Monday, April 16, 2012

The  Aisha Diori Biography!

Innovative. Provocative. Trailblazing. 

These are just a few of the adjectives that can be used to describe the Legendary Aisha Diori. Diori’s tenancy in the Underground Gay sub-culture known as the “Ballroom” scene is vast and long standing and her presence as a leader in the scene continues to shape its direction.

True to Diori’s tenacious temperament, her initial interaction with the ballroom scene was ostentatious. In the summer of 1997, Diori attended the Mooshood Ball and was immediately enamored with the gender non-conforming, queer pageantry. Diori notes the ball wasn't simply a gay dance party, recalling “[i]t was full of safer sex messaging, freedom, pageantry sexiness, beautiful feminine women, strong handsome butch [women]…” Compelled to be apart of this community, Diori attempted to approach the late great Arbert Santana, the then Mother of the House of Latex. Though unable to make contact, Diori did spot and connect with fellow Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) classmate the Legendary Big Boy Runway Ricky Revlon. Revlon, who subsequently became Diori’s gay father, along with Santana who later became Diori's mother, helped usher Diori into the House of Latex, forever changing her commitment to the LGBTQ community.
In a not too distant future, Diori began participating, or “walking” balls. Under the guise of her gay parents, Diori was advised to walk in the Women’s Face and Big Girls Runway categories for her first ball, The Black Pride Ball. Diori was praised as a smash sensation and won top prize in both categories. Diori would go on to win a number of balls and her interests in the ballroom scene began to shift from active participant to organizer and intervention specialist.

After graduating magna cum lade from FIT with a Bachelors of Arts in Advertising and Communications, she assisted Mother Santana conceptualize and facilitate the “Are You Served Latex” ball, and quickly discovered she enjoyed being on the planning side of ballroom interventions. Combining her love of the ballroom scene with here passion for serving the LGBT community, Diori began working as a outreach worker at the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), hosting balls that sought to effectively curtail the number of newly HIV infected youth. Diori would go on to create over 8 Latex Balls drawing in over 3000 people, culminating with her appropriately titled "Ladies Choice" ball. The first ever Latex Women's, Butch and Transgender (WBT) ball,  Ladies Choice garnered the support of over 700 participants and spectators while highlighting the health and economic plights many of the community members were expecting, while also celebrating its rich diversity and beauty. Denoting her fervor for the scene, the House of Latex decided that in 2002, Diori would assume the title of House Mother, a title she held for nearly 6 years.

In 2003, Diori's pioneering spirit and prioritization of LGBTQ youth development led her to develop something that would forever change the ballroom community and prevention efforts. Acknowledging youth were not best served in the mainstream ballroom scene, she along with Mother Arbert Santana created the KiKi scene: a ballroom infused intervention focusing on LGBTQ youth ages 12 - 24. Since its inception, the KiKi scene has conducted over 200 safer-sex/harm reduction functions through various different providers including resources for some 20000+ at-risk LGBTQ youth. Diori's KiKi scene has been replicated by other youth providers in NYC as well as in in other parts of the US.

In recent years, Aisha Diori has continued to persevere. Leaving the House of Latex in 2006, she created the House of S.K.U.L.L.S. (Sexy Klassy Unique Ladies and Lord Society), a house focusing on prevention measures for lesbian and trans-men. Diori continued her love of planning balls and other special events with the House of S.K.U.L.L.S., but ultimately decided to close the house down in order to refocus and rebuild on new groundbreaking intervention methods. Then, in late 2007, Diori opened the House of Iman, pairing safer sex and prevention messages that specifically targeted the WBT ballroom scene. As overall mother, Aisha brought a new energy to the WBT scene, infusing progressive safer sex messaging with elegant pageantry that can both be educational and entertaining. The House of Iman, a name that pays homage to Diori’s Nigerian heritage, continues to be the leading house in the WBT to this day.

Aside from being a house leader, Aisha Diori was  the Assistant Director of After-School Programming at the Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI) where she continues to engage LGBTQ youth. Diori organized KiKi Lounges: 2-hour long sessions ran by HMI interns where youth can come and learn how appropriately to vogue while also being informed on issues that affect their lives.  Through Kiki lounge, a number of youth have been connected to care for HIV/STI treatment, accessed and successfully graduated from the HMI GED program, been accepted into a litany of different internships, and accessed other services in the HMI space. Additionally, Diori has also convened a committee of other providers, affectionately called the Kiki coalition, to create effective interventions across NYC as well as coordinating Vogue Femme Fridays, a monthly ball celebrating youth and promoting awareness and safer sex.

Furthermore, Diori plays an integral role in the social marketing campaigns for HMI. Over the past several years, Diori has created several award winning social awareness campaigns including the “You Are Loved” campaign and the NO SHADE campaign, both highlighting the importance of self-love and self-efficacy amongst our youth surrounding education, sexual health and civic engagement. 

