Pop Culture, Queer History & Community Storytelling Through a Black Latinx Queer Lens
people living AIDS formed coalitions for each other years before then US present ronald reagan publicly acknowledged AIDS. people living with AIDS mobilized to feed, house, nurse, care and fight for themselves and each other. they became their own researchers, lobbyists and drug smugglers. and this was done before the advent of the internet and social media. people with living AIDS created the template of how to survive a plague as governments willfully fail us.
one of the people who was in the thick of AIDS advocacy from the mid-1980’s until his death in 1990, was queer activist, author and queer historian, vito russo.
vito’s activism was threaded throughout his entire existence. always an out and proud gay man, vito’s activism began immediately after the stonewall riots when he joined the then emerging gay activists alliance. he would later independently organize camp-film festivals examining the representation of gay and lesbians in film. his 1981 book “the celluloid closet” was a culmination of this work.
as one of the first out-gay men to create and host a cable access show in 1983, vito’s commitment to challenging the lgbtq representation in medio led his to co-found GLAAD.
after being diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, vito became an active member of ACT-UP, one of the most influential and effective organizing groups in history. during a 1988 an ACT-UP demonstration in front of the new york state capitol in albany, vito delivered a passionate speech entitled “why we fight” (full speech) that till this day still resonates. especially now as we all are now surviving a plague.
“why we fight” is a reminder of who we are and all the power we posses as people. it is also a call to action to continue to organize and survive with each other – every step of the way. it is also a promise of hope that this plague will end and we will win.
in 1990, madonna was arguably the most popular and consistent pop artist on the planet. at the time, she had already sold millions upon millions of records and amassed an astounding 17 consecutive top 10 singles. sixteen of the singles reached top 5 including 7 number ones on the billboard hot 100. madonna was a decade into her recording career and with the release of a surprise single, she was about to enter another imperial phase of her career.
madonna was still actively promoting her 1989 album “like a prayer” in the spring of 1990. in fact, the album’s fifth and final single, “keep it together” was still in the top 20 of the hot 100 after peaking at #10 in march of 1990. but a chance meeting with luis and jose xtravaganza of the legendary house of xtravaganza would inspire the creation of a song that became one the biggest culture moments of 1990.
released on march 27, 1990, “vogue” quickly became the most successful single of madonna’s career selling 6 million copies worldwide and reaching #1 in over 30 countries, including topping the us hit 100 in may of 1990. jose and luis not only served as lead choreographers, they were prominently featured in the “vogue” music video. it was through madonna’s and producer shep pettibone’s deep house track that the two xtravaganzas provided a glimpse of black and latinx ballroom culture in the accompanying music video that mainstream america had not yet seen.
since it’s release, the black queer and trans created art form of voguing has re-emerged in the mainstream via shows like “rupaul’s drag race,” the vice docu-series “my house” and most notably, the ever popular and critically acclaimed fx show, “pose.” in fact, the 1990 release and cultural impact of madonna’s “vogue” was a story arc across several episodes of the second season of “pose.”
so here we are 30 years after the release of one of pop music’s most commercially and culturally successful songs by one of pop’s most polarizing figures. i can attest to all of this because i was around to witness most of it. i have a clear memory of watching the teasers for “vogue’s” world premiere on mtv. i remember being in awe by the video’s imagery and wondering to myself, “is that a titty?”. i knew i was watching something so queer at a time when all things gay were associated to deviancy, aids and death. i also remember learning the choreography and showing it off to my aunt who quickly responded, “don’t you think those moves are kinda gay?” i didn’t respond but internally i was like, “bitch, duh!”
so in celebration of the “vogue’s” 30th anniversary, i wanted to ask a few friends around my grown and sexy age what they remember about the song. i asked my good friend, fellow queer historian and longtime madonna fan, juan, peter, who has long history in the philadelphia ballroom including being a member of the house of africa and my former mentor and former father of the house of ferraramo, kwame to share their memories of “vogue.”
louie: do you remember when you first heard “vogue”?
