Egyptt LaBeija sits at the throne of the ballroom and drag world. She’s currently the Overall Godmother of the House of LaBeija—in other words, a matriarch of New York City’s oldest and most hallowed chosen family for Black and Brown queer people.

For the past 35-plus years, LaBeija performed internationally as a model and showgirl. And this past Wednesday, June 5, she graced the stage at the Legends of Drag event hosted by the NYC AIDS Memorial and the Whitney Museum. She called the evening an opportunity to empower others through a routine she meticulously plans down to the song choice—pieces that particularly made a difference in her life.

Ball culture stems from a history of LGBTQ Black and Brown New Yorkers cast out by their families and White-led queer spaces. So they formed their own communities and queer spaces, usually named after luxury fashion brands.

House of LaBeija was the first, after drag ball judges favored a White contestant over a co-founder. They blossomed into a subculture of fashion and voguing, a highly-stylized competitive dance where participants strike pronounced poses. It’s downright impossible to avoid ballroom’s influences today, from the overt references in Beyonce’s “Renaissance” album to the general house music blaring throughout the city’s warehouses every Saturday night.


“When I leave that art, I like quiet—I have a husband and a dog,” she said. “I don’t want all that attention when I’m not on stage.”

Yet attention finds her. Last year, LaBeija was one of the subjects of the documentary “The Stroll,” which recounted the perspectives of Black and Brown trans sex workers during the 80s and 90s. She says the experiences she shared made her into a stronger and better person. LaBeija’s story and likeness are also reflected in photography books like Katsu Naito’s “West Side Rendezvous” and Mark Seliger’s “On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories.”

HBO ultimately picked up “The Stroll” and the film won a myriad of awards. But LaBeija did not know that when she signed up. For her, the importance of recording otherwise lost history is essential for the next generation of trans people. Others did the same for her, unconditionally.

“I started to hang out with [people] older than me, because I didn’t know their history and how they managed to get through all the stuff they went through,” said LaBeija. “That’s how I was able to get through [what] I went through.”

After all, she once was a sheltered youngster in Long Island who escaped to New York City to pursue her true authentic self and dream of becoming a showgirl. The journey took her to Detroit, back to New York City, and then, all over the world. But for her, center stage starts from the inside.

“I’m not better than anyone else,” LaBeija said. “I’m just better than who I used to be.”

Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting