A #tbt interview and photo shoot published in A&U Magazine.
An Epitome of Strength
Text and Photos by Alina Oswald
“You had me at Angels in America,” I tell Ron B. when I see her at the Manhattan Neighborhood Network studios, in New York City. She’s on the set, getting ready to tape yet another episode of her award-winning show, No Boundaries Up Close and Personal. There’s a gentle, quiet frenzy happening around us, as technical people are setting and adjusting lights and mics. Getting my own camera ready to snap a few shots of the celebrity host, I remind her about the time we met, in 2007.
She was performing at a World AIDS Day event that I was covering. Wearing black dress and tights, she seemed to be floating around the room, as she was dancing and engaging the audience ever so gently. Her bright hair reminded me of Tina Turner. Following her performance, we got to introduce ourselves. That’s how I found out that she’s a celebrity host, and national celebrity tribute artist (Tina Turner)—hence the outfit and hair—and that she’s also an actor who appeared in Angels in America [A&U, June 2012], the HBO mini-series. Myself, as an all-time fan of Angels, I knew then and there that I had to find out more about her.
Now, on stage at MNN, Ron B. laughs at the memory. She mentions that she was in this very same studio over twenty-five years ago, when two producers saw her and thought she would be perfect for a role, thus starting her acting career.
Ron B. is an LGBTQ+, and HIV and AIDS activist, and a transgender, nonbinary SAG-AFTRA actor who oftentimes plays both male and female roles. Over the years, she has appeared in movies and TV series, as well as on Broadway. Ron B. played Teedyuscung (which means “as far as the wood’s edge”), the King of Iroquois, in The War that Made America, a 2006 PBS mini-series about the French and Indian War. She portrayed three characters—Chaka Khan, Celia Cruz, a.k.a. the Queen of Salsa, and Tina Turner, in the Broadway play She Got Away, and also appeared in Shaft, Law & Order; as well as in the iconic Angels in America HBO (remember the funeral scene, when the camera pans over the people inside the church, zooming in on impersonators of celebrities such as Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, and (Ron B. as) Tina Turner).
Tina Turner has inspired Ron B. in many ways. Turner’s life has determined Ron B. to fight back, never give up, and never allow anybody to “break her spirit. In addition, there was a strong physical resemblance between the legendary singer and Ron B.’s mother.
Known as Ron B. in the entertainment industry as well as among fellow activists, Ron Balaguer was born and raised in New York City. She is an Indigenous, nonbinary actor and activist, with a heritage that one can only read about in history books. Her ancestors came from French Canadian Indigenous tribes who traveled across North America. Her father was Black Foot French Canadian Indigenous, and her mother was Cherokee. Her grandfather settled on the island of Puerto Rico, where he started a pharmaceutical company. A town on the island was named after him. Her great uncle, Joaquin Balaguer, traveled beyond the borders of the North American continent and became the President of the Dominican Republic. He was in power for twenty-six years.
Ron B.’s own spirit name relates to the symbolism surrounding the black panther, which, among others, represents femininity, guardian energy, the ability to know the dark, and reclaiming one’s power. And looking at Ron B.’s life, as well as at her art and activism work, it makes perfect sense. It is Ron B.’s heritage that has given her the necessary strength and determination to never give up.
Ron B. has always known that she was transgender, and, as a child and very young adult, she kept a diary, jotting down all her thoughts about the feelings she was experiencing. One day, her mother found that diary and asked Ron B. about it. And to this day, the celebrity host still remembers the conversation that they had:
“She said, ‘Is this yours?’ and I said, ‘Yes, it’s mine,’” Ron B. recalls, a faint smile on her face…. In the end, it turned out that her mother was very supportive. “She was always the driving force in my life,” the celebrity host comments. “She encouraged me to always follow my dreams.”
Today, Ron B. is a member of the Heritage of Pride, where she serves on two committees—the Taskforce and Diversity committees. She’s also the first Native transgender Grand Marshall to walk in the Staten Island Pride, as well as the first out trans, nonbinary SAG-AFTRA member. Over the years, she has received several recognitions for her activism and advocacy work—in 2016, at the New York City Council Pride Celebration, as well as in 2018, at the Indigenous Womxn & Womxn of Color Summit. And these are only a few, in a very long list of accomplishments.
One of her dreams that also came true is her show, No Boundaries Up Close and Personal. “No Boundaries, because there are no boundaries to what you can achieve,” she explains, “and Up Close and Personal, because, throughout my life, I’ve faced obstacles up close and personal.” She adds, “No Boundaries came about because, in my life, many people told me that I couldn’t do…a lot of things, and tried to discourage me, and I wanted to prove them wrong.”
The show, now in its second decade, has won several awards—most recently, the 2021 Hometown Media Award by the Foundation of the Alliance for Community. The award certificate mentions “The Best of About Access and Empowerment – Independent Producer.”
