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My Life as One of the Children Biography of Kip Jalal BRITTON Aviance Preface Homage to Mother Juan, Mother of our Royal House of Aviance; homage as well to the Houses of Xtravaganza, Goonies, Ultra Omni, Mizrahi, Pendavis, St. Laurent, LaBeija and all other Houses past and present. I am honoured to offer the following account of my life as one of the Children, and as an honorary member of the House of Aviance, thus also as one of Mother Juan’s many, many children. Love is the Message. KJBA ------------------------------------ To explain who I am today, I must first explain how I came to be, for I am nothing if not an extension of those whence I proceed. I was born and christened Earnest Kipling BRITTON, the second child and only son of Robert Lee and Vivian Arthurmese Bell BRITTON, in West Monroe, Louisiana on the ninth day of the ninth month in 1964. My parents, who turned 42 and 45 the year I was born, were both of mixed origin—European, African and Native American, my mother of Creole extraction and my father of Breton origin—both also from very, very old Louisianian families, and both of regal blood. Maternally, my mother was a Sterling—a family which from the 1700s forward owned several plantations in and around Saint Francisville, on the Mississippi River north of Baton Rouge; the principal and most famous of these, The Myrtles, is also the most haunted house in America. Legend holds that Chlöe, mixed mistress of my great-great-great-grandfather Ruffin Gray Sterling, killed him and his White sons on the veranda of The Myrtles; Ruffin’s White wife had mandated that he return downriver and cease living with Chlöe at Wakefield, th plantation where my maternal grandmother and great-grandparents were born. The Sterling family is descended from King Alfred I “the Great” of England, 847-899 AD, and related to Napoleon Bonaparte by his brother’s marriage into the family. Choctaw blood proudly flows from my great-grandmothers down both sides of my mother’s line. My father’s family traces itself back to Sieur Jean LeBreton and the Battle of Hastings, where in 1066 William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, won control of the British Isles, seized the Crown and established his knights on land seized from conquered nobility; hence our Anglicized name “Britton”. My paternal great-grandfather Albert—half-African, half-European—was at one time the wealthiest landowner in North Louisiana, and remained its wealthiest Black man throughout the first half of the twentieth century. His grandfather (my great-great-great-grandfather) had given his father (my great-great-grandfather) as a gift to his daughter, my great-great-grandmother, whom she then freed and married. Albert married the daughter of a Cherokee (Tsalagi) squaw he saw crossing his land one day—presumably displaced from our ancestral North Carolina territory by the US government's forced removal/repatriation pogrom and genocide called the March of Tears. Their son, my grandfather Breard Earnest, Sr., married my grandmother Loreda, the delicate-boned, beautiful daughter of an adjoining landowning family also of similar triracial origin; three Ammons sisters married two Britton brothers and their uncle, as was commonplace in the old days, sealing the families and their landholdings in perpetuity. Grandmother Loreda’s popularity was legendary; when she died, the country church the family dominated was completely filled with her relatives—on one side all mixed, on the other all white, and all utterly devoted to her. Education is an overriding theme throughout my family’s history. My mother’s father’s father, an overseer for his White father, escaped death before the end of the Civil War with my young grandfather by jumping a train in the dark of night; a lynch mob in his native Mississippi was set to discipline him because he had been teaching other Blacks to read. My mother and her three sisters all attained graduate-level credentials and together devoted 106 working years to public education in Louisiana, mostly but not exclusively of children of colour. Britton-Rosenwald School, the one-room schoolhouse my great-grandfather built during those early segregated years before the Great Depresssion, educated nearly all his half-Cherokee children and grandchildren (including my father) along with those of his relatives, and of most of the other Black residents in the countryside; many of these residents also worked on his vast fields of cotton and soybeans or tended his herds of livestock. His son, my grandfather Breard Earnest, Sr., continued the family tradition of agriculture and philanthropy, and built the first Boy Scout camp for boys of colour on land he donated for the Scout’s use; my father was its first Scoutmaster. My parents met at Southern University in Baton Rouge around 1940, where all four Britton brothers met and married women who were themselves