John Easter (Dez’manian) and Duane Binion (Naheen) brought the Ballroom to Pittsburgh. Now, they are no longer merely showcasing talented LGBTQ people, they are lending them a helping hand with True T Pittsburgh, an organization that not only brings extravagant events to Pittsburgh, but teaches, inspires and shelters members of the community.
“We started this eleven years ago to fill a void. Pittsburgh didn’t have an underground Ballroom culture,” said Binion. Easter and Binion brought the Ballroom scene here.
Originating in New York City, the Ballroom or Ball culture started in the young African-American and Latinx LGBTQ underground, wherein people competed for trophies, prizes and glory at big events called balls. Attendees dance, vogue, walk, pose, and support one another in numerous performance competition categories, including (but-not-just) drag. Categories are designed to simultaneously epitomize and satirize various genders and social classes. While every individual ball can often have dozens–sometimes even hundreds–of specific criteria, all of the categories are still organized around six major concepts: realness, face, sex appeal and body, runway, performance, and fashion.
Easter and Binion – under the names Dez’manian and Naheen – originally joined the Ball scene to perform. Both Easter and Binion, who identify as cis gay men, competed in the Gender Realness category. They swaggered on the stage looking macho, like stereotypical heterosexual males, but then they would stop and twirl around, breaking the stereotype to vogue or pose. To compete, they had to travel to New York City, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia or Atlanta. To compete locally, Binion said, “We had to throw events ourselves.”
They created the Galaxy Ball. The event grew each year. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said, “Unlike traditional Balls, the Galaxy Ball serves the underground LGBTQ Ballroom Community and brings it to the mainstream for all to enjoy.”
The pandemic hasn’t crushed their energy and enthusiasm, Easter said. “We are hoping to have the April 2022 Galaxy Ball.”
In the meantime, True T is offering a variety of events in their Spring 2021 lineup, including community-led workshops, intimate kickbacks and collaborations with new and returning partners.
True T now has a studio space on Liberty Ave. Binion said, “We used to have to rent spaces all over Pittsburgh. Now we have our True T space, and it can house all sorts of activities. It’s great having a physical location.” The studios are perfect for auditions, rehearsal, film and photo shoots, workshops and private gatherings.
But Easter and Binion not only walk the “walk,” they are talking the talk – and taking action. They wanted to expand their safe space beyond the Ball. They created proms and brunches to offer safe and alternative social settings for LGBTQIA and POC in Pittsburgh.
“We got this together and then learned about barriers people were facing. HIV, homelessness, etc,” Binion said.
Easter said, “I’m proudest of our creation of emergency housing. 75 percent to 85 percent of Trans homeless are uncomfortable, abused and misgendered in most standard shelters.”
They initiated Option-U, an emergency housing program created to rehabilitate and empower homeless and/or disenfranchised trans and non-binary people, and on-going emergency funds available for the local TLGBQ+ communities of Pittsburgh and surrounding areas.
Their short-term Option-U Residence is a two-floor housing unit with five short-term beds (30-90 days) and one emergency overflow bed (for stays that are less than seven days). During their stay, residents work with a case manager to create an individual goal plan for employment and housing. The Option-U Residence has a 24-hour Resident Advisor (RA) to ensure the safety of all residents. All of the RA’s identify as transgender and/or non-binary.
This embraces a longstanding tradition in LGBT and racial minority communities of forming “houses” where chosen families of friends live in households together, forming relationships and community to replace families of origin from which they may be estranged.
Easter cited the television show “Pose” as an example of Ball culture. He said, “If you watch ‘Pose,’ It feels real. It was an authentic experience for me. It’s a great place to learn about the Ballroom scene. I’d recommend the show to anyone who wants to know more about the scene.”