Queens is often called the “World’s Borough.” It truly is one of the most culturally diverse urban areas of the world and Jackson Heights may very well be its heart.
Step off the Roosevelt Avenue subway stop and you will immediately be greeted by taco stalls, ethnic grocery stores, a smattering of Tibetan/Himalayan/Asian food joints, and a whole host of Latino eateries catering to a diverse mix of people from all across South America. This stretch of Roosevelt Avenue is also home to a thriving and vibrant Latino LGBT community.
Every aspect of their identity has been politicized.
The recent political climate in the U.S. and events like the one in Orlando has shoved some of the issues of the LGBT community into our national conversation. This is especially true for the transgender community – bathroom laws, acceptance in military, gender identity – you name it… every aspect of their identity has been politicized. A recent Huffington Post article highlights over 100 Anti LGBT bills pending at the state level.
All this media attention has also had some positive effect. More people are talking about LGBT issues today than perhaps ever before. Shows like Amazon’s excellent Transparent would have been unthinkable a few years ago. It has also made folks like me, who has had very little to no interaction with the transgender community, more curious about learning about their struggles. A recent, most excellent, heart wrenching and powerful episode of HBO’s Vice -“Trans Youth,” really opened my eyes to the issue of Transgender rights and their struggles. I strongly urge anyone interested to watch this episode where Vice correspondent Gianna Toboni provides an intimate look into their lives.
So, needless to say, when Colombian photographer Joana Toro offered up a photography experience through Loculars that took us deep into the Latino LGBT nightlife in Queens, I signed up for it. Joana has been documenting the vibrant queer community for years, and over time she has cultivated personal friendships with many of its members. New York Times published a photo essay of hers in their Lens section that can be found here.
Being straight and having never been to a gay bar, let alone a gay night club, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Frankly, I was a little nervous about the whole thing. The evening started with three of us having a late but sumptuous dinner of steamed Momos and Thenthuk at a Tibetan restaurant before meeting up with Joana. After dinner, Sandy, Susan and I met up with Joana who took us on a mini walk of Roosevelt Avenue. It was getting close to midnight on a Sunday night and the vibe and energy on this stretch of Roosevelt Avenue was just starting to pick up. Music streamed out of the many bars and clubs that dot this diverse neighborhood. People lined up for late night tacos. The occasional drunk stumbled by. The corner grocery store was still serving customers even though it was past midnight. We passed a pair of dressed up trans women ready to start the nights festivities while the girl on the corner was still working the streets.
To get into the spirit of the evening, we stopped at a bar for a drink and listened to a Colombian Jazz band play some amazing music. We were told by Joana, that we had a surprise coming. The club had a Miss Colombia Beauty Contest planned for the night and we were in for a treat. As we headed into the nightclub, I realized how underdressed I was – jeans, sneakers and a casual shirt with a big camera hanging around my neck.
Every one had their sexy on
Inside, it was a different world. The Latin dance music was blistering loud. Strobes flashed and the smoke machine created shadows that danced on their own. Bare chested bartenders served Corona Extra in buckets with their hair gelled to an almost ‘Chihuly Glass’ perfection. Every one had their sexy on. As the clock pushed closer to 1 a.m. the scene picked up with a few people taking to the dance floor with their moves, some couples more intimate than others. Some of the clientele gave us curious amused looks. I realized all three of us were a minority here.
A little past one in the morning, I suddenly noticed heads turning towards the entrance of the club. The queens had started to make their way into the club. It was a sight like none I had experienced before. Surreal.
The parade of beauty contestants filed in and took their time with the finishing touches. Lipstick applied to the light of a mobile phone while others crowded (or hogged) the bathrooms. I never thought that the party would just be starting up if I showed up at 1 o’clock in the morning, on a Sunday night.
This Miss Colombia Beauty Contest is like no other beauty contest in the world
The contest kicked off with all the contestants coming forward, gleaming from head to toe in sparkling, skin-tight gowns, decked in stiletto heels so tall Sandy would get a nosebleed, and with make up and hair (or wigs) so remarkable for their perfection. Each contestant wore a sash with the name of city in Colombia. This Miss Colombia Beauty Contest is like no other beauty contest in the world. The winner isn’t picked based on popular vote, or on some criteria of beauty. No, this contest’s winner is decided differently. The emcee for the night introduced the contest and started the elimination round quickly by drawing a ping pong ball out of a bag bearing the name of a city in Colombia that matched a name on a sash. The poor soul who’s city/sash was drawn came forward, the emcee said words about the contestant in Spanish and whipped the ping pong ball across the floor with a flourish. Contestant eliminated.
Soon, the floor was strewn with dollar bills all around. And all along her voice soared
A few ping pong ball eliminations later, there was a break for a solo singing performance by a Diva. The lights went down and the spotlight honed in on her. She was pitch perfect, belting out what I can only assume were ballads of heartbreak in Spanish. The power of her performance and the raw emotion she wore on her face gave me goosebumps. She might as well be a Broadway star. The crowd was awestruck and started showering her with money. Soon, the floor was strewn with dollar bills all around. And all along her voice soared (don’t tell anyone that she was lip syncing).
At this moment, I realized how much members of this community support each other. And I realized that they have to. They don’t have a choice. Everyone rooted for every contestant. There was genuine love and support. I told one of the contestants that she looked beautiful. Her eyes lit up as she thanked me profusely and gave me a hug and posed for pictures. Looking at the faces of the contestants and the divas made me wonder, what kind of life are they hiding behind that perfect makeup? What kind of struggles do they go through every day?
In here love trumps hate.
Outside these walls, they may be a fringe minority – judged and misunderstood. A pawn in some politicians gender identity games. A subject of bathroom politics. But inside these walls, it is their Happy Place. Safe Place. They can be their own. Live their fantasies. Support each other. Love each other. In here love trumps hate.
It was late – almost 3 a.m. Decision time was near. Stay for round two of the beauty contest, or head home for a few hours of sleep before the reality of showing up at work was near. The party supposedly goes on till 5-6am even on a Sunday night. Energized, excited and smiling we headed home, buzzing about this new world that Joana introduced to us. Hello hangover.
This blog post first appeared in The Light Diaries