One beautiful thing about June — aka national Pride Month — is that every piece of the metaphorical rainbow gets to take something they love about their community and essentially create their own, without sacrificing the ideal of inclusion for all. That said, Pride mentality is a fact of life all year round for LGBTQ people, but festivities in major cities have seen a rise in niche offshoots celebrating the diverse facets of the communities queer residents belong to.
Brooklyn Pride, happening this weekend, brings only what Brooklyn can, and one of the chief events kicking things off will be the first-ever Brooklyn Ball. Modeled after and inspired by attending last year's annual Life Ball HIV/AIDS benefit in Vienna, Brooklyn-based visual artist and drag performer Untitled Queen created the Brooklyn Ball to give back in a different way.
Callen-Lorde, New York City's leading community health center for the LGBTQ population, and the nation's largest healthcare provider for transgender, nonbinary and HIV-positive people, recently announced plans to expand its services to a Brooklyn site by 2019, having historically served people from their Bronx and Chelsea locations for the past 30 years.
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It was here that Untitled saw a window of opportunity to give back to a community and resource who supported them personally, professionally, and artistically. Brooklyn, after all, is home for Untitled: "I wanted to bring it to this hometown, and really support a local organization and celebrate the people that are in it," Untitled says. "So it's like not only is this event for Callen-Lorde, but it's also to celebrate all these amazing cultural leaders in our community, especially people of color."
The theme for this year's event, presented by Untitled, was inspired by the Strawberry Social scenes promoting togetherness and unexpected community in the iconic cult-classic To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. So, that means red, pink, fruit, strawberry, whatever feels appropriately on theme to achieve one's desired level of queer glam.
To keep things accessible, though, The Brooklyn Ball will be held in the style of swanky gala like the aforementioned Life Ball, but there's room at this table for all who want in on the fun. Tickets are $25 at the community level (and go up from there). Details and ticket info can be found at the bottom, but meantime, read on as Untitled Queen chats with PAPER about accessibility, standing part from rainbow capitalism, and creating the community you seek.
Did you come up with the idea to get involved with Callen-Lorde, were you approached, or did you create this event? How did that all come about?
I created it. It was inspired by me attending the Life Ball last year.
In Vienna! That must've been fun.
Yeah, so I was brought to that event last year, and I just remembered... like wow, I loved how kind of over the top and really celebratory and joyous it was. And I was like how can I bring a piece of this, but make it Brooklyn style, right where we are. And that's when I kind of had like the seed of the idea. When I came back, reality was this happened in light of the Trump administration and the election fallout. To resist, queer communities were creating a lot of grassroots parties, and doing a lot of charity events. A lot of my friends were involved, so I thought, what can I do to have an event that might be for Brooklyn Pride, about Brooklyn nightlife, and then choose a Brooklyn charity? That's kind of how it worked out.
So I also know that you've worked with Sasha Velour on her Nightgowns show, which is a Brooklyn staple. So this isn't totally unfamiliar territory to you and plus, you've been a performer for so long. This event seemed like a natural next fit for you.
Yes. I've been doing drag in New York City for about six years, and Brooklyn has always been the place where, now I call home, and this particular community is really important to me and I've put a lot into it, because it's given me so much. So I knew when I thought about the Brooklyn Ball, that I wanted to bring it to this hometown, and really support a local organization and celebrate the people that are in it. So it's like not only is this event for Callen-Lorde, but it's also to celebrate all these amazing cultural leaders in our community, especially people of color.
Yeah! I wanted to ask you more about that: people of color make up over half of the population Callen-Lorde serves. It's not often that we hear about benefits of this caliber created specifically to benefit people of color. Why do you think something like this is particularly important in this climate now more than ever?
I mean, it's definitely important all the time.
Yes, you'd be correct. That's tea.
That's the tea! I think now, I feel like people are more aware of actually saying it and trying to... like you know, as a person of color myself, I think our visibility and my visibility, and using that as a catalyst for change in our communities, something so many people that have done before us, is my responsibility. It's something I need to be doing, and like it's become more and more apparent that giving back, and this being a part of my regular work, as not only as an artist and as a drag queen, is really important.
This gala was inspired by the Life Ball, yes. And I've been fortunate enough to be part of other galas. But for this one, the most important thing to me was that it looks like the community it benefits. So often, I've gone to galas where the people that they benefit couldn't even possibly afford to go.
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That's so real. How did you address that via the Brooklyn Ball?
I've often been a guest, or a performer at basically all white galas, where people have the money, and then you're kinda just like... brought in to entertain them or work for them. So for this one, since it was just me running it, I kind of got to make my own rules. So, I made the majority of the tickets community-level price, at $25. I wanted to ensure that the people of this community are not only the ones being celebrated, but they're actually the people showing up.
I was going to ask you about that! I noticed that the tickets were set at different levels, and I was moved, because it did seem like a gesture for the community. So often we'll hear about these galas or balls for a presumably great cause, but they're totally inaccessible to ordinary people who don't have six-figure salaries.
Well, me included! Like, if I wasn't performing I wouldn't have been able to go to many of these events. Corporate, white America is running a lot of these things and that's who's showing up. And of course when they do these events, it doesn't mean they're not being very charitable or philanthropic, but you rarely see what it's actually for. It's not actually present in front of you. For the Brooklyn Ball, more than half the tickets are at the community level.
So it's Pride Month. People are generally becoming more aware of the ideas behind rainbow capitalism: everything is branding itself as Pride for a month to cash in. In the deluge of all these sorts of things happening, what else about the Brooklyn Ball do you feel like makes this stand apart from the pack?
This event is completely free of any large organization sponsorship, money sponsorship. But I mean, honestly this has been run by and for people that are living out loud all year long. That are just living their lives. Like, all my stars, all my hosts are people that are... they're my favorites, they're people working the Brooklyn nightlife, I tried to pick people to get involved from different cultural sectors. Gabe Gonzalez works for Mic, does amazing comedy and activism, and works with Remezcla covering Puerto Rican issues. Fran Tirado is involved and is an amazing queer advocate all year long in his work and public life. And so, yeah, I mean basically my event is people, who, are doing it all the time, all year-round activism, not just once a month when they kind of feel like putting on a flag and walking around.
How was the theme of To Wong Foo decided on, and what does carrying out this theme mean to you as an artist?
It's just one of my absolute favorite films, personally. Furthermore, it's all tied to my experiences with my friends and my family and this community. This event is also like a power mixer; where people who are amazing are all gathered in one place. To Wong Foo spoke to me because there's the moment where they're planning the town's Strawberry Social, and they kind of all come to this realization that the community is wherever they want to build it. Brooklyn is that for me. I entered drag not really knowing anyone in the scene, and kind of falling into it. And now, it's everything to me. So for the theme to be reds and fruits, especially strawberry decor, I thought it would be the most sensational, but easy to understand style guide. You can do a little bit, or you can do the most, and it's all welcome.
What do you think Callen-Lorde's expansion to Brooklyn kind of means for the community at large, in addition to greater accessibility for those needing services?
Well, it's so huge because they already have amazing programs, and most people know that. So when I was guilt-shaming people to come to the Ball, they really had no excuse. It was like it's for Callen-Lorde! Before this idea got traction, I was thinking about charity thing that I could do. A friend of mine encouraged me to donate to their HOTT program, which is overall a health outreach effort for trans teens. I held an art auction from my apartment, where I sold any artwork I had and gave it to them. That's how I ended up learning about the Brooklyn expansion. Callen-Lorde hadn't been able to take on new ongoing clientele for years because they didn't have the capacity. So this add-on is huge, it makes it local for Brooklynites, too, which is a good percentage of their patients.
For some people, it's also like an issue of safety too. Being visible and out, it's not always the safest experience, walking around the Bronx to Callen-Lorde, trying to get health services.
No, of course, of course. And I think that, for anybody and especially, our most at-risk community which is trans people, that like, any kind of local, large healthcare being this, affordable and accessible, is life-changing, life-saving. I've gotten so many messages from people who knew I was doing this that were like, "Callen-Lorde saved my life five years ago, like yes, thank goodness." This particular location is going to revolutionize like a lot of people's lives.
For those who are not able to make it to the Ball... how best can they support this cause, or just Callen-Lorde in general, if they want to support?
If they'd like to support, we're going to be creating a limited-edition T-shirt, which are being printed by a friend of mine, to also help benefit the expansion. Follow me on socials for updates on that. Or they can also just donate directly to Callen-Lorde. Also, the after-party for the Ball is Horrorchata's Be Cute, which will be in the same space as the Ball. So like, scary milk [laughs], but the most fun, and the friendliest party.
For more, follow Untitled Queen on Instagram; and grab your tickets to the Brooklyn Ball, here. The Brooklyn Ball begins at 8 pm on Saturday, June 9, at Littlefield, located at 635 Sackett Street in Brooklyn.
Photography: Nick Alciati