The show “aims to give voice” not only to members of the LGBTQ+ community in the New York City area, but also to well-known as well as emerging artists and activists from all walks of life and from all over the world. No Boundaries guests include award-winning performer, and HIV and AIDS activist Reverend Yolanda [A&U, March 2019], international LGBTQ+, and HIV and AIDS activist Carlos Idibouo [A&U, November 2017], singer Tara K. [A&U, June 2016], Mister Eagle NYC 2020, and other artists, activists, and allies of the LGBTQ+ as well as of the HIV and AIDS communities. No Boundaries provides a safe space and an opportunity for honest, open, and meaningful conversations about all aspects of life, no matter how unconventional or even uncomfortable they might be.
Nothing is off the table or, as the name of the show suggests, there are “no boundaries” to what can be safely and nonjudgmentally discussed. Some episodes focus on equal rights, while others are dedicated to Pride. There are spotlights on women empowerment and women in the arts, as well as interviews with local politicians, and even members of the U.S. military. There are also fun gatherings celebrating Halloween and Ron B.’s birthday, which falls around that time of the year, as well as candid conversations about more serious and sensitive aspects of reality, such as living with depression.
Ron B. points out that depression and mental illnesses are oftentimes considered taboo conversation topics that make many people uncomfortable. And yet, depression, in particular, affects so many individuals, and oftentimes those living with HIV and AIDS. Ron B., herself, candidly and unapologetically shares her own, personal story about living with and managing depression. “It is important to share my own story,” she comments, “because it makes me stronger.”
Other No Boundaries episodes focus on the various aspects of the ongoing HIV and AIDS pandemic. Some conversations share narratives about the time when an HIV-positive diagnosis meant an almost-sure death sentence, while others take a closer look at the modern-day pandemic, U = U, and also PrEP. Some conversations take on the issue of HIV in the SAGE community, while others offer a myriad of personal stories told by those living with the virus as well as their allies.
Ron B., herself, is not only a lifelong LGBTQ+ activist, but also a passionate ally of those living with HIV and AIDS, always educating herself about the virus, and advocating for individuals living with the virus. Maybe that’s because it is in her nature to be “a mother figure” and always be there for those in need and for the underprivileged. Maybe that’s because she has witnessed, firsthand, the suffering and loss HIV can cause. Or because she has lost people she deeply cared about to the virus.
“I remember my friend, Jason Bain. He was the outreach director at Heritage of Pride. It was back in the day, and he was admitted to the hospital,” Ron B. says. “When I went to see him, I had to put on a gown and mask. You had to do that back then.” Her voice trails. Her words linger as she pauses. “After he was released—that time he was released from the hospital—I went with him to his doctor’s visits. And he always had such a great attitude. I never saw him depressed. And, despite his HIV, he never stopped working, and bringing the community together.” She adds, “he passed a few years ago.”
Ron B. slowly shakes her head, and then goes on. “And, you know, my niece, who was in her late thirties, passed in 2006. It was Labor Day weekend. She was living with HIV, and she had quadruple bypass surgery. And then one day, she never woke up.” That particular experience indeed brought the entertainer up close and personal with the virus.
Losing friends and family members to HIV and AIDS has only inspired Ron B. to do more, and to give back. Over the years, during the holidays, she’d perform on shows for people living with the virus or make appearances at events supporting related nonprofits. She’d visit camps for children who were living with HIV. “There were children of all ages, from toddlers to young teenagers,” she recalls. “Many of them were born with the virus.” The experience has helped her better understand the effects of HIV on children, and thus inspired her, even more, to give back to the community, as well as to become an even more passionate and dedicated ally and supporter.
Ron B. has continued raising HIV and AIDS awareness by visiting places like the Rivington House, a former HIV and AIDS nursing home in New York City. Some patients were so emaciated that their bodies resembled human skeletons, she recalls. Some could still, if only barely, walk on their own, while others could not. Those who couldn’t walk anymore were placed and tied in their wheelchairs so that they wouldn’t fall. “There was this woman, maybe in her forties, tied to a chair,” Ron B. recalls. “She couldn’t talk. She had a small chalkboard, and she would write on it. That was the only way she could communicate.” Ron B. goes on, “I was performing, so I couldn’t allow myself to cry, but it took everything that I had not to show it, while I was crying on the inside.” She adds, “the experience has stayed with me ever since. It made me not to take anything for granted.”
Throughout the years, Ron B. has continued that meaningful and ongoing conversation about HIV and AIDS. She has continued to remind people, especially the younger generation, of what the virus can do and the suffering it can cause if left unchecked.
She has also talked about the modern-day HIV and AIDS pandemic, “because it is important to keep having that conversation, and thus to raise awareness. Because I think now it’s the time to open our eyes, go back to the basics, and become more aware of what’s happening around us. I think that there’s a complacency surrounding HIV, and that younger individuals think that HIV cannot affect us anymore. But it did! It hit many individuals with such a force that, at first, nobody could make sense of what was going on. And many people have lost their lives because of it. Because a virus—any virus—does not discriminate.”
Ron B. notes that something similar has happened with the most recent, coronavirus, pandemic. She also mentions the several vaccines and medications that scientists have already discovered for this particular virus, and in record time. And yet, people are still dying, refusing to get vaccinated and, hence, oftentimes succumbing to the virus. Drawing parallels between the two pandemics, Ron B. reminds that there is still no vaccine for HIV. There are several medications available that can help individuals live long and healthy lives, but there is no vaccine, no cure for HIV. Not just yet, anyway.