Sean/Milan Garcon, my supervisor at REACH LA, entrusted me with the organization’s social media platforms and introduced me to his own ballroom children. As REACH LA’s social media manager, I have used archival materials to promote more events, mostly the balls themselves. For Ovahness 11, December 17th, 2016, I created a social media campaign entitled “10 Days, 10 Balls: Countdown to the Ovahness 11 Crown.” This event, indeed, involved 10 balls in succession. For Ovahness 12, December 2nd, 2017, I constructed the “12 Days of Ovahness” campaign, based on the twelve days of Christmas.

The hosts for Ovahness 11 and Ovahness 12 are two ballroom legacies, Legendary Mother Gia Mizrahi and Legendary Father Jamari Blahnik, respectively, who have supported REACH LA since the first ball. Using my knowledge of the Ovahness Ball archival materials, I posted both media clips of their individual participation at REACH LA’s previous Ovahness Balls and accompanying captions that highlighted their artistry and growth as performers. For example, during the 10th Day of Jamari’s Ovahness media campaign, I compiled 10 clips of Jamari doing elaborate hand performance and posted the caption “10 Hands a Swingin."[4]

As I created each social media campaign, I consulted each Ovahness host about which photos or materials they would like posted. Through these conversations, they shared memories of each ball. Gia Mizrahi told me about how she can chart her process of transitioning into a trans woman through each Ovahness Ball. Jamari Blahnik shared why he switched from various houses and his experiences as a father for the House of Blahnik. These social media campaigns have operated as opportunities for me to build trust and friendship with key people in ballroom who have been long supporters of REACH LA.

Through these stories, I have found the courage and opportunities to integrate into the House and Ballroom scene, but not as the daughter I once dreamt of being. Walking the runway and immersing myself gay nightlife is not for me, though I did try. Back in November 2016, I even spontaneously walked a mini ball. Whereas I once planned to become “Octavia’s Butler” by walking Virgin Runway at various mini balls, replete with the Legendary Sean Milan Garcon tips on how to walk in heels and maintain stage presence, it turns out that Octavia’s Butler is ambivalent about going to sleep at 1am, which is the time most balls start. Rather, Octavia’s is all about handling the administrative tasks such as collecting w9s and making rehearsal schedule that ballroom artists loathe. In a shocking turn of events, Octavia’s Butler is more of a radical bureaucrat than nightlife performer!

Working with REACH LA for 2 years illustrates the power of community-based learning in furthering students’ processes of self-making and becoming. My time at REACH LA taught me to not only suspend presumptions about archives, but also myself. Now, I am taking the lessons from REACH LA to my new post-baccalaureate fellowship at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Through LACMA's 2-year Emerging Arts Professional Fellowship, I am working with the Director, Curatorial, Education, and Art Handling Departments on arts equity projects. My primary goals in the fellowship are identifying ways to both publicly showcase the intellectual and artistic production of queer of color subcultures (including house/ballroom) and increase sustainable job opportunities for low-income LGBTQ people of color at LACMA and in Los Angeles' creative economy. 

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