About Lee Soulja Simmons: A Figure of Black LGBTQ+ History
I met Lee at the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, and was welcomed with open arms. From the moment I sat down with Lee I knew the interview would be something special. He is a warm, passionate person who makes each person he addresses feel seen, heard, and completely comfortable.
Lee Soulja holds many titles, and harbors a host of talents. Lee has traveled and toured internationally, appeared in Pose, Law & Order, and New Amsterdam, been featured in The New York Times, and performed at Lincoln Center and the historic Apollo Theatre. He is a community leader, Founding Father of the House of Soulja, creator and Executive Director of the NYC Center for Black Pride, event promoter, and visual performance artist. But, before he was each of these things, he was a dancer.
Lee was born in the Bronx, which many view as the birthplace of hip hop, and which also gave birth to Lee’s own interest in dancing. Growing up, Lee’s mother worked two jobs and went to school, leading him to spend a lot of time at his grandmother’s home, which was at the heart of his own dance scene. Lee did well academically and cared for his grandmother, and this maturity gave him a degree of freedom that led to the explosion of his dance career.
At the beginning of our conversation, Lee painted a picture of life in the 70s at PS 100 park, where he, his friends, and the community would gather, rope off a DJ area and a makeshift dance floor, and perform for the crowd. By 1979, around the time that Lee was 14-15 years old, he and his best friend were looking to earn money using their talents, and they headed downtown to become club kids. They’d piece together their own unique looks and styles to stand out, and would dramatize their way into different clubs and underground scenes to showcase their skills.
The first time Lee and his friend Jude talked their way into a club led to them falling in with a group and getting into the Paradise Garage. The Paradise Garage was an influential club in New York City that was open between 1977 and 1987. It is now considered an NYC LGBTQ Historic Site, and it’s demographic was primarily African-American gay men. It was a hub of Black LGBTQ nightlife and culture, and it was at the Paradis Garage that Lee’s life and career truly began, and where Lee Soulja, the artist, was truly born.
At the Paradise Garage, Lee fell more deeply in love with dance. His first visit to the club kick-started his dancing career, leading him and his friends to paid opportunities doing what they loved.
Even amidst the glamor and joy of the late 70s dance scene though, Lee was not exempt from the colorism, discrimination, and prejudice that pervaded the predominantly white spaces he entered, even those that were also a part of the LGBTQ+ scene.
Despite being a paid dancer to perform at the club, Lee was often stopped by venue security to have his bag searched or be patted down while other, lighter-skinned dancers flew through check-in. Experiencing first hand how certain NYC and NYC LGBTQ+ clubs treated their black and darker-skinned workers, Lee considered the way different venues were potentially treating their black patrons, and began to be intentionally selective with where he took jobs.
As he continued to grow his dance career, Lee gradually gained a following, and was eventually invited to perform at a Thierry Mugler show in Tokyo, where he met Willi Ninja.
Following in the influential footsteps of Ninja, the godfather of vogue, Lee, now 21, went to the Philippines to perform, bringing voguing along with him, and, once he left, returned to the United States, attending his first ball with Willi himself.
While he wasn’t identifying as gay or as part of the LGBTQ community at the time, Lee was attracted to the ballroom scene and fell in love with it because of the community’s welcoming nature. At his first ball, Will introduced Lee as his brother, and Lee found he had an instant, nurturing, and affirming family, regardless of his sexual identity. While he went to balls frequently, it was a while before he took to the floor himself. In the meantime, he enjoyed his newfound family, and the love they showed each other so openly and generously.
Lee considers the 80s and 90s to be the formative and development years of his life. At the same time as the HIV/AIDs epidemic was beginning, while many of his friends were dying, or hospitalized, or battling the lasting effects of AZT, Lee was simultaneously beginning to question his sexuality. He included these factors, along with the discrimination he had faced during the height of his dancing career, among the things that changed him and altered the trajectory of his life, causing him to get more involved in community-based work and organizing to raise awareness and combat stigma.
His interests (in dancing and parties, and his involvement in the entertainment industry more generally) began to morph slightly and lean more towards activism and advocacy as he volunteered his time to not only advocate for his friends and the people he cared about, but also to procure a future for the community and himself, as he realized he could easily be in the same position.
