Trans icon speaks in Concord, calls for continued progress on equality

  • Movie goers joined trans icon and activist Cece Suazo at the Red River Theater in Concord on Wednesday night for a screening of Paris Is Burning, a landmark documentary from the 1980s showcasing the underground ballroom scene of New York City's Harlem drag queens. JAMIE L. COSTA / Monitor staff

  • Movie goers joined trans icon and activist Cece Suazo at the Red River Theater in Concord on Wednesday night for a screening of Paris Is Burning, a landmark documentary from the 1980s showcasing the underground ballroom scene of New York City's Harlem drag queens. JAMIE L. COSTA/Monitor staff—

  • Newly elected State Representative James Roesener raises his right hand while being sworn at the State House on Organization Day, Wednesday, December 7, 2022. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 12/8/2022 4:42:36 PM

Cece Suazo, a Black transgender woman and award winning actress, told members of New Hampshire’s queer community, queer allies and lawmakers to protect each other and continue to make noise for equality.

“We have to constantly fight for change,” Suazo said. “It’s about making noise. Let’s dismantle the issues and rebuild the community together.”

Suazo joined movie goers at Red River Theatres in Concord for a screening of Paris Is Burning, a landmark documentary from the 1980s that captures the life of young drag queens in New York City’s Harlem underground ballroom scene which saw Black and brown gay men and transgender women competing for trophies through vogueing – a unique style of dance modeled after poses often seen in magazines – runway walking, fierce make up and expensive clothing and attitude.

Listening to her speak Wednesday night was James Roesener, who made history last month as the first openly transgender man to be elected to a state legislature in the United States. He asked Suazo how lawmakers can do better in the face of transphobic legislature that’s been proposed across the nation. Suazo followed with her call to action: make noise, continue to fight, and share personal stories with lawmakers.

Paris Is Burning follows the life of legendary voguers, drag queens and trans women, including Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey and Venus Xtravaganza – all of whom died of AIDS-related illnesses and LGBTQ+ violence. The film offered explores race, class, gender, and sexuality amidst a backdrop of violent homophobia and transphobia.

Suazo, who was put in foster care as a young child when she began to transition, was taken in by Pepper LaBeija – house mother of the iconic House of LaBeija – after running away from an all boys home. At the house, she said she was able to express herself and receive the support and guidance her biological family never gave her.

Different houses were founded by transgender women and housed homeless gay men, transitioning men and transitioned women and often competed against each other at fashion balls for bragging rights and trophies.

“They protected me, they nurtured me and they guided me, but they didn’t tell me about ballroom; they didn’t want AIDS or crack for my future,” Suazo said.

Though she wasn’t in the film herself, Suazo was present for the seven years of filming while living at the House of LaBeija. Suazo said she had a close relationship with the main drag queens featured in the documentary.

Most featured in the film died of AIDS-related illnesses, transphobic violence and drug use, she said, which was common in the 80s at the height of the AIDS and drug epidemics in New York City. Now, the most common cause of death among the transgender community is suicide.

Suazo described the 1980s culture that encouraged transgender women and gay men to dress in high fashion and express themselves on the runway. The underground art form provided a safe space for queer people and strengthened self expression and confidence within the queer community.

“I got involved in ballroom when I was 19 or 20. I had been living in Los Angeles and someone approached me to talk to me about ballroom because they knew I was a LaBeija, but I wasn’t interested,” Suazo said. “A few years later, I went back to New York to take care of my biological father and I became the youngest member in the House and in the ballroom community.”

Suazo was part of the house for more than 27 years, and took on the role of house mother before returning to Hollywood in 2013 to pursue her career as an actress and director. In 2020, she became the house mother of the International House of Icon on the West Coast, which was featured on the HBO series “Legendary.”

Today, she said that without the confidence she gained through ballroom competitions, she wouldn’t be advocating, acting or directing.

The competitions changed once money and cash prizes were introduced, which made them more about winning than expression.

“Today, it’s more political and competitive,” Suazo said. “It’s more mainstream now and they don’t care about the community, they care about the income.”

Outside Red River Wednesday, three protestors lined the entrance with signs that read “no child is born in the wrong body,” and “stop puberty blockers.” The event was sponsored by PFLAG, Hotel Concord and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Paris Is Burning is available for streaming on Amazon Prime video platforms. 

Jamie Costa

Jamie Costa joined the Monitor in September 2022 as the city reporter covering all things Concord, from crime and law enforcement to City Council and county budgeting. She graduated from Roger Williams University (RWU) in 2018 with a dual degree in journalism and Spanish. While at RWU, Costa covered the 2016 presidential election and studied abroad in both Chile and the Dominican Republic where she reported on social justice and reported on local campus news for the university newspaper, The Hawks' Herald. Her work has also appeared in The *Enterprise *papers and the *Cortland Standard *and surrounding Central New York publications. Costa was born and raised on Cape Cod and has a love for all things outdoors, especially with her dog.

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