related by culture and/or blood (in true Creole tradition), such that I am in several cases related to the same people on both sides of my family. Later, my mother and first cousin braved flying desks and racial taunts to break the colour barrier at Louisiana State University’s then all-White graduate school (her brother Eugene, who taught me French as a child, similarly opened doors for Black undergraduate students at Princeton University some years prior). After moving to North Louisiana with my father, and alongside many other transplants from South Louisiana, she helped establish an enduring culture of social grace and educational excellence among North Louisiana Blacks that brought arts, debutante balls, college education and international renown to a sleepy segregated set of rural hovels and small-town communities at that time (and still today) plagued with Klan-style violence, stark economic disparity, systemic disenfranchisement and public disservice. My father, a Freemason of the 33rd degree, served as a Staff Sergeant during World War II (during which my aunt Theresa served in the mostly-white Women’s Air Corps, and my uncle Charles, Jr. in the equally-white fighting horseback cavalry, both in Western Europe), and subsequently broke the colour barrier in the US Civil Service, becoming the area’s first Black mailman. The same Klansmen who had then thrown bricks through our windows at night proudly appointed him to the town’s Board of Aldermen twenty years later, where he served for many years until, to their disappointment, he chose to resign in favor of a more leisurely life with my mother, in the family home he built for my mother’s retirement on our ancestral land. I tell you all this, because to tell you who I am I must first tell you whence I come, for as much as I am a product of my personal path, I am first a function of my ancestry—as true with my kin of birth as with my family of choice. I was thus born the Prince of my family, apple of both my grandfathers’ eyes and scion of two ancient bloodlines, in a family which boasts no less than nine nationalities from the Caribbean, Central America, Europe, Asia and Africa blended into our own gumbo of Louisianian ancestry. My sister and I (she to a markedly lesser degree, being fifteen years my senior) were born free of most of the restrictions and discrimination that my ancestors worked so hard to eradicate for all Louisianians of colour. Both my sister and I were educated and lived abroad, and have made our homes and lives outside Louisiana, as many in my family have. My sister attended Illinois Wesleyan (undergraduate) and Stanford (graduate) universities, and studied abroad in England. After parochial high school, I attended Georgetown University’s School of Languages and Linguistics, and the Université de Paris IV (La Sorbonne) in 1985, graduating with honours from Georgetown in 1986. While living in DC in 1983, my two-toned mohawk and I made our first trip to New York City, and our City club debut at Studio 54's famous Sunday Tea Dance (April, I believe). Later, in October if memory serves, I first went to the Paradise Garage on my second visit to the City. An up-and-coming (but not very popular) Italian American girl named Madonna was performing her second show ever that night, ahead of ex-LaBelle songstress-gone-solo Nona Hendryx. My first time around with Larry Levan was clearly a pivotal moment in my life—one whose import took years to completely understand, and for which I am forever grateful. Yet the crucial point in my coming of club age came three years later when I met Carl Sumter, the Clubhouse member who took me under his wing as a brother-protégé, as was tradition among the Children then. Carl convinced me to venture outside the circuit of DuPont Circle “White” clubs (Badlands, the Frat House, Mr. P's) where I’d hung for years and, oddly, felt “safe.” In May, 1986, Carl brought me to the dancefloor of the Clubhouse for the first time, where the world was redefined in sound by Mandrill, Tito and Sam "the Man" Burns (on whom I later developed the only, very benign crush). Life—my life as one of the Children—began in earnest that night, when I embraced house, disco and funk/R&B dance music in a black and Latin gay male underground club, and learned a different, deeper kind of social “safety.” Slowly, and with constant supervision, the elders let me loose among the boys and the “girls” and the beats and the drugs, always making sure I was underdosed and overseen until I’d learned how to handle the scene. So began my association with a decidedly gay yet uniquely beautiful young man named Juan whom I met at the Clubhouse that year, who could dance circles around God Herself and seemed to know everyone. So began my life-long connection with what was to become the great and powerful Royal House of Aviance whose praises we sing today as Mother Juan’s chosen children. Carl and his Clubhouse brothers