Lucky for us, Luna Luis Ortiz has a passion for history. A native New Yorker, he’s been a fixture on the house and ballroom scene since the late 1980s as a performer, photographer, and activist. So, when New-York Historical Society curator Rebecca Klassen was looking for advisers to help develop our exhibition Letting Loose and Fighting Back: LGBTQ Nightlife Before and After Stonewall, Ortiz was one of the first people she contacted.
“I’ve always been drawn to history,” he says. “When I was growing up, everybody was always looking to the future, while I was the kid who was listening to things a little Puerto Rican kid should not be listening too, like Judy Garland or Billie Holiday—what 8 year old is invested in Billie Holiday?”
One of the more vibrant subcultures of LBGTQ life, the house and ballroom scene traces its roots to Harlem in the early 1970s, when performer Crystal LaBeija transformed drag competitions with the debut of the House of LaBeija, a riff on fashion houses. A new tradition of “houses” were born, in which these chosen families of performers—most of them people of color—competed against each other at balls with increasingly complex arrays of categories like Femme Queen Realness, Runway, and Virgin Vogue. The community was memorably captured in the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, a film that also serves as an elegy for a world that was devastated by the HIV/AIDS crisis and discriminatory violence.
Ortiz started photographing balls and performers for fun, but he’s since turned the medium into a vocation. His photos have been in exhibitions at places like the Whitney Museum, the Museum of the City of New York, and the Boston Center for Arts. He’s also dedicated his life to HIV/AIDS awareness and currently works for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), where he focuses on outreach to the predominantly Black and Latinx ballroom community and helps organize the annual Latex Ball.
Letting Loose and Fighting Back is on view through September 22, so we thought it would be a good moment to talk to Ortiz about his experience as a collaborator-adviser, what it was like to see ballroom get its Museum moment, and his thoughts about preserving ballroom for the ages.
Congrats on the exhibition! Have you seen the full version already?
Of course! I was there at opening night! It was fun having drinks and looking over and seeing a portrait of George Washington staring at you. [Laughs]
When you were talking to the curators, what were the themes or stories you wanted to focus on?
Something that stuck in my head was how we were trying to figure out how to make the exhibits 3D. You know how there are [sections on] four amazing folks: Keith Haring, Stormé DeLarverié, Rollerena, and Mother Flawless Sabrina? Having actual objects like Keith Haring’s sneakers. It made him more real, it made Stormé more real—I had heard stories about her, but I’d never seen her in person.
What was also interesting is there were a couple of things in the exhibition that I used to have. It was like, “Oh my god, I had that poster in my bedroom!” We don’t realize that we all hold a piece of everyday history.
Watch a video about the HIV/AIDS outreach in the ballroom community from 1996 (a portion of this is shown in the exhibition):
You’ve already been a steady chronicler of the ballroom community between your photography and your YouTube series The Luna Show. Has this always been important to you?
I don’t think the pioneers of ballroom thought that it was, one: part of New York City history, and, two: that it would last so long. It was just an outlet they had. I came into the ballroom scene in 1988, the height of the AIDS epidemic, when everybody who was performing was slowly dying. So, a lot of our history is secondhand stories. We don’t have a history book. One of the challenges of ballroom is the stories. Where are the stories? Where are the materials? Why don’t we have the garments worn by [ballroom pioneers] Pepper LaBeija, Avis Pendavis, and Dorian Corey, you know? Where are the furs? Where is the mummified body that Dorian had in her apartment?
Wait, what? I don’t think I’ve heard this one.
You know the lady whose painted silver plate is hanging in the exhibition? [Ed. note: Visitors to the exhibition will see a silver tray hand-painted with a landscape scene.] Well, that was Dorian Corey’s—she was one of the pioneer mothers of the house and ball community. She was a pageant girl herself and a brilliant artist, as you can see from the plate. She died in 1993, and when she passed away, everybody went to her apartment to take all of her one-of-a-kind pieces—she was also a brilliant seamstress. Some of the girls stumbled on a mummified body in one of the suitcases in her apartment, and to this day, it’s still a mystery, because nobody knows how that body got in there. New York magazine wrote an article on it.
Wow! I totally derailed you, but I needed to hear that backstory. Getting back to the exhibition: Do you think this has inspired you to do more archiving?
I would love to be one of those folks that really invest some time in this. I know that, through the years, as I was growing up in ballroom, a lot of us would have this conversation, yet weren’t taking the pieces, so that at least in the future, we would have them. I know Derek [Ebony, who also advised on the exhibition and appears in one of the featured videos] is one: He’s been collecting flyers and memorabilia here and there. I’m slowly starting to think in that way. And now when I do people’s outfits and garments, after they compete, I can say, “Hey, do you mind if I take this piece? Will you donate it?” I’m trying to help create an archive of ballroom history. Because we’re really creative!
In addition to landing in museum exhibitions, ballroom has also had a major effect on popular culture from RuPaul’s Drag Race to the TV drama Pose. What’s it like to see the culture become so celebrated in the mainstream?
Museums I respect, because it’s history. Museums are the past and future as well, since they educate people. But it’s interesting: It’s WorldPride this year on top of the fact that it’s the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, and everywhere I’m looking, everything is gay. But I’m wondering, in July, after the parade is done, what’s going to happen? There are still trans girls of color being murdered around the U.S. What are we doing about that? AIDS is still an issue. It would be nice if it was ongoing in a way, this sense of Pride.
Letting Loose and Fighting Back: LGBTQ Nightlife Before and After Stonewall and two other exhibitions about LGBTQ history will be on view at New-York Historical through September 22.
Written by Kerrie Mitchell, content editor