Aisha Diori recalls a time when her child was brutally attacked, beaten over a head with a bottle and sent to the hospital. She’s had to intervene when her children were in despair or were victims of hate-crimes because of their sexual orientation. But, Diori has stayed with her children on their path to renewal.
Diori is not biologically related to those she impacts—yet they are still her adoptive children. Mothers like Diori have invested in selfless work among LGBT youth—evoking a sense of hope when the danger of futility looms on the periphery.
These mothers and their children, are more affectionately deemed, “house mothers” and “the children.” At their core, house mothers establish community, instill knowledge, shed tears, evoke laughter and at times go into their own pockets to help out those who are less fortunate. Perhaps such an "eleganza" spectacle permeated your media devices with Vogue Evolution on MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew? If not, perhaps you were caught up in the rapture with the gritty, Evelyn “Champagne” King, 80s-funk-rhythm-and-blues-laden, Paris is Burning? Frank Simon’s,The Queen? These instances took the “ballroom scene” from subculture to cultural phenomena—depicting the ills of societal discrimination and socioeconomic tensions for Black and Latino LGBTQ communities.
The balls these films showcase are a main component of the ballroom scene, and usually consist of performers who are larger than life, who boast great costumes and enter into a series of choreographed hand and body gesticulations, namely “vogueing,” which captivate audiences in competitive categories lasting for hours—and then some. The vast vernacular spans: realness, butch, queen, femme, model effect, “that was ev-erything” and “living for the kids.” But, these high-powered walks-offs are more than invoking Grace Jones or iconic, haute fashion—it is a family.
And, far beyond the flamboyancy, hand-made costumes and gender non-confirming categories lies a deep connection. These families are more commonly called "houses." And at the helm of the house, there is the mother of the house, acting as mentor, confidante and refuge to a host of LGBT youth, which Diori is proudly “all wrapped in.”
"I didn't seek out motherhood it found me," she offers. "The ballroom scene offered me an outlet to share the love I did not feel from my biological mother with my House and gay kids. The scene shatters the norms of family in many ways because it proves that blood is not thicker than water. It taught me that family support can come in different ways, from different people and through different mechanisms. I'm still evolving in my motherhood role because I am still learning the right navigation techniques— and I realize (my children's) failures are not mine and their successes are not mine. I am just here to give them the right resources to help them facilitate healthy and productive choices."
The intrigue of the effervescent energy of the ballroom scene made a lasting impact on Diori while she was studying fashion. When she finally met Arbert Santana, who was the mother of Latex, he would forever change her life when he asked her to become his successor. The House of Latex began through New York’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), an organization devoted to outreach prevention and advocacy for HIV/AIDS. Thus, “Serving the runway” in the name of safer sex became Diori's mantra as she worked diligently as an outreach prevention worker before continuing her work with LGBT youth at the Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI) in New York City. Diori credits her own house mother, Cheyenne Francis, for helping to shape her decisions. The old high school friends have a sealed bond.
“I love Aisha because she gives so much to the community; she’s resilient and lifts people up,” says an emotional Francis.
However, in Diori's role as house mother, she has a challenging 24-hour work day like any other mother. “You hear so much and hold so much in your heart,” she admits. With a significant amount of house members being homeless or impoverished—she’s had to provide recourse and shelter without complaining. After six years in the House of Latex, she stepped away to pursue other goals, but her unrelenting quest to create change would eventually return her to prevention outreach, where she realized a greater purpose in life—to be a solution for others.
Her sensitivity to youth outreach initiated the creation of the House of Iman in 2007 alongside Nicole Powell and the founding of the “Ki-Ki House” scene as an intervention measure for LGBT youth, ages 12 through 24. More importantly, the Ki-Ki scene became a safe space for LGBT youth to evade societal discrimination and receive holistic, sex education. Foster care, homeless, college and high-school youth redefine motherhood and family through the house structure.
Symba, who affectionately refers to Diori as his godmother, lost his own mother to a terminal illness in 2006. Then, Symba turned to Diori for guidance. Without hesitation, she accepted Symba into her own life and has mentored him for over ten years. “She became my house mother, but she also became my mentor.”
The ten-year relationship between the two has been a catalyst for Symba to pave the road forward for those who will come after him. By creating a make-shift shelter in his home, he began to offer his own home to homeless youth and impoverished youth. With his limited means he made a limitless impact, through the effect of Aisha’s mentorship.
Youth in the LGBT community face a vast array of verbal and physical discrimination. Furthermore, transgender youth and communities of color face discrimination and violence at alarmingly higher rates. In 2010, The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reports that LGBT people of color were among 70 percent of the murders. The recent murder of transgender advocate, Brandy Martell in Oakland, the May 2012 sentencing of Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald and the expulsion of Darnell “Dynasty” Young in Indianapolis highlight the devastating reality. Overall, the LGBT youth communities feel unsafe in society and in their own schools. Aisha’s committed to changing that.
While ballroom culture may have a fringe following—the endless support by house mothers for youth communities of color has a far-reaching impact. In recognition of Mother’s Day, their lead and example does not go unnoticed. Their resilience is tremendous. Their selflessness is invaluable.
Marcus Brock is a Media Field Strategist at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). Follow him on Twitter @broccolimarcus