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Strike a Pose: Cece Suazo

Strike a Pose: Cece Suazo

Ballroom icon and trans actress Cece Suazo proves not all heroes wear capes.

Cece Suazo (a.k.a. Camille LeBeija) has seen it all. The trans ballroom icon has been a force in her community as house mother of the prestigious House of LaBeija, where she's been a member for 26 years. She continues to inspire the many youths she's mentored.

Suazo's passion for performing ripened at an early age, leading to her being discovered by members of the House of LaBeija when she was just 12 years old. The famous Pepper and Porsche LaBeija took her off the streets and groomed her to become one of the house's most memorable performers -- an act of kindness she continues to pay forward.

"Being homeless made me value and overcome any obstacle set in front of me," says Suazo. "There are going to be hurdles, but do you just stop living or keep on going? I chose to keep on going. I believe my faith and strength has gotten me through the storm and trials."

As a transgender actress, Suazo has also been a vocal presence advocating for more diverse casting. After all, she says, "a trans actor [or] actress can play any role they set their mind to; it doesn't necessarily mean telling your own narrative." Her role as a biracial lesbian in the off-Broadway play Incongruence broke barriers in the theater community, opening a wider dialogue on the trans experience.

Having been present during the filming of Paris Is Burning (the 1990 documentary about the New York City ballroom scene), Suazo has seen firsthand the evolution of ballroom over a span of nearly four decades. If you ask Suazo, the existence of the balls is more important than ever now.

"Mainstream media has finally acknowledged this underground world that wasn't accepted at first because of the negativity that people assumed or gave this stigma that all LGBT folks were drug addicts, prostitutes, crafty thieves, and were not accepted by their loved ones," she says. "Ballroom, I believe, can change those minds and rewrite so much history by showing the talent and consistency that it has had throughout the years."

The musical series Pose, Ryan Murphy's latest FX project, could do just that, helping to introduce wider audiences to the ballroom scene that flourished in the late 1980s -- even as the AIDS crisis raged and felled many ball icons.

Today, the ballroom scene continues to play a role in community building. The scene invites people experiencing homelessness, those struggling with mental illness, and people scrapping their next dollar for food to find a light in themselves and express it. As Suazo says, ballroom in 2018 requires us to build "undeveloped hidden communities" to bring us "all together through art."

As for her advice to the countless kids who see her as a hero, she tells them, "Don't look back and just keep looking forward. The storm shall pass. In the words of my mentor Valerie Spencer, 'I will not, and do not have to, go through bullshit.'"

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David Artavia