Around the time that Lee became more actively involved activism and community work, he began to openly identity as bisexual, although he says that if he’d known then and had access to the language that we have today, he would have identified as pansexual.
As he began to live more of his truth, Lee encountered a number of other life changing experiences. He has battled, and beat, cancer three times, worked on celebrity product launches, come more into his identity as a visual artist (using his body as a visual art piece and walking in his first ball, The Latex Ball, which raises money for HIV and AIDS), and is now living with HIV. After becoming HIV positive in 2010, he has encountered a number of health challenges, all of which have only empowered him on his journey to mentor and help others, and have driven him to continue advocating for his community and their needs.
Through his work as a visual artist and his involvement in the ballroom community, Lee found he was able to bring more awareness to the issues he cared about and challenge societal norms through his artistic presentation. He used his positioning within ball culture and community life alongside his experiences in life, entertainment, and art to continue elevating his advocacy work. Overall, Lee’s platform began to grow substantially, expanding his personal reach and the range of his influence.
Simultaneously, Lee was enlisted to help organize and plan events for Black Pride in NYC. When the organization hosting New York City’s Black Pride events was shutting down in 2008, Lee and a few others stepped in to save the celebrations and put the events on themselves, and Lee has recently created an organization, the NYC Center for Black Pride, to further commit to showcasing and celebrating the deep, rich histories of Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ people.
About NYC Black Pride 2022
The first year that Lee and his colleagues took over Black Pride, in 2009, they called it Jubilation, to honor the legacy of Black Jubilees in the U.S. South that aimed to bring together, and celebrate, community.
They found they wanted to reinvent Black Pride, and one of their main goals was to turn Black Pride into a space and set of events that intentionally celebrate and acknowledge the contributions and history of Black LGBTQ+ people, as Black LGBTQ+ people’s contributions have always been instrumental to creating, both past and present, LGBTQ+ culture and events, but are often disregarded, forgotten, and left out of the record of LGBTQ+ history.
Another of their main goals, as they reoriented the focus of NYC Black Pride, was to welcome the many diverse perspectives and identities within the community to help plan the events. The group wanted to be able to authentically tell and celebrate a variety of stories and highlight multiple different perspectives within the Black LGBTQ+ community through NYC Black Pride events. In broadening the scope of perspectives involved in the planning of NYC Black Pride, the team showed a true commitment to recognizing the privilege that exists even in certain marginalized identities.
Lee himself acknowledged that, although he was marginalized in his identity as a Black gay man, he also had a certain degree of male privilege, which is why he wanted to bring in other intersectional perspectives for a truly inclusive and celebratory Black Pride.
Under the direction of the NYC Center for Black Pride, Black Pride isn’t a one time celebration. The organization and its passionate team members host and organize community events throughout the year, including feeding the homeless on Thanksgiving. After 2009, Black Pride became an organization that sought to bring the community together, uplift and support youth, and bring awareness to not only the community’s struggles and hurdles, but also the community’s cultural contributions, achievements, and Black LGBTQ joy year-round.
While the focus is on Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ people and their culture, Lee and his companions at the NYC Center for Black Pride welcome all who wish to genuinely celebrate and appreciate the cultural festivities to join in NYC Black Pride.
After nearly 13 years of successful Black Pride celebrations with Lee Soulja Simmons at the helm, NYC Black Pride is celebrating it’s 25th anniversary. The group has stayed motivated and commited to the missiont hrough the community work they’re doing and the tangible impact they’ve had. Lee said that he himself has remained driven and inspired as he finds that the work he’s doing isn’t just keeping Black Pride alive, but keeping himself alive as well.
The NYC Black Pride 2022 Schedule
This year’s NYC Black Pride will take place from Wednesday, August 17th, 2022 to Sunday, August 21st, 2022.
The events will showcase a number of culture-driven celebrations, including their first annual Black Pride Expo (which will include a NY Trans Bodybuilding Competition, a Mr. & Miss Black Pride International show, a Black Out Concert, a Black Pride Miniball, and more) and Pride at the Beach on the Coney Island Boardwalk.
NYC Black Pride 2022 is sure to be a can’t miss event. Check out the schedule below, and support the community by attending the upcoming Black Pride events: