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Volume 35
Issue 06
 
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Past Out by Liz Highleyman
What is the history of drag balls?
by Liz Highleyman - SGN Contributing Writer

Cross-dressing at social gatherings has long been a prominent feature of GLBT culture, and from the 1970s onward, the drag ball community has provided a surrogate family for many black and Latino Gay and Transgender youth.

The contemporary African-American drag ball scene has its roots in the late 19th century, when a massive migration from the South gave rise to flourishing black Gay communities in northern cities such as New York and Chicago. During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, masquerade balls attended by thousands took place regularly at venues such as the Rockland Palace and the Savoy Ballroom, with prizes awarded for the best costumes. Renowned author Langston Hughes once described such events as "spectacles of color." In addition to black Gay participants, the balls also attracted white homosexuals drawn by the tolerant atmosphere, as well as "slumming" straight spectators.

The New York drag ball scene enjoyed a revival in the 1970s, and reached the height of its popularity in the late 1980s. This era witnessed the creation of legendary "houses" such as Dupree, LaBeija, Omni, and Xtravaganza. During these years, Pepper LaBeija started the annual Harlem Fantasy Ball, while Paris Dupree created the Paris Is Burning Ball. Erstwhile punk impresario Malcolm McLaren highlighted the ball culture in his 1989 music video, "Deep in Vogue"; but the scene really burst into mainstream public consciousness a year later with the release of Jennie Livingston's documentary film Paris Is Burning and Madonna's hit song "Vogue."

Ball houses featured a Mother and Father (designations independent of gender) who looked after the welfare of numerous children. Over time, several houses spun off chapters in cities beyond New York. On his "House of Balls" website, Aaron Pierre Brown (aka Aaron Enigma) lists more than 100 houses, many named after fashion designers such as St. Laurent, Givenchy, and Blahnik. Houses often served as substitute families for young Gay men and Transgender people who had been rejected by their families of origin due to their sexuality or gender nonconformity. Though many were poor and survived on sex work or petty crime, everyone aspired to fame or fortune - or at least the illusion thereof. As house mother Pepper LaBeija explained, "Some of them don't eat, they sleep under the piers, and they steal something to wear for one night to live the fantasy."

Some participants have described houses as akin to "Gay street gangs," and balls served as an arena for personal and interfamily rivalries. Typically held late at night in community centers, hotel ballrooms, or nightclubs, the events offered contestants an opportunity to "walk," or compete, in a wide range of categories.

While drag queens traditionally portrayed divas of the silver screen, younger aficionados turned to television characters and supermodels as role models. "When I grew up you wanted to look like Marlene Dietrich or Marilyn Monroe, but now they want to look like Alexis from Dynasty," lamented old-school queen Dorian Corey in Paris Is Burning. "It's not about what you can create, it's about what you can acquire." By the 1980s, ball competitions expanded beyond female impersonation to include all manner of costuming. Transgender women who had begun taking hormones ("femme queens") had their own categories, while Gay men ("butch queens") could either dress as women or compete in masculine categories such as military or executive wear - illustrating that drag could be as much about race and class as it was about gender.

In addition to costuming and style, participants were also judged on the quality of their "voguing," a dance form that incorporates the stylized poses of fashion models along with elements borrowed from mime, gymnastics, and martial arts. The most famous voguer to date, Willi Ninja, parlayed his appearances in McLaren's video and Paris Is Burning into a career as a dancer, choreographer, and instructor of professional models and socialites.

While the ball scene's moment in the spotlight was brief - and many of the early legends, including Corey and Ninja, were lost to AIDS - ball culture continues to thrive, as portrayed in the more recent documentary How Do I Look (2005). With the help of magazines, websites, and blogs, the ball scene has extended far beyond its origins, with events in cities such as Atlanta, St. Louis, and Los Angeles. Continuing in the tradition of providing support for GLBT youth, the ball community has embraced fundraising and HIV prevention, spawning organizations such as the House of Latex (founded by Gay Men's Health Crisis in 1989).

In the wake of Paris Is Burning, the ball scene prompted much discussion among academics and activists about drag, gender, the nature of identity, and mainstream appropriation of marginalized subcultures. "The erasure or silencing of identity through the use of illusion might be considered simply an act of entertainment in the context of the balls if it weren't such a willful act of survival and affirmation exercised in a state of increasing desperation," wrote poet Essex Hemphill. "The yearning festering behind the illusions is a yearning for a full equality and a common privilege that the United States has yet to deliver."

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
 

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