JUAN: i was in 5th or 6th grade when i first heard madonna’s vogue. that song was everywhere but it never really appealed to me. it didn’t really hit me till i was 14 and went to my first gay club, arena in hollywood, ca. the “older guys” i met through that scene – about 18-20 years old but at the time they seemed very adult – showed my friends and i what vogue was. i never really connected to the song till i saw live vogueing at arena. around that age, i also saw the “blonde ambition” tour broadcast on hbo, that whole thing became my obsession and my entry into queer culture. later in high school, a counselor in my lgbt support group showed us “paris is burning” and everything felt complete. being a madonna fan back then, when aids was still at the forefront of the lgbt community, being a madonna fan was code. now that i think about it, the song became a hit at the time that i came out and went to my first gay club.
KWAME: i think it was the world premiere of the video on mtv. if i had heard it before it wasn’t as exciting as waiting to see the visual.
louie: what were your initial thoughts about the song? about the video?
PETER: my initial thoughts about “vogue” when i first heard it, i was in delaware. i was hyped! i like “oh look, its gonna be on tv and there’s gonna be a video.” i was hype because voguing was coming out to the mainstream.
JUAN: i didn’t really care for the song. i still don’t. for some reason, i’ve always known all the lyrics so it definitely made an impression. the video was cool because her dancers were hot, and “fancy,” they were being sexualized in a way that was empowering to their nuanced body language. i would argue that without that specific group of dancers, that era in her career wouldn’t have been as exciting. the mtv awards performance where she lip-synced in marie antoinette drag was way more exciting than the video. when i hear the song, it just doesn’t process or register the way vogue and ball culture does. i was a madonna fanatic for decades, and in some ways still am, but that song isn’t my favorite. it does carry strong memories of coming out to my friends and a type of nostalgic, youthful freedom and for that i appreciate it. i remember when the club kids were on geraldo and they played vogue during an intro and they all gave geraldo shit, like, “we don’t listen to that!” – that’s how i feel about it now.
louie: were you aware of voguing before the song’s release? what was your entry into the world of voguing?
PETER: oh yes, i was well aware of the whole ballroom scene and vogueing long before madonna. and i was already in philadelphia way before that song.
JUAN: my entry to vogue was simultaneous to the first time i went to gay club and i met trans sex workers, and gays in the party scene doing this thing from new york. i remember all the queens talking about new york, looking to new york, walking runways on dancefloors and trying to vogue. the origins of vogue were unknown till a few years later when i was in high school. the song was also powerful in how it gave the working class access to “feel their fantasy.”
KWAME: yes, but I never walked before the song was released. i started walking (the category) later that year.
louie: how would you describe the impact of the song in 1990?
PETER: i think the impact was a lot for mainstream. because mainstream got to see what ballroom and voguing was because it had already existed for decades and it was interesting to see mainstream try to do it. really, really interesting.
KWAME: it (partnered with the release of “paris is burning”) brought visibility to the ballroom scene, and I think it helped create a dialogue that brought ballroom across the US in a big way. it definitely influenced choreography for a few years. although other artists (most notably, Jody Watley) had featured vogueing in some visual format before madonna, “vogue” became the anthem that made the dance a staple movement.
louie: how would you describe the song’s impact over the last 30 years?
JUAN: now we have the language to say she culturally appropriated an entire subculture (her career relied on it), we can say she exploited a whole community. that statement would not be wrong; but with vogue, she also highlighted a space and language that was entirely invisible and needed a lift. people were dying of aids, and tons of scared queer kids found joy in this song. in some ways it was a gift. rupaul’s “supermodel” (1992) could not have existed without vogue. deee-lite before that. underground club culture and dance music got a hand from this awkward single.
KWAME: for me, the power of the song waned as the visibility true ball culture rose. it’s a cute song about a dance, kinda like “the twist”. but i feel the video is ICONIC, and would even say her “live” performances (MTV awards; blond ambition tour) of the song are probably still entertaining. let me see… it’s one of those culture phenom moments, which is to be expected for madonna. and “vogue” is probably one of her three career defining songs!
PETER: i think after 30 years, madonna’s vogue has a small impact because ballroom has changed in the past 30 years, it has evolved. and it’s gone to different places with different songs from around the world, but it has a small part of the history.
there is no debating that “vogue” was a pop-culture moment in 1990 and like most things that are consumed by the american populous, the moment that madonna’s vogue ushered in didn’t last. however, the art form continued to thrive in the ballroom scene. so as we remember the impact of “vogue”, we must honor and raise up the black and brown queer and trans people from the new york ballroom scene who carried the beautiful art of vogueing before, during and after madonna’s cultural moment in 1990.
join us tomorrow night at 9pm EST as louie & Abdul-Aliy Muhammad talk aids history, personal rituals and how we are surviving a plague…again.
Just to be clear:
The rapid response to COVID-19, the sympathetic responses, the rush for a vaccine and scientific sharing that is unprecedented. Owes its weight to the brilliance and tragedy of those who died from AIDS.
I have always tried to inform people what it life was like behind bars as a transgender latina and as an hiv positive trans latina. people think that we are supported and we are not. we have to survive on our own in there just like we have to when we are on the outside. It was hard to get medications and hormones. Prison staff treat trans women like shit. Other people like inmates see that and thinks it’s ok to treat you like shit too. So you have to fight for everything.
I am blessed because my family has always accepted me. My mother and my brothers and sisters have always supported me. This is the kind of love that I want everyone to know because it kept me alive. Family is important.
When I was released around 2004, I started working with Galaei, (an hiv org in philly), and doing condom outreach. I was able to help make difference because Trans women still need support around HIV. Trans women in prison still need us to advocate for them. We need to stand up for them. Trust me, I know.”
June Martinez, she/her
Interviewed & Photographed by: louie a. ortiz-fonseca
As history has shown as, stigma and misinformation always spreads faster.
From phrases about COVID-19 such as “Chinese virus” and “Kung-Flu” to photos masked Disney Princess Mulan and of charts that calculate “cough counts”, COVID-19 is another public health epidemic that exposes the failures of our current systems and institutions. It is also yet another reminder of how the real time response to this epidemic mirrors their not only the government’s response to the AIDS epidemic of the early 1980’s but how media literally blamed the AIDS epidemic on gay men by calling it “the gay plague.” It was community activism and organizing that cut through that hate and stigma to provide life savings support. And in 2020, as stigma around COVID-19 reaches its fever pitch, folks on the ground are continuing to fight back.
Issues related to ending homelessness, paid leave, and universal healthcare are those that grassroots organizers, frontline staff at grocery stores, delivery drivers, health care staff, and single parents, have been calling for. These groups, made up of predominantly Black and brown people, have historically been at the forefront of demanding reductions in police presence in communities deemed as vulnerable, and lessening fees related to rent, mortgage, utilities, evictions, etc. It shouldn’t have had to take an epidemic to have once “radical” policies be considered or implemented on the local, state, and federal levels.
What’s also not new is the power of community. Due to the lack of a bold response to COVID-19, neighbors and community members are supporting each other through social and mutual aid networks. Although there may be some technical bumps in the road ahead of video calls and webinars, the power of community showing up and showing out for each other has never been greater.
My friend’s neighbor left him a note today that said “Strange times require strong communities.”
it has been almost 20 years since the death of singer and prolific songwriter, kenny greene. sadly, his death was shrouded in hiv stigma and biphobia. .
kenny greene was the dynamic mastermind behind 90’s r&b trio INTRO. born in detroit, michigan, kenny, was inspired to put a trio together after meeting two other singers while serving in the army. after being discovered by dj eddie f in 1990, INTRO began to groom their sound.
kenny wrote and composed most of their 1993 self-titled debut album. the lead single “come inside” cracked the r&b top 10 and peaked at #33 on the hot 100.
with their blend of sultry melodies, new jack swing and early neo-soul sound, INTRO became one of the hottest r&b groups of the mid 1990’s. kenny’s voice so impressed stevie wonder that kenny was given blessing by stevie himself to cover “ribbon in the sky.” mr. wonder himself even appears in the video.
kenny teamed up with dave “jam” hall to create “love no limit” from mary j. blige’s iconic debut album “what’s the 411.” kenny’s songwriting skills were so celebrated that he was awarded the 1993 ASCAP songwriter of the year.
through-out the 90’s, kenny continued to write for other artists, including 98 degrees, tyrese, will smith, and cam'ron.
in a 2001 interview with the now defunct sister2sister magazine, kenny courageously disclosed that he was bisexual and he was battling complications brought on by HIV. he shared the pressures brought on by societal expectations that he present as both heterosexual and the alpha-male. while many privately applauded him for using his story to raise awareness, many publicly condemned him.
on oct. 1, 2001, kenny greene died in NYC. he was just 32 yrs old. 9/11 attacks, kenny’s death received little media coverage. and outlets that did cover his death, framed his death around the how bisexual men or men on the “DL” were a danger to women.
