“A ball is an arm of the revolution,” 24-year-old Villano Antillano told me. “It’s an event that comes from historically the most marginalized communities. The ball is a political art.” And last week, during a protest in Old San Juan that drew an estimated 500,000 people, a platform in a plaza about two blocks from the Governor’s Mansion—where demonstrators were densely packed at police barricades—became a makeshift stage for just such a display, the newly formed Haus of Resistance. In the ongoing movement to oust Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, the collective’s event, which included chants, dancing, and a ballroom segment, proudly declared queer community as a powerful mobilizing force.
“One of our goals was to make people uncomfortable,” Antillano, one of the Haus’s organizers, said. “Because we know if we’re making someone uncomfortable, we’re doing our job. We’re making ourselves visible.”
Haus of Resistance began its energetic demonstration last Wednesday afternoon with music and dancing. DJ Kaya Té, 28, was concerned that at some point the group may have to run; police response throughout the protests has included tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray. So they opted for a DIY set: A collaborative playlist queued through a bluetooth speaker, and a megaphone by which they amplified the music.
Between songs, they chanted: “No hay libertad politica sin libertad sexual,” or “There’s no political freedom without sexual freedom,” and “Soy pata, soy puta, pero nunca corrupta,” which translates roughly to “I’m a queer, I’m a slut, but never corrupt!”
Then came the Renuncia Ball, or the Resignation Ball. Category is: La Fortaleza is Burning.
A crowd gathered (obviously) as some of Puerto Rico’s most beautiful and proud queers sashayed down a makeshift runway. Some carried fire. Some gave you face and body. Others did somersaults. Oversized fans among onlookers were flapping—hard. There was voguing, gravity-defying dips, and stylistic shows of flexibility.
This ball, the dancing, and the donning of the most flamboyant looks possible—this is what Puerto Rico’s queer activists call patería combativa, or combative queerness.
“The heteropatriarchy is very closely related to capitalism,” said Edrimael Delgado, who MC’d the Renuncia Ball. Delgado, the 23-year-old leader of San Juan’s burgeoning ballroom scene, said that queerness, as a subversion of the heteropatriarchy, is essentially a reprimand in the face of capitalism and state violence.
Protests in Puerto Rico started almost two weeks ago after a private chat between Governor Rosselló and his closest allies leaked, revealing 889 pages filled with misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and general indignation towards the people he purports to serve. To the dismay of millions, it wasn’t until almost midnight this Wednesday night that he finally announced his resignation, effective August 2, in a video posted to the Facebook page of the Governor’s Mansion.
Grounds for impeachment—based on offenses uncovered by the chat transcripts—had been found a day earlier by three attorneys commissioned by the president of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives.
The chat scandal isn’t the whole story, though. It was a truckload of fuel unloaded on a fire already lit. On July 10, a day prior to the initial leak, federal agents arrested several members of Governor Rosselló’s administration on a total of 32 counts of fraud, conspiracy, and related charges. Demonstrations have occurred ‘round the clock since, and not only at La Fortaleza—the Governor’s Mansion in Old San Juan—but in towns across the archipelago.
Puerto Ricans protested in the standard methods, like bomba y plena (historical protest music), signs, chants, the banging of pots and pans (called a calderazo), but also in some new and unexpected ways. The people’s message, #RenunciaRicky, was delivered by boat and jet ski, via underwater divers, on ATVs, through yoga en masse, and on horseback.
Noting the prevalence of women and queer folks on the frontlines, Jadriam Casado “Malatuya,”23, and Villano Antillano decided to cement the fact with a protest-within-the-protest that would speak directly to queer issues.
From a single-digit group chat, the Haus rapidly grew to include more than 100. The call to participate in or attend the Resignation Ball, or La Renuncia Ball, was open to anyone belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community.
Two medical students in the crowd said it was their only week off from school, and while the political revolution was calling, they’d debated attending—until they heard about La Renuncia Ball.
“This is a safer space to protest,” Edgardo Vargas, 26, said. “To be with your people, fighting for the same things.”
Félix Pérez, 25, added, “It’s important that we are present too, that we fight too—we are also part of el pueblo.”
“I think it’s really important that we did this,” Kaya Té said. “We didn’t know what would happen, we just knew we had to take up space. There’s a lot of things that need to be talked about regarding our needs and our safe spaces that aren’t being talked about in this big way. And we knew that this was a big opportunity to talk to other people and have other people see us manifesting ourselves in a happy way, against everything that’s happening.”
After the ball, those who were up for approaching the police barricades marched toward La Fortaleza as a group. Kaya Té took the megaphone, and was overjoyed when people they didn’t know began chanting in unison: “We actually got the big crowd, cis people and cis men, chanting with us. To hear a huge crowd around you screaming that they’re patas and putas was so fantastic,” they said.
For many Puerto Ricans, Roselló’s chat —which also included jokes about Hurricane María’s dead and threats to political opponents—was the last-straw revelation for a people already saddled by more than a decade of recession, government mismanagement, the effects of U.S. colonialism, and the 2017 crisis of Hurricane María. In the past few years, there’s been hundreds of public school closures, drastic drops in the public university system’s budget, cuts to pensions, and other austerity measures jointly rolled out by Puerto Rico’s government and the U.S.-appointed Fiscal Oversight and Management Board, installed in 2016 as a purported means of managing Puerto Rico’s $120 billion debt in bonds and pensions. Lest we forget the fact that nearly half the population lives in poverty and high rates of gender-based violence persist. Then there’s the 4,645 deaths of Hurricane Maria crisis, many of which, had the disaster been better managed, likely could have been avoided.
Additionally, a “religious liberty” bill that would allow government employees to deny service to citizens on the basis of religious object nearly became law in June (yes, they really did that during Pride Month).
Puerto Ricans are already calling for the renunciation of his successor, Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez. The movement for a better quality of life for all Puerto Ricans looks to be just beginning, and the Haus of Resistance continues. The chat remains not only a tool for organizing, but also way to collective ensure safety and self-care, to share resources like legal aid, and to keep everyone motivated for the long haul.
“This affects all of us,” Casado adds. “I want it to be clear and evident that the queer community is resisting and fighting.”
Jhoni Jackson is an Atlanta-born Cuban living her best pansexual, sober life as a freelance writer in San Juan, Puerto Rico.