When the House of Jourdan's gala fundraiser showed up on the 6 o'clock news seven years ago, anchormen smirked at footage of strutting drag...
NEWARK, N.J. — When the House of Jourdan’s gala fundraiser showed up on the 6 o’clock news seven years ago, anchormen smirked at footage of strutting drag queens and gay men “voguing,” a dance popularized by Madonna.
There were voter-registration tables and an array of HIV-prevention information at the ball. But the cameras ignored those things.
“They just showed us as wild freaks dancing,” recalls Bernard McAllister, CEO of the house.
These days, the House of Jourdan and seven other gay “houses” in Newark are finally getting respect.
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The city’s gay ball subculture — in which people compete in rituals of posing and runway-walking, sometimes as the opposite gender — is earning a place for itself in civic life, with outreach efforts and charity drives.
And nowhere is that more surprising than in Newark, a city with no openly gay nightlife.
The houses, which have a combined membership of more than 100, are now touted by politicians as a significant force in the fight against AIDS and discrimination.
Mayor Cory Booker, along with Newark Councilman Ronald Rice Jr., even campaigned at Newark balls two years ago.
“I wasn’t just going to lend political support,” he says. “They’re just a lot of fun.”
Booker, who calls McAllister a “dynamic leader,” said he knows few details about the houses, which are structured to resemble a nuclear family, headed by a “father” and “mother.”
But the groups — the term “house” refers to an organization, not a physical place — have become part of his administration’s dialogue with Newark’s gay, lesbian and transgender population.
“There’s a willingness to support the community,” he says. “We want to work with them to advance social justice. There’s got be a coming together in Newark. It’s imperative.”
Having a ball
In a Newark dance studio recently, House of Jourdan members rehearsed for their annual World AIDS Day ball, which raised $2,000 for outreach programs and drew more than 500 people, including gay houses from Washington, D.C., and Boston.
The theme was “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” and competitors dressed as figures from the 1920s through the 1950s.
As hosts, the House of Jourdan couldn’t perform in categories such as “runway diva supreme” and “sex siren” (“think of the burlesque of Dita Von Teese vs. Gypsy Rose Lee,” instructed a program).
But they were determined to show how their house became legendary.
They posed as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Ricky and Lucy Ricardo, with a few voguing moves thrown in. The ball scene, documented in the well-known 1990 film “Paris is Burning,” has been around in one form or another since at least the 1940s.
But it took off in New York City about 30 years ago, the invention of poor black gay men. They spun fantasy into performance art, posing as, say, heavyweight boxers or characters from the TV show “Dynasty.”
These days, they’re more likely to strut as Beyoncé. But the essence of the events is the same.
Style and confidence are prized, along with “realness.” If you are a woman posing as a man, or a man posing as a woman, you should look like one, from the way you walk to the accessories you wear.
The balls began as self-expression, a way to play with the idea of gender identity as “a mask,” says McAllister. But in later years — when house members began dying of AIDS — the personal became political.
“In the beginning they were freeing themselves,” says McAllister, who, at 40, has been walking balls since he was 17. “But what grew from that was, ‘I am who I am. I walk balls. I have power.’ We may wear wigs, but we vote.”
They are family
According to McAllister, the House of Jourdan, founded in 1985, was the first house in New Jersey to lobby in Trenton for AIDS treatment funding.
The same thing happened in other parts of the country.
“These are people who were ostracized, so when agencies weren’t helping them, they took care of their own selves,” says Michael Roberson, a house leader in New York.
“You’ve seen an influx of ball members becoming active in prevention work, in testing, STD screening.”
Although Newark house members, some of whom are straight, also work for a variety of causes — they hold coat drives, walk for breast cancer, feed the homeless — a big part of their outreach efforts is to help young gays and lesbians in Newark.
They meet with parents of gay teens to foster understanding. And when kids get cast out, they help them find a place to stay.
“They have been very successful,” says Karen Thompson, CEO of the state-funded Urban Care agency in East Orange, N.J., an intervention program for Essex County teens. “They play a major role in housing gay homeless kids and helping them in other ways.”
There are strict rules for students who join a house. They must remain alcohol- and drug-free, get a job or attend school. (Older members are prohibited from having sexual relationships with minors and strongly discouraged from dating each other).
At the House of Evisu, high-school students show report cards to the house “mother” and “father.”
Kent Evisu, the father, considers himself a role model, he says.
“Most of them don’t have any,” said Evisu, who works at a conservative finance company in Manhattan and didn’t want to give his real name.
Dahkil North, an 18-year-old senior at Malcolm X Shabazz High School, has supportive parents, but at the House of Jourdan, he’s found guidance he could get nowhere else.
“It’s cool to have someone to talk to,” he says. “It’s good to have a gay parent, whose been through it all.”