For decades, ballroom, ball or house culture has been a way for queer blacks and Latinos to live their best lives – that is, to figure out how to respond to a society that devalued their lives and attempted to erase their presence. Through elaborate performances incorporating and commenting on race, class and gender, the ball community has historically reflected the American Dream and one’s exclusion from it.
With their groundbreaking musical dramaPose, FX and Ryan Murphy attempt to explore what life was like for gay, trans, and gender non-conforming individuals in New York’s ballroom community in the mid-1980s, before the culture crossed over into the mainstream, as facilitated and appropriated by, among others, Madonna’s “Vogue” and Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning.
Between “Vogue” and Pose, RuPaul’s Drag Race has managed to fill the generational gap, bringing the ballroom to television’s main stage, and piling up ratings and awards in the process. What emerged from, in the words of Langston Hughes, the “strangest and gaudiest of all Harlem spectacles in the ’20s” is no longer a reflection of the ever-declining American Dream, but rather a more fabulous alternative to it.
But how does everyone and their grandmother know what throwing shade is? How come little white girls in Europe are voguing the house down? And how did a show starring predominantly black and brown queer and trans people become one of the most anticipated television events of the year? Because at a time when the rights and freedoms of queer people of color are increasingly at risk, the history of ball and house culture is more vital than ever.
“A Keenness for Blond Wigs”
The Hamilton Lodge No. 710, a club for well-to-do African-Americans, started throwing a charity masquerade gala, the Annual Odd Fellows Ball, around 1867–69. Featuring men in female drag and women in male drag, the event was later known as the “Faggots Ball” or the “Fairies Ball.” Prizes would be given out for most beautiful gown and “most perfect feminine body displayed by an impersonator.“
Though held in Harlem, often at the Rockland Palace, the ball attracted people from all over the country. An 1886 article in the black newspaper The New York Freeman, later known as the New York Age, called it “the event of the season.” The 1929 ball reportedly had to turn away some 2,000 would-be spectators and the 1936 ball had 8,000 attendees.
Although the Hamilton Lodge was a “colored organization, there were many white people present and they danced with and among the colored people,” wrote the New York Age in 1926. The paper went on to describe the “fairies” and “Bohemians from the Greenwich Village” who “took the occasion to mask as women for the affair….in their gorgeous evening gowns, wigs and powdered faces [they] were hard to distinguish from many of the women.” In a sign of every time, a 1932 article from The Afro-American noted that “our members of the third sex are showing a keenness for blond wigs.”
A 1927 New York Age article describes the judging process and a “grand march” which led to “several eliminations” and six prizes being awarded, adding “the police did not find it necessary to raid.” The 1938 soiree wasn’t so lucky, as a New York Age headline yelped: “Fifteen Arrested By Police as ‘Fairies’ Turn ‘Em On.” They were charged with “offering to commit lewd acts.”
Though members of the Lodge sought “a racially and economically diverse audience,” and lowered the price of admission so black Harlem residents could attend, the balls still exploited racial and class divisions. Langston Hughes, in his autobiography The Big Sea, calls the ball the “strangest and gaudiest of Harlem spectacles,” and describes how the city’s “intelligentsia and social leaders” would “look down from above at the queerly assorted throng on the dancefloor, males in flowing gowns and feathered headdresses and females in tuxedoes [sic] and box-back suits.”
George Chauncey calls this the codification of “the differences between the public styles of middle-class and working-class gay men” in his book, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World. “Middle-class men passing as straight sat in the balcony with other members of Harlem’s social elite looking down on the spectacle of working men in drag.”
Black queens were expected to whiten their faces if they expected to win prizes, as is implied in the 1968 documentary, The Queen, by Frank Simon, which follows the 1967 All-American Camp Beauty Contest. In its most famous scene, Crystal LaBeija accuses the contest of being rigged by Flawless Sabrina, who serves as the contest emcee and the doc’s narrator, in favor of her “protégé” Harlow.
“It was our goal then to look like white women,” Pepper LaBeija told Michael Cunningham. “They used to tell me, ‘You have negroid features,’ and I’d say, ‘That’s all right, I have white eyes.’ That’s how it was back then.”
A House Is a Home
Due to increasing racial tension, both in the ball community and in America as a whole, black queens began seeking out their own spaces. Marcel Christian (LaBeija) is credited with staging the first black drag ball in 1962.This splintering of the community led to the formation of “houses.”
The House of LaBeija may have been the very first house, founded in either 1970 or 1972, though accounts differ. As legend has it, a Harlem drag queen named Lottie asked Crystal LaBeija to co-promote a ball. Lottie convinced Crystal, always a stickler for self-promotion, to do the ball by suggesting she start her own group, the House of LaBeija, wherein Crystal would be the “Mother.” The house then became a surrogate family for young queer black and Latino kids, who were often estranged from their biological families, living on the street, turning tricks, or otherwise struggling to get by.
Soon, other houses followed: the House of Corey, the House of Dior, the House of Wong, the House of Dupree, the House of Xtravaganza, etc. The founding years of these houses vary by source, but the majority sprung up throughout the ’70s and ’80s. The houses, in an attempt to outdo one another, would throw their own balls. Paris Dupree, Mother of the House of Dupree, threw the first Paris Is Burning ball around 1981.This, according to Kevin Omni, Mother of the House of Omni, was the first time the categories took precedence at the balls.
