Yvonne Bee | Courtesy

For Agustin Garcia Badillo, a coordinator for the Pride Center, holding Cal Poly’s first ‘house ball’ was a time for BIPOC and queer communities in San Luis Obispo “to feel more than just tolerated.”

The Pride Center Ball on March 16 marked a first for the Black and Brown, queer, trans and nonbinary communities on Cal Poly’s predominantly white campus.

The event was held in Cal Poly’s Multi-Activity Center from 6 to 8 p.m. in collaboration with several on-campus cultural centers. The ball featured four student-led houses: House of Basquiat, House of Divine, House of Lilith and House of Fiendish Fey, who walked according to six categories: Outerspace, Executive Realness, Royalty, School Person Realness, Runway and Butch Queen. The categories were selected ahead of the event by the Pride Center team.

The judges panel – the ‘Royal Tribunal’ – consisted of coordinators across the Black Academic Excellence Center, Native American and Indigenous Cultural Center, Latinx/e Center for Academic Success and Achievement and Multicultural Center. These cultural centers also helped to fund the ball alongside Pride’s own contributions.

“Seeing this event come to fruition means so much to me, especially in a climate where our community faces so many levels of systemic violence, genocide and hate,” Badillo said. “Spaces like these are our liberation.”

LA-based fashion designer Illy Guzman – also known as P.I.M.P. ILLY – and destacarse. shop owner Rene Camarillo created capes for the Royal Tribunal to wear during the ball. DJ Suz, co-founder of the Latina and queer-owned Mírame Entertainment, provided music for the event.

Ethnic studies professor Damien Paul Montaño of the Yoeme and Purépecha Tribes began festivities with an acknowledgment of ball culture’s queer and trans ancestors, whose hardships of the past brought upon an artform that is still appreciated today.

Montaño wanted participants of the ball to consider past trauma of queer communities. 

“And as we move forward, we’re collectively bringing healing into the work that we do,” Montaño said during their speech.

Montaño referenced the original Black and Brown queens of New York, such as Crystal LaBeija, Hector Xtravaganza, Dorian Corey and Willi Ninja as the creators of the house ball scene today. 

“We’re thinking about houses. Houses as community, houses as families, houses as protection – protection against the violence that’s happening in external spaces in the city at the time,” Montaño said.

House balls can be traced as far back as the drag balls of the post-Civil War era, where men would “impersonate females” at the Hamilton Lodge No. 710 in Harlem, New York, according to an article by the History Channel.

Black artists began exploring their gender and sexuality during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, fueling the drag ball scene. However, judges of the Hamilton Lodge were biased and favored white queens over queens of color. Black contestants Crystal and Lottie LaBeija grew tired of the discrimination and formed the first “house,” House of LaBeija, in the early 1970s, according to the article.

Houses have since been safe spaces for Black and Brown trans and queer people who can’t freely express themselves in their place of biological birth – which has often left them homeless, socioeconomically challenged and victims of abuse, according to an article by Grinnell College. Pride Center student assistant and art and design senior Anusha Sowda described Cal Poly’s ball as “an amazing way to release trauma.”

Houses take on the surname of their mother or father, who serve as heads of the houses. They become role models and mentors for their “children,” the members of the house, while also providing basic needs or money for house members. Children of the house take on the surname as well, according to the Grinnell College.

Vinny Torres, the mother of the House of Divine said they were shy to express their queerness when first attending Cal Poly as an undergraduate journalism major. Coming to a predominantly white institution was a culture shock after life in a primarily Hispanic hometown – and being openly queer was another thing in itself.

“As I started to grow into myself and love my queerness and love my POC identity, I realized that to exist on this campus is radical for me,” Torres said. “And that looks like a lot of things. It looks like dressing feminine to class, like wearing makeup to class, like wearing big dangly earrings that touch the floor to class – really just throwing it in people’s faces and not being apologetic about it.”

Torres, aka ‘Skinny Mocha,’ has now been performing drag for five years, four of which have been with Cal Poly’s Drag Club. They continue as the club’s longest-standing member and also perform at bars and other venues in SLO.

Cal Poly’s ballroom culture is set apart from others due to its radical intention to highlight marginalized groups on a predominantly white, heteronormative campus, according to Badillo.

“We face the queerphobia, transphobia and heteronormativity of campus – but then at the other end, we face colorism, anti-Blackness, and all those issues as an intersectional problem,” Badillo said. “So, we’re different because we’re putting queer BIPOC to the forefront of these ballrooms and being very intentional.”

Badillo also emphasized that the event included the Native American and Indigenous Cultural Center because Indigenous voices have historically been othered from Latinx/e communities due to anti-indigeneity. The Pride Center wanted to break away from that stereotype because being Latinx/e is an ethnic identity, while being Indigenous is a racial identity.

The ball ended with House of Divine taking the overall trophy home, as they won a majority of the categories. House of Basquiat won the School Person and Runway categories, while House of Fiendish Fey won the Butch Queen category.

Pride Center assistant Anusha Sowda hopes the ball will become an annual signature event for the campus, and imagines it will grow larger every year. Badillo alerts the BIPOC queer community of SLO to make their voices heard in the midst of oppression.

“Before me, the Pride Center was very white, very queer white, and this is not something that’s an anomaly just to Cal Poly,” Badillo said. “This happens in a lot of spaces, where queer white people take up space. So, my message to the BIPOC queer people out there is to remember to take up space. You belong and you deserve to feel celebrated.”

Badillo encourages those that aren’t part of the LGBTQIA+ community to come and support these events.

“Oftentimes people think that the issues that we’re facing are only for us to take on,” they said. “But in reality, they’re bystanders by not doing anything. It’s definitely people’s responsibility to do the work and show up for our LGBTQIA+ siblings.”