kenny’s wake was arranged by close friends. his family did not attend. kenny was honored by the US army and is buried at calverton national cemetery on long island.
kenny greene is not a household name although many households are probably jammin’ to his songs. he honor his life and legacy.
last week social media was abuzz with the “reports” that corona, the beer that i drink when i have too many long islands, was experiencing a financial hit because of the onset of the covid-19 (coronavirus). i wouldn’t be surprised if there was a small segment of the US population who were afraid of drinking corona because the fear around d covid-19, however, sales for the beer brand are actually up 5%. but if sale were down, it would not the be the first time a brand suffered because their name was the same of a pandemic.
ayds, pronounced exactly like AIDS, was a popular appetite suppressant in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. unfortunately, the products name, purpose and marketing strategy proved to be their undoing as the AIDS pandemic grew.
not only was ayds and AIDS phonetically identical, they were both associated with weight loss. however, while the diet supplement was used voluntary weight loss, the massive weight loss experienced by people with living with or dying from complications of AIDS, was associated with sickness, death and quite frankly, punishment. and with hiv stigma and hysteria at its peak, marketing the diet supplement was impossible.
by 1988, 20,786 people had died of AIDS complications. With the country at large beginning to come to grips with the sobering reality of the epidemic, sales for ayds declined. the product would be entirely removed from the market by 1988.
There can be some old age ways of passing along health communication. It’s usually wrapped around fear or paranoia. Like, “Make sure you get your prueba de VIH cause you don’t know about cuando cortan el pelo o algo asi..” and stuff that’s not actually a risk. I have had to give positive results to folks in my community who are a bit older than me. It was really hard to stay present because this person was really thinking about their life in like 60 miles an hour in their head. Thinking about what they’re gonna do and you’re really there to be that emotional support but also a thought partner. You’re not trying to tell them what they should but come to their own decision.
I feel like this has made me a more strategic and intentional thinker and not so reliant on my own ideas about prevention and safety. I’ll ask people questions if they talk about others instead of themselves, or if they have ruminating thoughts then I’ll know that they might be more of an anxious/head personality. I’m into stuff like the enneagram personality system, I have a tarot deck in my coat right now. I don’t always share that kind of stuff.
I’m really into a variety of stuff like psycho-spiritual stuff to add to my toolbelt because I also find making connections to things exciting. The enneagram is based on the idea that we have three centers of intelligence and you can relate that to the tarot. Where you have the cups being emotion, the swords being intellect/logic, and wands would be instincts.
today marks the 30th anniversary of theatrical release of “house party,” one of the seminal black movies of the 1990’s.
starring hip-hop duo, kid ‘n play, tisha campbell, martin lawrence, aj johnson and the late great comedian robin harris (who died nine days after its release), “house party”centered on a high school student who hosts a house party that gets out of control while his parents are away. the movie provided a glimpse into what it was like to be a young black teenagers during the golden era of hip-hop.
produced on a budget of $2.5 million dollars, the movie was a surprise hit grossing over $26 million at the box office. originally written for will smith and dj jazzy jeff, “house party” helped to expand the reach of the already successful music career of kid ‘n play. the film also inspired both me and childhood best friend robert, to rehearse hip-hop routines we would do at north philly house parties to clear the floor. not because kid ‘n play’s characters did the same during a scene in the film but rather because co-stars tisha campbell and a.j. johnson let’s boys have it with their dance moves.
the first single to released from the movie’s soundtrack was the funky and equally poppy song, “funhouse.” the song also served as the lead single from and title of kid ‘n play’s sophomore album. produced by hurby luv bug, who also the mastermind behind some of legendary hip-hop duo salt ‘n pepa’s biggest hits, “funhouse” captured the youthful and joyful feeling of both the movie and where the hip-hop culture was in 1990.
“funhouse” reached the top of the hip-hop chart in the spring of 1990 and helped to make the host album sell over 500,000 copies – their second album to do so. unfortunately, even after becoming the first rap duo in history to have their own saturday morning cartoon, grunge music and gangsta rap began to grow in popularity and kid ‘n play’s brand of “party” hip-hop fell out of favor at radio. the duo would release just one more album in 1992 as well as star in “class act,” their last feature film.
