To say that I was starstruck wouldn't exactly cut it; to say that I was overwhelmed wouldn't, either. As a queer kid from Raleigh, N.C., who's just spending a semester in NYC, I certainly didn't think that I'd end my semester by sitting VIP at the birthday of an infamous photographer while an equally infamous woman took the stage.
But that's exactly what I was doing last Friday night. Famed celebrity photographer Mike Ruiz -- who has photographed the likes of Adam Lambert, Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé, to name just a few -- held a rockin' birthday bash at XL Nightclub, and New York's gay elite came in droves. Carmen Electra herself headlined the event, debuting her new club smasher, "I Like It Loud," in a purple studded leotard and rhinestone-encrusted platform sneakers. Other performers in the lineup included Janice Robertson and XL's own performing troupe, Hot Mess, who performed a rousing drag rendition of Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas."
The best part? Mike's birthday party was a benefit for the Ali Forney Center, NYC's leading shelter for homeless LGBT youth, which was devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Overall, the night was a stunning success, with Ruiz raising over $16,000. "I made AFC the beneficiary of my birthday fundraising drive because they suffered a huge loss at the hand of Hurricane Sandy," commented Ruiz. "Carl Siciliano and AFC do such amazing work on behalf of homeless GLBTQ youth in NYC."
But to be honest, I was pretty disoriented when I entered the club. I was only invited because I'm also raising money for the Ali Forney Center by running across the Brooklyn Bridge in high heels. In the hierarchy of the New York gay scene, that made me a small fry. I didn't really belong there.
Amidst the studded leather, sequined gowns and flashy necklaces, I had trouble understanding how this party was related to the struggles of homeless LGBT youth. From the looks of it, it seemed like any old big gay party. As I fumbled around the club trying to figure out where the coat check was, New York socialites passed by effortlessly. They seemed so poised, so connected, so at ease. What was I doing here?
Nonetheless, I found my way to the VIP section and sat down, pounding bass rattling the ice cubes in my drink. As well-coiffed person after well-coiffed person passed by my table, I continued to feel out of place.
The show began, and after an hour or so, Carmen Electra performed her new song. The crowd went wild, and I stood up to dance and began to feel comfortable. But on some level I was still confused: Did anyone even know what this fundraiser was for? Was this really raising awareness about the struggles faced by homeless LGBT youth?
But then Mike Ruiz took the stage. After being wished a happy birthday by Carmen Electra, he took the microphone and brought the whole evening home by asking his father to stand up. When Ruiz's father stood up, the crowd fell quiet. He said, "My father is here tonight, but all LGBT kids are not as lucky. Some kids' parents throw them out of the house. That is why we're here tonight, because everyone deserves a home."
Suddenly, it all came back into focus. While the party was incredible, at the end of the day, it was about celebrating in a way that gives back to those who are most vulnerable in our community. It was about keeping LGBT kids off of the streets. It was about acknowledging that we are a community and stand together when we face adversity.
After that, everything made sense. Whether you're running across the Brooklyn Bridge in high heels or holding your birthday party in a fabulous club, we're all in this together. We all strive for a more equal world, a world where kids won't be abandoned by their families simply for who they are.
That said, there's still work to be done. The Ali Forney Center is still getting back on its feet, and thousands of LGBT youth are still homeless in New York City.
And, oh! I almost forgot! Happy birthday, Mike.
On Dec. 15 Jacob will be running across the Brooklyn Bridge in high heels to raise money for the Ali Forney Center. To learn more, click here.
Follow Jacob Tobia on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JacobTobia