When you walk during a ball, the judges before you look for elements that grant you the permission of 10’s across the board. These elements can vary depending on the category you decide to walk but regardless, all of the elements must be brought in order for you to be welcomed.
These elements are key to making your movement whole, your story seen, your history well learned, and your energy felt. Ballroom was created by the queer, trans, black, and brown existence in the New York City streets of Harlem; that were not only displaced by society and local white gay communities, but often the families that they were born into. Most of these colored TLGB+ kids were thrown to the streets for choosing to live their truths but that didn’t stop them from looking to each other. When their families turned away, the community didn’t. Long before the elements of vogue that most of us now know, the elements of chosen family came to be.
Growing up, I always wondered what the perfect family was supposed to look like. Since I was a child, I thought that a family had to be tied by blood and be as pristine as the families I saw on my television. I figured since my family wasn’t that and actually quite the opposite, I completely missed out on having one. Being an only child with immigrant parents who were too poor and busy to invest any kind of relationship in me, trying to keep us alive in a country new to all of us, I never thought I would actually find people who could resemble a family. Not until the stars had another plan for me anyways, and brought me to the one and only House of Energi.
The House of Energi was founded by an entity of pure love and loyalty who takes the form of Arnez Grant, otherwise known as Founder Ultraa Energi. Houses in ballroom culture are more than what those outside of this community believe them to be. Most people uneducated about the culture seem to initially think that houses are just another version of dance teams. While dancers can be a part of a house, the purpose of a house goes beyond dance and even beyond ballroom. Houses are the manifestations of the support and love taken from queer communities because of bigotry, and given back to us by our very own. Houses, sometimes, were even literal homes for young and colored queer youth to find refuge in and were headed by leaders (who took on the roles of Mothers and Fathers) that reflected these realities. Houses were formed to be the families that these young kids were denied access to simply because of their beautiful truths and the spaces created by them to nurture and build queer and trans people of color is still alive and well today.
Ultraa founded the House of Energi out of the powerful love he and someone dear to him shared. On Thanksgiving Day, 2002 in Washington DC, Ultraa witnessed his house brother be thrown out their house after an altercation between him and the Father of that particular household. It wasn’t uncommon for house Mother’s and Father’s in ballroom to kick their adopted kids out, but in this instance, it wasn’t going to be just one child. Refusing to sit by and watch this happen, Ultraa got up, joined his brother in leaving, and proclaimed “I’m out too, and as a matter of fact? Watch out for the House of Energi”. After leaving together, Ultraa promised to not abandon his friend, called his family who were awaiting him for the holidays, and told them that he was going to be celebrating away and with his house brother that year. The existence of the House of Energi was forged out of the love Ultraa had for his brother, and became the antithesis of the hate they both experienced that night. The House of Energi was quite literally built on love and hasn’t stopped doing so since its creation, and I witnessed that same love the night I was adopted this past summer.
When I was asked to be adopted by the Energi’s, alongside my brother and best friend Dylan, I was in absolute shock. Dylan and I had only been taking the Energi vogue classes for a couple of months prior and when Father Ryan Energi popped the question, it was an immediate waterfall of tears and emotion. I never really thought I’d end up doing vogue let alone be a part of the ballroom community here in the bay, but after joining the House of Energi I began to realize how much this beautiful family of mine was changing my life. I have to say if it weren’t for my prodigy of a brother, Dylan, I would’ve never had the courage to step foot into a vogue class. So, to be adopted with my first piece of chosen family, my brother, was an experience indescribably special that I’ll hold on to for the rest of my life. The House of Energi is comprised of members both nationwide and even international, but here in the Bay the house consists of eight powerful beings. To share their stories as genuinely as possible, I sat down with each of my family members and asked them what exactly the word “Family” means to them, and their thoughts on our chosen family. I also share a little bit of my experience as well.
Father Ryan Energi: “So I grew up having a really great and wonderful childhood and a supportive family. Even after I came out, they were very supportive and I am blessed so completely. They’ve always shown me that a family means they’ve got you, they’ve got your back, they’re ON your side and they love you no matter what you do. But it wasn’t until I became a part of the ballroom scene and being gay that I came to realize that that was one thing that my family could never relate to me about. So, my idea of family shifted to include other people whether they were my biological family or not and using that word just as strongly to mean you all as I do to mean people that have the same DNA. It’s that support that I feel, the connection from shared experience.”
Mother Stacey Energi: “For me, I felt really fortunate to have grown up under my grandmother’s watch. Even though part of my life I lived with my mom, but my mom died when I was 11 and I couldn’t really miss having a father because I never had a father. I was nurtured and I was loved, and I knew my grandmother loved me, I was her baby. But I often wonder what my life would’ve been like if my mother had lived. Even though my family was dysfunctional, that was my family and I still loved them. No matter what, you couldn’t say anything about my family. Now, being in this community here in the Bay Area, has always been a sense of family for me as well. I was always the nurturer of the group and for as long as I could remember people were always calling me “Mama”. So, meeting you all individually, and the circle started to form, what it all means to me is that there’s something much more genuine about this relationship. This is real.”