“house party” was followed-up by several sequels but the original movie and soundtrack, even 30 years later, remain the sentimental and fan favorite.
after madonna’s 1990 hit “vogue” brought the dance art of vogueing into the mainstream consciousness for a season, vogueing returned to the underground and continued to thrive in black and latinx queer and trans ballroom communities. there were glimpses of the art form in a few music videos throughout the 90’s but they always had a kind of “oh, look me striking pose! because anyone can do it” feel to them. this is what ballroom icon andre mizrahi was up against when he decided to take vogueing to the apollo theatre in new york.
known as the “toughest” crowd in the world, the apollo’s amateur audience did not play! i have watched episodes when young kids were booed off the stage. granted, the kids were off key as hell but ya get my point. to win the praise of the audience, you had to be good!
in 1999, andre mizrahi competed on showtime at the apollo’s amateur night portion of the show. there i was in my living room gagging than a butch queen was voguing to kevin aviance’s “din da da” on national television. he wasn’t a background dancer or part of an ensemble – it was just him there on the apollo stage voguing down! i remember fearing that he would get booed, not because he wasn’t great because he was the best but because he was voguing in that unapologetic queer way that i saw at balls, clubs and the youth groups i attended.
andre made it through his performance with rousing applause from the audience. when it came time for the audience to choose a winner, bih! andre won! it was the talk of ballroom community for years.
it has been 20 years since that historic performance. 10 years later, vogue revolution would follow in his footsteps and successfully compete on mtv’s america’s best dance crew.
in 2020, you can find voguing on several network tv shows. and this is beautiful. but in 1999, that was not the case. which is why we celebrate andre’s historic apollo amateur night win 20 years ago.
a few days ago, i logged into this very account and saw that a mutual posted a meme that read, “900 people get coronavirus and the whole world wants to wear a surgical mask. 30 million people have AIDS but still nobody wants to wear a condom.” at first, i thought, is this a hot take that is so hot that even my poz ass doesn’t get? but after a minute or so, i’m like, “nah. this is stigmatizing trash.” sadly, i wasn’t surprised.
social media and even a substantial amount of the press coverage about the coronavirus has been anti-asian and xenophobic as fuck! hell, it was also even been a called a “hoax” by tr*mp. of course, none of this is surprising because AIDS history has taught me that people in power and those who write about that power, have at one point willfully minimized, disregarded and laugh about AIDS and the growing deaths of gay men.
in an october 15, 1982 white house press briefing, as the aids epidemic was growing already claiming 853 lives, journalist rev. lester kinsolving asks deputy press secretary larry speakes if then president reagan has any knowledge of aids - then referred to as “the gay plague.” this was the first public question about aids posed to the reagan administration. the question is met with laughter and disregard by both the deputy press secretary and reporters.
by 1984 the aids epidemic later became one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. all during the first term of reagan’s presidency. he was re-elected in an historic landslide victory. this was two years after a member of his administration laughed about AIDS. reagan himself would not utter the word “AIDS” in a speech until 1987. by then more than 20,000 americans had died of AIDS.
history repeats itself over and over.
so my question is are you laughing and making jokes about coronavirus? are you intentionally or unintentionally reinforcing stigma? are you just straight up being anti-asian? are you letting those in your family and intimate circles do these things? this kind of interrogating and examination is critical because what history tells us it that stigma and hate spread faster and kills more than most viruses
idk who needs to hear this but nurses who work 16hr shifts aren’t heroes. they’re horrifically exploited workers& they don’t need thanks or applause, they need more colleagues and better labour protection
As a nurse I will say that it’s sad and has been a rude awakening to know that in times of widespread hardship, people will expect you to put your life on the line- and anyone you love and interact with- just to make up for the government and medical field’s greed. We have little staff, either because people are sick or just afraid to come in due to the fear of getting sick. We have little to no protective gear. The ONE face mask they give us per shift doesn’t do CRAP! Administration is no help for us on the actual field and these hospitals are trying to cover up new cases of COVID-19 to hide the fact that their “protection” for staff and patients is inadequate. This week alone, two of my patients have been confirmed cases and 3 medical staff have been confirmed too. It’s not heroic to see your fellow colleagues catch a deadly virus. It’s not fun to see young people my age, OR ANY AGE FOR THAT MATTER, be on a damn ventilator. IT’S TRAUMATIZING! And to think there are people who aren’t taking this seriously still!