brought me back to the Garage later that year; by then, I understood where I was and knew what I was doing. I had become one of the Children without even realizing it. My mother passed away in 1988, and in 1989, I left DC for good and returned to Europe on the heels of Malcolm McLaren’s release of “Deep in Vogue” to become a professional club kid on the glittering Riviera Adriatica in Italy, after meeting Willi and Cesar Valentin Ninja in Milano during the Romeo Gigli tour. Vogueing was all the rage in Italy then (the Italians were pitiful imitators at best, truth be told), and while I had never vogued in the States, I successfully parlayed my club life among the Children in Washington and New York (sadly, I never made it to the Catacombs in Philadelphia) into a three-year stint of partying for profit working as a professional club kid, an "animatore." I lived and worked in the opulent Riviera discothèques of Rimini and Riccione—Paradiso, Pascià, Cocoricò, Cellophane—and appeared in many others throughout Italy from Venezia to Bari, Val d’Aosta to Roma, Milano, Firenze and Bologna. During that same period, I appeared in a “vogue” scene in Fendi’s 1990 Fendissime runway show (which I also choreographed on the spot, the show’s Italian choreographer having no clue how to “work it”). I debuted that same year as a recording artist and songwriter on IRMA records ("Talking to You," National Rare Groove) and released my first solo, "Livin' the Nightlife," now an IRMA house classic. I also worked in Milan as a translator and English instructor. Throughout this period, I regularly returned to New York City, and always stayed over the weekend so that I could go to the Sound Factory, the alternate universe on W 27th Street which had opened after the Garage closed, made most famous by resident DJs Junior Vasquez and Frankie Knuckles. This giant sound temple, with the world’s then premier sound and light systems, was the new home territory of the House of Xtravaganza, backdrop for the fabulousness and excesses of the post-Garage era, and scene of legendary battles among José X, Mother Juan and countless other house legends. Three years later, in 1992, I realized I’d had enough of life as a European, and returned to New York to begin a decade of work reviewing nightlife in Time Out New York and Paper magazines, working freelance in mergers and acquisitions, then in advertising and public relations. Shortly after I returned to the States, I ran into Juan on the subway, and reconnected with the House of Aviance. Kevin, whom I also knew from the DC days, was coming into his own in New York, and through his successes Aviance became an internationally-known name, bringing long-overdue attention to his House Mother and helping to renew broader interest in the underground House subculture—its balls, its language, its music and its Children. In those days, the Sound Factory was truly everything. Junior played for the Children then, and recorded fierce tracks to suit gay Black and Latin underground tastes. All the Houses regularly brought it to Ganzaland. In those days, New York at night turned as it has seldom done since. Blessed are we who know because we were there, for we, too, turned. We, the New York Children, twirled and carried on through the glory days on W 27th Street, and even kept the spirit after Junior lost both it and the Factory by the mid-90s, finding beats and ball children with Danny Krivit at Sound Factory Bar, Timmy Regisford at Shelter, at Café Con Leche, la Esquelita, at the legendary Loft Preservation Society (produced by Steve Travolta and Cesar Galindo) functions and at smaller venues around the City. We also continued to turn for the souls of the many legends who had left us—Danny, David Ian and Angie Xtravaganza are just three from that era that come to mind. For a while, it seemed that House subculture would meet that same ignoble fate, as gay club culture in New York, hard-hit by HIV/AIDS, precipitously sank to the ugly lows of suburban closeted fiercelessness, catatonic no-dancing drugs, rampant gay Whiteness, miscoordinated and unflattering mall fashion, commercial Circuit-style stupidity and misogynistic slip-slop music that characterize mainstream clubbing in the City to this day. Through the perseverance of House parents like Mother Juan Aviance, David Padilla and Carmen Xtravaganza, and the founding parents of the Houses of Ultra Omni and Mizrahi among other standardbearers, House culture managed to weather those rather dark later-90s days of sad Shelter nights and unduly twisted Twilo pots-and-pans-a-thons (exceptions made by some for very occasional moments of thrill at Tunnel or Arena). The advent of Body&Soul and the reign of the Triumvirate (Danny Krivit, François Kevorkian and Joe Clausell) returned a sense of scale to New York underground clubbing, and legends like Princess X and Robert Valentin frequently gave late-set, lights-up madness in old Factory style (not to be confused with the “new Factory” madness on W 46th Street). While it clearly drew on (some might say co-opted) Garage and Factory legacy, Body&Soul, for all its beauty, was musically often simply not gay enough, or rather not gay long enough—but when it worked (which meant Danny Krivit was spinning), it could serve up a good taste of what we Children call “turning.” The involvement of GMHC’s House of Latex in community-based AIDS support and social work also lent a shot of adrenaline and a new creative aesthetic to ball competition around the turn of the millenium, commensurate with a “new way” of vogueing and a new kind of changeling (much less “show girl” and “supermodel” and much more “’ho bitch” and “babymovah”), both of which responded to a harder “street” edge making its way into gay subculture of colour from the mainstream through dress, music and attitude. That the elder, original House parents have made room in their hearts and houses for these “new way” kids is not only testament to the flexibility of their special brand of love and understanding, but also an important sign that the real principles of House subculture—the protection, guidance and mentoring of LGBT kids (and a couple not-so-LGBT, too) whose lives lack the love, support and structure (for example, food, bed and roof) of a functional family unit, and who through ball culture can dream beyond their limitations and live their fantasies out loud and on stage—are being carried forth to and through a new generation of Aviance kids and newborns in the other great New York Houses, both in the City and around the world. Professionally, since the engineered pseudo-events of September 11, 2001, I have been actively engaged as a freelance branding, advertising and marketing consultant, as well as a language instructor in French, Spanish, Italian and English in New York City. In 2005, I responded to my family’s call and left New York to caregive for my father, now deceased after 85 years of life. I am presently finishing a Master’s degree in Mass Communication at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where my mother broke the colour barrier fifty years ago. I am also Big Chief Te-Cum-Seh the First, second chief of the Flamingo Nation of Mardi Gras Indians in Spanish Town, Baton Rouge’s oldest neighbourhood (c. 1805), and very near the Old South Baton Rouge neighbourhood in which my mother was born 87 years ago. I tutor French, Spanish, Italian and English there, and am an active volunteer in local civic associations and social services distribution. I plan to return home to New York City as soon as possible after I complete my graduate study this fall. Mother Juan told me many years ago, “Boy, you know you’re an honorary Aviance. You’ve been around since the beginning.” I knew that he spoke the truth, but I really connect with that truth now that I find myself once again away from home. From afar, and through Facebook, I have come to realize just how far and wide Aviance has spread her wings. Here, away from the people and places I have come to call home, Aviance has been a pillar of sanity and strength for me. When I need to kiki, truly kiki, I can count on an Aviance to catch it, twist it and pitch it back fierce. When I feel alone, with no one around here who really understands how we Children experience the world, I can connect with Mother Juan or another of the House and speak from the heart, knowing that it will be received with love. Those exchanges can bring me up out of my funk with a quickness, and back on the balls of my feet to turn it another day. More than that, from my Facebook vantage point I see the breadth and depth of Mother Juan’s work all these years in the 800+ men and women who proudly wear the name Aviance literally the world over. Remembering that, once upon a time in 1986, I met this singular creature at a steamy, pumping private afterhours paradise in Washington, DC when the House of Aviance was a dream and a plan, makes me prouder than words can say. I knew him then, and know him now, to be a person of great heart and cool head, of unique and inimitable talent, and an original vogueing legend, to my knowledge the very first to "tut." The House of Aviance is because Juan is. The House should forever strive to emulate its Mother, and the model she sets for love, acceptance and support among our brothers and sisters. Yes, “our,” because while I’ve never walked a ball, Mother Juan has always assured me that I am, indeed, one of her Children. In terms of my life as an underground New Yorker, this designation is one of the highest honours ever to be bestowed upon me. I hold it dearly, as a stamp of validation for the amazing experiences Life permitted me to experience coming up through the 80s and 90s clubs, and a mark of pride to all those read this biography, and who thereby know that I, too, am one of the Children. In Aviance, with love, Kip Jalal Britton Aviance