A Portrait of Kiki: Interactive experience honors NYC kiki houses

“Chosen families” or found families play a vital role in providing unconditional support and occasionally financial or housing aid for queer youth.

According to a 2013 PEW Research Center study, 39% of queer adults have faced rejection from their birth families, while 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQIA+.

Chosen families are not necessarily replacements for biological families, but, as anthropologist Kath Weston argues, are complements for a lot of young LGBTQIA+ people. Not every queer person is rejected by their family or friends, and even if they maintain relationships with their biological family, it doesn’t mean they aren’t allowed to be welcomed into a chosen family as well.

For 42 years, the Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI) has described itself as “a chosen family for LGBTQIA+ young people who have been rejected by their family and are looking for a sense of belonging and affirmation.” HMI focuses on offering safety, mental health resources and other basic human needs to anyone searching for it. HMI primarily serves people between the ages of 13 to 24 and over 90% of the people they reach are people of color.

In coordination with Yahoo Studios, HMI produced an immersive project honoring a fundamental aspect of connection and acceptance in the LGBTQIA+ community — kikis.

Kikis grew out of Black and Latinx LGBTQIA+ social culture and while it references the gathering of friends to gossip and catch up, it’s also the name of the ballroom scene’s subculture that celebrates gender nonconformity, diversity, sexual openness and fluidity.

HMI and Yahoo’s project, A Portrait of Kiki, honors this history with photos and filmed interviews that retell the story of generations of artists, activists and organizers that paved the way for a better and more hopeful future for LGBTQIA+ youth. The community not only is a chosen family for some people, but also a creative outlet that stems from the resilience of every member before it.

In New York City alone, there are several active kiki houses that are each made up of a “mother,” “father” and “children.” Kiki house members will regularly get together for over-the-top competitions where each house member competes for a trophy and sometimes cash in a series of runway challenges and performance battles.

Membership for a kiki house is a big responsibility and not to be taken lightly. The difference between a kiki house and a ballroom house is that kikis are focused on youth specifically — particularly people of color.

Featured in the HMI experience are some of the leaders of kiki: Legendary Founding Mother Octavia Dior from House of Dior, Legendary Overall Mother London Mulan of The Imperial House of Mulan, Legendary Overall Father Kalik Louboutin of The Luxurious House of Louboutin and NYC Mother Shonteh Dior from House of Dior.

There are also some members of the Family, which include: Legendary Dontaé Old Navy, Athena Wang, Jah Jah 007, Mya Juicy Couture, Legin Juicy Couture, Moochie Mulan and NYC Prince Ken Mulan from Haus of Mulan.

Icons included in the project are Icon Founder Dicki Destruction Arizona of The International Indigenous kiki House of AriZona, Icon Founder Overall Mother Sharae Mattel from House of Mattel and Icon Tyra Old Navy from The Royal House of Old Navy.

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