How Voguing is saving young lives in Detroit

This documentary unpicks the fierce subculture offering solace for queer people in one of America’s most dangerous cities

Detroit, Michigan: known for its hulking, dilapidated skyline and skeletons of automobile factories left to rot. The ghosts of Motown lurk on street corners, and its suburbs that once housed two million people have witnessed a population that has steadily declined. “There's no denying the 'Detroit Decline' but I was curious to find the underbelly, what makes Detroit tick and how youth culture thrives,” says director Mollie Mills. “What you can't see but truly feel never left, is its essence.” That essence is hidden in the dance studios of 8 Mile and in backstreet bars that house a sparkling Voguing culture.

First visiting Detroit in 2014, Mills explored the city and used Instagram hashtags like #detroitmichigan and #detroitdance to explore how residents documented themselves and the city’s identity. There, she found Vogue-related uploads. Voguing, the stylised dancing that spawned from the Harlem LGBT ballroom scene in the 80s, is something Mills “heavily associated” with New York.

Mills says: “Detroit was recently called one of the most dangerous places for LGBTQ youth in America. There are over 13,000 youth in the states given foster care at any given time and a significant percentage identify as LGBTQ. Whether you're homeless or not, the hate crime statistics are phenomenal.”

How was Detroit, a mid-west, smoke-spouting city, home to such a colourful identity? “Eventually I found Michael, teaching Vogue to a group of 11-year-old girls at a dance studio off of W 8 Mile. I went back twice before he invited me to come to a Vogue club with him and his crew, House of Chanel. Naturally, I cancelled my flight and spent thanksgiving with them,” Mills explains.

“They took me to one of the most unbelievable clubs you could imagine – a doorway in the back of a car park, un-signposted and hidden from view. It was booming. This is Detroit, I thought at the time – energetic, full of life and holding onto something very precious.”

The House of Chanel opened up an energetic otherworld for Mills, who challenged the perceptions and stereotypes of “performative and fiercely theatrical Vogue”. In New York, there’s heavy competition and a sense of hierarchy. In Detroit, it’s about the release. It was a family. Mills observes: “They had found solace in one another and Vogue was their universal language. It just so happened it was amidst, as Ruby (Pseudo, Global Youth Researcher) so rightly put it, the overwhelming masculinity of Detroit – a city built on muscle cars, factory work, tyres and rubber.”

Vogue, Detroit captures the passion in the sweaty backstreet clubs, but also the cultural mainstay, Ruth Ellis, a centre that provides residential safe spaces and support services for runaway, homeless and at-risk LGBT youth. The centre is where a lot of revelers and residents learnt to Vogue. Michael is just one, who was the victim of a racial and homophobic hate crime that saw his house burned down and his two-year-old niece Mary killed in the blaze. Finding Ruth Ellis and the House of Chanel saw Michael get his life back.

As Alana says in Vogue, Detroit: “It's more than just a dance, it's a communication between us.”

Find out more about the Ruth Ellis center here. Follow Mollie Mills here