Anita “Daahling” Energi: “In terms of my original experience with family, it was really just my mom, dad, and myself and all three of us were undocumented. We were physically hidden behind other houses, that were primarily white families, in little in-law units. In many ways my family felt invisible and my family life felt invisible to the rest of world, but my parents raised me to be hard as nails. They didn’t want me to have little mousy writing, a mousy voice, and they wanted me to walk six feet tall. I was still very isolated and I didn’t know I was a people person until I went away to college. My school life was so different from my family life. My parents also fought with each other a lot, and during one of their fights my dad turned to me and said ‘You know you’re probably wondering why we’re always fighting, it’s because I never planned on you being born’. I never experienced heartbreak until that very moment. So, my experience with family was that mixed message of we love you, but we didn’t plan for you. They both raised me to be alone, and I never really been close to any of my other family. So, for the longest time when I got really close with Ryan and when the house was growing, I started having deep abandonment fear. My reaction was, ‘When am I gonna lose this?? I know I’m gonna lose this at any moment’ and lately it’s been ‘Well yeah. We don’t know!’ So, my goal right now is to be there for each of you and be there for the house. If I have this bounty of love, that means I can give it away and I’ve got lots for y’all. So being part of ballroom, I can’t even explain it to anybody and that’s okay because y’all know and that’s enough.
Jon “Leezy” Energi: “Overall growing up, family for me meant that I needed to stay invisible. Even though I knew deep down I was an artist, to be in this family means to sacrifice that in my life because of their sacrifice. You know, to validate all of their struggles and their sacrifices for me, so it was this twisted kind of thing. It’s taken me so long to reclaim this sense of self and ballroom and this house is the total antithesis of that. It’s like, whatever you imagine yourself to be, you can be that and we see it and we celebrate and we want to help you cultivate it. Another thing with chosen family, is building safety. I never had a safe place to turn to but I really feel we protect that safety we have with each other. I really feel that sense of safety that I’ve always dreamed of. It’s such a corrective experience that is all in service of me reclaiming my life for me.”
Adrian “Adrianx” Energi: “Yeah, I can relate to Fatha’s experience with family. I have really amazing and supportive parents and I’m so grateful for that, Jon and Anita can testify. I have two brothers who really see me and support all that I do. It wasn’t always apparent when we were kids but it did feel isolating to be the only gay one in the household. They’ve given me everything I need to know on how a family is supposed to function but with chosen family, it kind of fills in the gaps of that family experience validating your queerness, or that part of you they can’t relate to. This format of family really celebrates your everything, really, that’s kind of attached to your gayness, your queerness, your whatever. So, it’s kind of like we’re full circle in that regard.”
Alora “Fanua” Energi: “I feel like there’s that one side of this whole spectrum of experience that there are positive families out there who support you. Mine’s kind of like, it didn’t start out like that but kind of became that in my more recent years of life. Growing up, with me and my family immigrating here from Samoa, it was always about survival. Being an only child with two parents that were working two jobs each, I spent a lot of time alone. In that loneliness, I think, I harbored a lot of sadness and just spent a lot of time thinking that I was meant to be alone. My mental illnesses came to be because of that too. But even though all of that happened, and my family got more progressive, I still didn’t feel like I had a family. But this chosen family was everything I wanted and everything I needed. It showed me that family can be found wherever you need it to be, and that anyone is capable of being that for you.”
Dylan “Dila” Energi: “I think for me growing up, family felt mostly like that was my norm because that was what I was exposed to. My norm was that everyone played a specific role, that the men had to be a certain way and that women had to be a certain way. Growing up it was made to seem regular but it was uncomfortable and I couldn’t pin point why it was uncomfortable. As I got older and began breaking away from that mold and learning more about myself as a gay man, and myself outside of constructs, I was realizing that there were parts of myself that I was hiding. It wasn’t until I met my group of friends in high school that I was able to start living my truth. That became even more real with the house because I met them during another time of evolution with my identity and confidence. The structure of this house, this family, feels more natural than my biological family. The house makes me feel limitless and I just feel there’s so much genuine inspiration that I always get and encouragement to not only be truer to myself but to better to myself.”
Kenny “Neo” Energi: “For me, the way I would describe what family means to me is people you could look to for unconditional love and support. Just those two things of being supported and loved were very foreign concepts to me for a lot of my life and so, for me, the concept of family is something I’m still trying to learn to experience. I’m still trying to learn to let myself experience it fully and I’ve lived so much of my life hiding so much of me, it’s been a gradual process of me opening up. I feel like one of the biggest things I’ve gained from the House of Energi, is developing my self-worth. Ever since joining the house, I’ve been granted to so many things to better myself and hopefully I can give back that love and develop love for myself.”
Family is something you can’t define in any one way and is something that is absolutely possible to make for yourself, and it’s all because of love. Love is limitless, unconditional, and as boundless as you’ll allow it and is capable of being given to anyone you choose. Whether it’s the family you were born into, or the family you searched for and found, that love you feel is valid. It’s real. This chosen family of mine taught me that love can come in all shapes and sizes, in all shades and identities. They taught me how to receive love and give it, how to allow myself permission to feel it, and how it’s always around me even when I don’t see it. So, if anything, if you haven’t found the kind of family love you need just know that there are people out there who have been, and still are, right there with you. You aren’t alone and when the day comes when you no longer feel that way, I hope you remember how that makes you feel for the rest of your life.
Love is the message and it’s one you are more than deserving to receive.
// Photography by Alora King.