I stumbled onto Kia LaBeija when my interest in Voguing started making me want to break my neck trying death drops in my living room (true (sad) story).
It took me through a series of videos on YouTube consisting of “Best Ofs” and “Most Memorable Battles” (my favorite channel is called “Dramatics” and if you don’t know it, here is the link). One video in particular caught my attention: it was the music video of “Dove” – a song by Pillar Point, in which a girl is seen voguing through the streets of Bogotá, Colombia.
You can watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BU6dAAfg-qk O
Those beautiful flowing movements made me wonder who that girl was (and why I couldn’t be her). She was no less than one of the members of House of LaBeija, founded in 1971 by Pepper LaBeija (hence the name) and one of the most notable ones in the mainstream culture thanks to cult documentary Paris is Burning. These Houses were a magnet for black and latino queer youths during the 70s and 80s and soon became a crucial and essential space where to feel safe, accepted and part of a family they couldn’t always look up to. If one is familiar with the ball culture, they’ll probably know there’s a reason why Voguing balls consist of “battles”. Voguing wasn’t just a dance style: it was a way of channeling one’s own life story into a perfectly engrafted set of moves. The goal? Feel part of a community while society forced you to the outskirts for being queer, take their broken heart and turn it into art (shoutout to Meryl and Carrie) and, of course, snatch them trophies! If you still find it hard to picture what all this must have felt like, imagine a shooting between two rival gangs in Harlem with no guns and a lot of shade. It was only afterwards, during the 90s, that it became a widespread social phenomenon, when Madonna appropriated it (yas gurl, ya heard me!) and made it mainstream (*sips tea*).
This same period, however, coincided with the first cases and consequent spread of AIDS – the disease which not only killed countless of men and women, but also muffled and cast a deadly shadow on that same spirit of lightness and free love just recently obtained by the gay community.
Kia LaBeija was born HIV+ to an undetected positive mother at the age of 14. Since then, she committed her life to raise awareness on HIV and especially HIV+ newborns – so much so, that her first public outing about her status took place in middle school when she was in 7th grade! Her dancing, her art, her activism… it all became a means to cast a new light on living life with the disease, a result which could have never taken place if she hadn’t been part of “House of LaBeija”, where she met other young positive people leading a beautiful and creative life.
This attitude became the core message of #GenAIDS – the artists’ collective she cofounded to empower and allow young positive men and women to come together, support each other and let them be their fantastic selves in a safe environment.
Kia Labeija is the recipient of the 9th annual Visual AIDS Vanguard Awards – an arts organization which awards those individuals who help enhance and strengthen the LGBT community, while keeping on bringing forward the fight against AIDS (Here pictured: In My Room, 2014)
Through #GenAIDS, art and performance, Miss Benbow (Kia’s birth name) reversed and used the negative mark of AIDS as a propeller to celebrate life to the fullest. That’s a change in attitude that has to take place not only in the affected, but in all of us too. It’s sad and troubling that in 2017 people equal HIV to AIDS, or state that they’d never be in a relationship with an HIV+ person because they’ll get it too. They’re called serodiscordant couples, bitch, look it up!
Some of us tend to think of a life with HIV as problematic and full of sacrifices, but only because a series of social and historical contingencies have taught us so and it’s time to end it. Get to know someone who lives with the disease and it will tell you the same: it’s just another part of their life – a means through which feelings about sexuality, about being human are channeled in a way we cannot understand from the outside.
Kia Labeija represents a whole generation of young queer people who refuse to let HIV define them: her activism is eager and her positive approach to life is the primary fight against the social stigma. Shaking off their shoulders the social burden of HIV, she’ll stand tall and be fierce, celebrate life and simply be her multifaceted extraordinary self.