layleen polanco

Ballroom Family Remembers Layleen Polanco, Who’d Spent Week in Hospital While Jailed

House of Xtravaganza mother Gisele Alicea (left) and house daughter Alana Ramos watch a video of Layleen Polanco walking in a ball, on Thursday, June 13.
House of Xtravaganza mother Gisele Alicea (left) and house daughter Alana Ramos watch a video of Layleen Polanco walking in a ball, on Thursday, June 13. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The House of Xtravaganza is in mourning.

Layleen Polanco, the 27-year-old transgender woman who died in solitary confinement on Rikers Island last week, was a longtime member of Xtravaganza, a dynasty in New York City’s ballroom scene, comprised of a multigenerational chosen family of about 200.

THE CITY sat down with members of the Xtravaganza family in house mother Gisele Alicea’s Tribeca loft on Thursday, as she fielded calls and texts from her grieving brood.

The Xtravaganza community did not know that Polanco had been in jail since April or that she could have been liberated for $500 bail, and still grasps for details of her death.

“I just really wish that Layleen would’ve been — I would have known where she was or what’s going on,” Alicea said. “Maybe I could have helped her.”

One detail that THE CITY confirmed with sources on Thursday: Polanco had spent eight days of her recent incarceration in the hospital, two weeks before she died in solitary confinement on June 7.

“That’s very sad news because now we know she had health problems,” said Alicea. “That makes me even more angry because they knew she had medical problems and they still put her in solitary confinement. This is very alarming and I’m even more upset.”

Alicea first got the news of Polanco’s death right after coming offstage at a gala for the Latino Commission on AIDS at Cipriani on Friday, where she had portrayed the transgender activist Sylvia Rivera.

“I was like, ‘Another one?’ ” said Alicea, a model and actress. “Because it’s like, we’re dying so young. It’s too much. In our 20s, 30s, teens.”

House of Xtravaganza mother Gisele Alicea speaks to THE CITY from her TriBeCa home.
House of Xtravaganza mother Gisele Alicea speaks to THE CITY from her TriBeCa home. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

She ticked off six names in one breath. “It’s a lot,” she said. “It scars you.”

Polanco, 27, was a daughter of the house but also house mother to Alana Ramos, whom she met in Greenwich Village when the two were both teenagers.

Ramos remembers Polanco bounding down Christopher Street to befriend her, wondering how many freckles were on Ramos’ face.

She said Polanco loved sushi and house music and hugged every dog she saw on the street. She played Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover” on repeat. And she helped other young transgender women on their way.

“She saw so much potential in me,’” said Ramos, 28. “She said, ‘You’re gonna be a beautiful woman.’ ”

Her confidence had worn off on Ramos. “She didn’t take sh-t from nobody,” she said.

Unanswered Questions

Unanswered questions still dominate Polanco’s death. THE CITY has learned that, while she was jailed, she spent time in Elmhurst Hospital in Queens from May 16 to May 24. She died back at the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island two weeks later while in a Restrictive Housing Unit, which is a form of punitive segregation.

Hundreds of people packed into Foley Square to hold a vigil for Layleen Polanco on June 10, 2019.
Hundreds of people packed into Foley Square to hold a vigil for Layleen Polanco on June 10, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

New York City Health + Hospitals, which runs medical services at the jail as well as public hospitals like Elmhurst, did not disclose the reason for Polanco’s hospitalization, citing patient privacy.

The agency said Polanco was checked for health reasons that would exclude her from solitary before being placed there as punishment for her role in a fight.

Detainees with serious mental or physical disabilities or conditions are barred from those units under the Board of Corrections’s Minimum Standards, the bill of rights for people in city jails.

Daniel Fernandez, Polanco’s house brother, said she was as happy holding court at a nightclub as she was snuggling on the couch watching a movie. It pained him to think of her held alone in jail.

“She was just a regular girl who wanted to be loved, she loved affection,” he said. “She was a spiritual, humble person.”

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