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Lessons in self expression from the House of Labeija

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DENVER Imagine walking down an aisle, beautifully lit and lined with your admirers. You’re not in your everyday clothes, either. In fact, you’re in your ballroom finest — a look you designed from head to toe. As you move in your own way down the aisle, your loving audience roars and snaps with joy. 

Now, imagine (if you haven’t already lived it), experiencing this level of encouragement after you’ve had a lifetime of quite the opposite —  years of people telling you that you, as a human, are wrong. That your beliefs, your appearance, and your personality simply aren’t fit for the world in which you live. 

For members of the drag community, this stark transition from being persecuted to celebrated is far more than a performance —  it’s healing in action. And it’s an experience the members of the Royal House of Labeija family have had the chance to experience on a regular basis. 

The House of Labeija is, in short, drag royalty. The concept began in Harlem, New York in the 1960s. Drag groups and ballroom events were forming as a method of survival via artistic expression and a supportive community. Members of these groups were risking their lives, as “cross-dressing” and other nonconforming methods of gender expression were illegal

These drag scenes and their pageants, while counter-culture, still lacked intersectionality. White, euro-centric beauty standards were held in the highest regard. Lightened skin was encouraged in makeup looks, and a Black queen winning a pageant was rare at best. Drag artists of color were left out of yet another group, emphasizing the multiple ways they had already been oppressed.

[Watch: New York is Burning]

Crystal Labeija debuted the House of Labeija in 1972 in an effort to create a supportive family-like structure where LGBTQIA+ drag artists of color would be celebrated for the exact traits they were once rejected for. Here, they could show up as their whole selves — both who they were in the moment, and the repressed parts of their identity they longed to express. 

Now, the House of Labeija is an international drag family hosting ballroom events around the world. There are 16 chapters, including one in Colorado. 

The Colorado chapter of the House of Labeija is overseen by house mother LeeLee James. James’ chapter family ranges in age from 14-27, and James is over 20 years older than some of them. Considering the added trials transgender people face — lack of proper healthcare, job discrimination and even violence — she’s proud to have made it this far. “Anything I do beyond this is already a success,” she said.

Her house children seem to agree. According to Joseph Quinto, aka Ruby LaBeija, Ruby gives them the permission and the push to explore themselves not only to the ballroom but the world around them. “Letting them live as their authentic selves is inspiring me every day.”

Marco Labeija emphasizes how the support they’ve received from the house members has empowered them to level up in not only their artistic expression, but their everyday confidence. “I have grown a lot because of the validation and guidance I got from all of them,” Marco said.

Having a place to be supported in authentic expression is a basic human need that oftentimes gets overlooked by those who have the privilege of experiencing it day-to-day. The House of Labeija ensures this community support is not only acknowledged but celebrated. And most importantly, James works to ensure that the children of LaBeija learn their value outside the ballroom walls. 

“A lot of us are never actually told that we’re valuable, that our time is valuable, that our expression is valuable. That our art means something. And so it really creates a mechanism for these kids to understand that the only person who needs to value you, is you," James said. "By creating this time you’re dedicating time to yourself and to your own artistry. Because if you don’t believe in you, why should anyone else?"

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