There had always been categories – “most perfect feminine body displayed by an impersonator” is basically just “Cheesecake” today – but then they really started to take on nuance in the early 1980s.
“So there was a category called butch realness and another called models effect and another called face,” Omni explained in an article by Tim Lawrence. “Then we created all these other categories, like executive, town and country, ethnic, and they continued to develop through the eighties.”
These categories measured “realness,” the best approximation of an archetype, which in itself was a reflection of society and a world to which they couldn’t gain entry. As Dorian Corey, Mother of the House of Corey, observes in Livingston’s Paris Is Burning:
“In real life you can’t get a job as an executive unless you have the educational background and the opportunity. Now, the fact that you are not an executive is merely because of the social standing of life. Black people have a hard time getting anywhere and those that do are usually straight. In a ballroom you can be anything you want. You’re not really an executive but you’re looking like an executive. You’re showing the straight world that I can be an executive if I had the opportunity because can look like one, and that is like a fulfillment.”
“What Are You Looking At?”
Voguing was a nonviolent way of fighting during the balls, and is generally divided into three phases. Old Way emerged in the 1960s and was basically posing, emulating movements from the fashion magazine from which the dance takes its name. New Way, developed in the 1980s and was more dynamic, acrobatic, and athletic, often involving contortions and martial arts influences – it is perhaps best exemplified by Willi Ninja, known as the Grandfather of Vogue, whose House of Ninja has become synonymous with voguing; the third and most recent form, developed in the mid-90s, is Vogue Fem, which involves hyper-effeminate posturing along with intricate hand and arm movements and dips, often known as deathdrops, The evolution of voguing also coincided with the shifting aesthetics of ballroom culture, away from pageantry and movie stars to high fashion.
The underground scene in Harlem began finding its way to the mainstream in the late-1980s, when the action of Pose takes place. In 1987, fashion designer Patricia Field established the House of Field, the first white downtown house to walk the uptown balls. In 1989, Willi Ninja appeared on the Malcolm McClaren song “Deep in Vogue” and in its accompanying music video. Ninja would go on to teach runway walking, counting among his students catwalker extraordinaire Naomi Campbell. In March 1990, after being introduced to voguing by Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza and Luis Camacho Xtravaganza at New York’s Sound Factory dance club, Madonna came out with the song and video “Vogue” in 1990, which becxame one of the biggest and most defining hits of her career. The following year, Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning duck-walked into U.S. theaters and won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
Though the film has been subject to any number of criticisms – for reinforcing gender, racial, and social stereotypes, for being shot exclusively from a perspective of white privilege, for not properly compensating its participants – Paris Is Burning remains the encyclopedia for modern ball culture. At least, it was until RuPaul’s Drag Race, which introduced a new generation, one that may have never seen Paris Is Burning, to the vocabulary and references the doc had, unbeknownst to them, popularized.
To paraphrase one of those famous quotes: They brought it to you at every ball – why y’all gagging so?
“You Own Everything”
The most tragic irony of the proliferation of ballroom culture is that many of its founders and stars – who sought fortune and fame or at least the next best thing, a trophy – never got to see it. It’s therefore impossible to talk about the ball and house community and not discuss sexual violence and the AIDS epidemic.
After meeting young Venus Xtravaganza in Paris Is Burning, we learn from her mother Angie, near the film’s end, that she was murdered by a john. Angie, herself, died from AIDS-related complications, as did Dorian Corey, Willi Ninja and too many others. In 1990, GMHC launched the Latex Ball in order to distribute health information to the ball community; celebrating its 28th year this month, the Latex Ball is the world’s largest, attracting thousands of people from around the world, and offering, in addition to competitions in various categories, free HIV testing and prevention materials.
In 2017, 28 transgender people were reported murdered, the majority of whom were trans women of color. As with Venus Xtravaganza, their murders often go unsolved. In addition to suffering higher rates of violence and murder, the trans community also faces discrimination in employment, health care, housing, immigration, and most recently military service, as well as disproportionate rates of imprisonment which leads to further violence and abuse behind bars.
That is not to say, however, that nothing has changed for the better. Groups like the National Center for Transgender Equality – as well as GLAAD, GMHC and HRC, among others – continue to fight on behalf of queer, trans and gender non-conforming people. And despite an increasingly hostile administration, LGBTQ people have far more agency and visibility than in any time in history. The 2016 documentary Kiki – a 21st century Paris Is Burning co-written by ballroom performer and LGBTQ homeless youth advocate Twiggy Pucci Garçon – earned raves for its inspiring take on the state of ball and house culture and the inclusion of Garçon in shaping the film.
Pose – which counts writer and activist Janet Mock as a producer, writer and a director – employs more than 140 LGBTQ actors and crew members and features the largest cast of transgender actors in series regular roles ever. Not content with just making history, Murphy announced last month that he will donate all of his Pose profits to trans and LGBTQ charities.
Pose, much like Paris Is Burning before it and The Queen before it, is a watershed moment in the representation of ball and house culture. But it’s also an evolution. Where those films were small documentaries that found niche audiences – and eventual cult followings – Pose is about as mainstream as you can get. This is a culture, a community, and a history that deserves the prestige television treatment. Unequivocally, that’s a good thing. And it is also a fulfillment of those defiantly opulent Harlem balls of the 19th and 20th centuries, proving once and for all, that they did, in fact, own everything.