In the latest episode of Elegance Bratton’s My House, the whole cast goes to Chicago to take part in the Midwest Awards Ball. Due to a variety of complications — the venue being too packed, eventually shutting down due to altercations — the primary reason they all attended the event was thwarted. This is not uncommon: other balls have certainly been shut down and competitors surely have missed out on the chance to compete because of the loose way events are thrown, from unclear starting times to attendees unable to hear what category is being called. But it does also give rise to thoughts that, though competing is one of the most publicized and prominent aspects of the community, it isn’t the only one.
“Society sees me as a fat black minority,” Precious Ebony says on the episode. “I go into ballroom and they see a big, talented, beautiful hearted, humble person and it’s amazing because ballroom has that fisheye of ‘We see everything else people say but this is what we see.’”
And that’s what the basis of ballroom is. As much as the community and scene are about voguing, walking categories, and building your own families, it’s also about being a person sitting at marginalized intersections, surrounded by others who are at those same, or similar intersections.
In the 2017-released film Kiki, Gia Love, a member of the kiki community, which is a subset of the overall ballroom community says “Queer people, we try to live in systems that are oppressing us, we try to live in these normative systems and they don’t work and they oppress us so why don’t we just create our own systems that work and are successful and uplift our own communities.” The ballroom community, with its vogue-centric events and house-based format, was that creation, uplifting queer people of color when others discarded them.
When the world wouldn’t let trans women exist as women, they became femme queens. When non-binary men were not allowed to express themselves, they became butch queens or sometimes butch queens up in drags, depending on their individual expressions. And when masculine appearing men were shamed for their feminine leaning mannerisms, they took on the descriptor “realness with a twist.” This was a world recontextualized.
“I love the ball scene,” a participant of Detroit’s Fuck Love Ball said on an earlier episode of My House. The participant had just walked “sex siren,” which is ballroom’s version of a type of “pin-up” sex appeal. “It allows me to be as gay as I want to. When you look at me, everybody expects me to be masculine,” they told the camera, “so when you get in the gay scene and the ballroom scene, it allows you to be gay as hell and not be held accountable for it.”
The ballroom scene became the new construct that queer brown and black people fashioned as a reaction to their place in the world. It was a space where everyone understood their circumstances, the ways these bodies would comport themselves for survival, and it would celebrate that skill. And then the scene would celebrate those same bodies for showing their true colors, and the talents that lay within.
But it is also a place of advocacy and activism. In Kiki, scenes show members of the community educating one another about how presidential elections can affect their real lives. Many balls, like the Latex Ball, which is considered by most to be the largest in the community and will occur in late July, are sponsored in part by sexual health organizations and host testing on-location. In fact, some organizers even provide incentive to use these services by offering free entry to the ball after testing. This community has a history of taking care of their own when no one else would.
Over time, aspects of that scene have been mainstreamed, Christopher Columbus-ed and divorced from their contexts — from these important, nuanced contexts. That has proved lucrative for a select few who have made a cottage industry off of their expertise as the bright lights are finally shined on their subculture. And they are right to do so; if anyone should benefit from this influx, should it not be the originators?
But one does have to wonder what is lost? While the hope is that we are at the place where there is no need for an underground place of refuge, that we are in a post-discriminatory world, we all know that’s not the case. So what is lost when this secret space of community is now so mainstream that brands like Coach and W Hotels are hosting the events?