Ballroom competition at Rose M. Singer Center. Credit: Latima Johnson/NYC Department of Corrections

Rikers Island won’t be mistaken for Christopher Street anytime soon. But women and gender-expansive individuals detained at the Rose M. Singer Center jail—better known as Rosie’s—celebrated a West Village-worthy Pride extravaganza anyways this Thursday, June 29. 

The dress code mismatched beige jumpers with floral crowns, sequined headbands and feather boa scarves. Jordan Williams, the detainee emceeing the event, rocked a pink skirt and an ombre wig dyed light blue and pink to match the transgender pride flag. She says the festivities feature a grand assortment of “school boys, faes, and fem queens.” 

“Rikers is allowing us to celebrate the LGBTQI+ community,” added Williams. 

Event organizer Nadely Tavarez, who directs facility programs for the NYC Department of Corrections (DOC), says Pride at Rosie’s took extensive planning involving talent-searches, rehearsals, and attendance outreach. 

So how does one celebrate their sexuality and gender identity while in custody? With resilience and resistance, apparently, not unlike from the outside where their rights remain under attack in states like Florida and Texas through “Don’t Say Gay” legislation. The detainees observed Pride through a series of poetry readings and music performances. Between acts, they chanted “love” and hugged one another. 

The Pride event was also a homecoming for the Black and brown-led LGBTQI+ subculture known as Ballroom Culture. Miss Mojo of the Black Trans Femme of the Arts collective, one of the participating outside organizations at the Pride event, says “Ball culture” traces its roots back to Rikers Island. A main origin theory reportedly surmises detainees flipped through a Vogue magazine issue and mimicked the poses in rapid succession, which became “voguing,” a main influence for the Ballroom Scene where competitors dance, strut and preen their way to prizes and bragging rights. 

And did the attendees vogue it up. Williams swaggered out in a wedding veil and dress, which she twirled out of. Another competitor, Jasmine Ruiz, held a mock coronation for herself and a dance partner with gold crowns. And Miss Mojo concluded the contest with a “death drop.” All on the Rikers’ jail gym floor, repurposed into a catwalk while club music blasted over a pair of standing subwoofers. Miss Mojo says extending Pride to populations “typically erased from narratives” is critical. 

“We are them and they are us,” said Miss Mojo. “[Ballroom] started within these walls. [Rosie’s detainees] are brought into these walls. If one gets free, we all are free.”

A 2011-12 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey found that “sexual minorities” are disproportionately incarcerated and face higher rates of mistreatment, harsh punishment, and sexual victimization while navigating the criminal justice system. 

Beyond the voguing and the dancing, Ballroom provides a haven for the Black and brown LGBTQI+ community. But it’s hard not to notice the heavy metal jail doors or the thorough pat downs immediately outside. Pride flags and rainbow banners are hung on the same impenetrable concrete walls as DOC signs advising detainees to report slashing and stabbings. Yet even on Rikers Island and just for around three hours, the Pride event made everyone in attendance feel safe, seen and heard.

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

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