Diori's tireless work with LGBTQ youth and communities hasn’t gone unnoticed either. She has been showered with accolades from colleagues, different agencies and elected officials, including, The Advertising Women In America scholarships, The House of Blahnik Community Mobilization Award, Black Pride Award for Community Work, The Ross Infinite Award for Outstanding Community Mobilization, The HMI Damien Award, and Project HEAT Awards for KiKi Scene Prevention Work as well as sponsoring the Ball of the Year in 2006.  Denoting her consistency, Diori was also awarded Mother and Women’s Face of the Year titles consecutively in the early 2000’s and was also named Woman of the Year numerous times. Aisha also currently  sit on the nation House Ballroom National Alliance and offers  a needed voice in making sure that best practices are maintained when it comes  to HIV prevention education within the Ballroom scene as well as helping in reinvigorating the constantly evolving scene.  Diori is a formidable force within the LGBTQ community and continues to do great things. Her persistence, confidence and tenacity are well suited for the places she intends to go.

Diori joined the renowned Schomburg Center For Research In Black Culture in Harlem as an employee. Serving as Special Events Manager for the Schomburg, Diori has secured many successful rentals and has brought many exciting and culturally relevant events to the Schomburg. She is also curates the Monthly networking gathering First Fridays which is a community based event that opens the doors to the people to experience the Schomburg Center on a social and cultural level. 

Edited by 


Even 16 years after the documentary Paris Is Burning shed light on New York City’s gay underground house ball scene, misconceptions linger about the scene’s past, present and future.
Jennifer Livingston’s misleading 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning brought the underground world of black queer “houses” and “balls” to the attention of the mainstream public, yet the film left much to be desired in terms of understanding how these social networks have transformed the culture of black gay New York in innumerable ways.

Almost 20 years after Livingston began shooting footage for Paris, and perhaps as a result of the stereotypes the film presented, the house ball community continues to be grossly misunderstood and stigmatized by the masses of black people, both gay and straight. In a moment when being unapologetically black and gay has dangerous consequences, house ball culture continues to provide a viable space for a new generation of “ball kids,” which has created a subculture that has redefined notions of family, masculinity, friendship and, of course, what it is means to be a diva.

Where did it all begin?

The history and legacy of the Harlem drag balls Numerous historians and cultural commentators have traced the origins of today’s house ball scene to the notorious culture of Harlem drag balls in 1920s and 1930s New York. Between roughly 1919 and 1935, an artistic movement that would come to be known as the “Harlem Renaissance” transformed the culture of uptown Manhattan not only as a result of its establishing new trends in black literature, music and politics but also for its scandalous night life and party culture.

The Harlem drag balls — usually held at venues such as the Rockland Palace on 155th street or later the Elks Lodge on 139th — were initially organized by white gay men but featured multiracial audiences and participants. The annual pageants became a sort of who’s who of Harlem’s black literary elite: Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen and Richard Bruce Nugent were all frequent attendees. Moreover, white photographers and socialites, such as the infamous Carl Van Vechten (author of the scandalous 1926 novel Nigger Heaven), were also in attendance.

The mixed racial dynamics of these early drag balls reflected the interracial nature of the Harlem Renaissance in general: African-American artists looked to wealthy white investors for patronage, while white spectators flocked to “hip” Harlem spaces as sources of trend-setting and exotic “negro” spectacle. The drag balls thus became a space where newly migrated African-Americans from the south and “liberal” Northern whites could imagine themselves as mavericks, as radicals pushing the norms of a then highly racially segregated U.S. culture. The lavish, carnivalesque drag balls became spaces where racial taboos were broken through sexual and gender nonconformity. The events soon evolved from grand costume parties to outright gay beauty pageants with participants competing in a variety of categories, many of which still bear resemblance to the categories of today’s house ball scene (such as “Face”).

However, not surprisingly, the early drag balls were plagued by an imbalance of racial power. Black performers, though allowed to participate in and attend the events, were rarely winners at the balls and often felt restricted in their ability to fully participate in the scene. Soon the black queens looked for opportunities to create a sociocultural world that was truly all their own.

An exclusively black drag ball circuit in New York City began to form around the 1960s; almost three decades after the first “girls” started to compete at the earlier drag events. However the cultural and political landscape of Harlem, specifically the neighborhoods’ earlier carefree “acceptance” of drag culture, had changed drastically.

Due to the growing popularity of 1960s black nationalist rhetoric (with its rigid restrictions on how “real” black men should express themselves), the balls became a more dangerous pastime pleasure. The balls began to be held as early as 3, 4 or 5 a.m. — a tradition that continues to this day — in order to make it safer for participants to travel the streets of Harlem safely with high heels and feathers when “trade” had gone to sleep. The early morning start times also made renting out halls cheaper, and ensured that “the working girls” (i.e., transsexuals who made their money as late-night sex workers) would also be able to make the function.








Aisha through her work at The Hetrick Martin Institute (HMI) created a coalition of LGBTQ prevention Community Based Organization (CBO's) called the Kiki CBO Coalition and their first annual event was in August of 2009 The Global Warming Ball On The Pier. They continue to offer a Historical space for LGBTQ youth to come together to get their life and get connected to HIV/STI prevention messaging and resources on the Christopher Street Pier. This events showcased the ever growing Kiki Scene intervention that Aisha created during her work at GMHC. The Kiki Ball on the Pier is now an annual event and there have been 4 events so far and they continue to be a collaboration with the Kiki Parents and Kiki scene community members.