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LGBTQ community finds safety and solidarity in throwback balls 

Queer&There

click to enlarge Hosts practice their vogue for this week’s all-ages ball. - HEIDI BEEDLE
  • Heidi Beedle
  • Hosts practice their vogue for this week’s all-ages ball.
On Oct. 21, The New York Times published a piece examining the Department of Health and Human Services’ push for a narrow definition of gender, determined “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.” This definition of gender could lead to widespread discrimination against transgender people in employment, housing, health care and education.

Community is more important for trans people now than ever, though historically the LGBTQ community has been forced to look out for itself. From the Molly Houses of Victorian England to Christopher Street and the Castro District, we always survive, thrive and endure in the face of overt hostility from straight, cisgender society, and — as in the case of the infamous Stonewall Riots of 1969, when trans women and butch dykes physically pushed back against the NYPD’s attempts at enforcing laws against homosexuality and cross-dressing — we fight back.

In the ’80s and ’90s, the LGBTQ community came together through balls, a kind of performative, competitive fashion show that allowed LGBTQ people, especially trans men and women, to fully express themselves. (The 1990 film Paris Is Burning documents ball culture, as does the critically acclaimed FX series, Pose, which features a diverse cast led by trans women.)

On Saturday, Nov. 10, Jon Bataille of The Gallery Below and drag queen Madame Creole LaVeau will host an all-ages ball.
“In the 1970s ball culture started emerging,” explains LaVeau, “... It was really about providing a safe haven for the LGBTQ community, and this ball is about creating a safe space for the youth, so they know they have these spaces provided for them.”

Balls originated within the African-American LGBTQ community. “Even within the early stages of the gay rights movement there was still segregation between the white queens and the queens of color,” says Bataille. “That division created that marginalized group within a marginalized group. That division forced ball culture to be more concentrated among those who needed a family and those houses and a support structure.”

During the height of the AIDS epidemic, when thousands of people were dying every week across the country, balls were a unifying element and a safe space in an otherwise hostile world, but by the end of the ’90s, balls had waned in popularity and had been appropriated by straight, cis society (think Madonna’s 1990 hit, “Vogue”), though vestiges of ball culture can still be seen in media like RuPaul’s Drag Race.

“Houses,” kind of like teams, organize the ball scene and provide mentoring and support to members of the community. They are led by a house mother or father, who serves as a mentor for newer performers. “It reinforces the concept of the chosen family,” says Bataille. “A lot of times these queens, they were thrown out of their homes.”

“Especially in the ’80s, there was a lot of homeless LGBTQ youth,” notes LaVeau. “RuPaul was one of those homeless queens. They lived together and provided for each other and performed together when they were rejected by their families.”
Balls offered members of the LGBTQ community an opportunity for status and recognition that they were generally denied within mainstream society. “When a marginalized group is marginalized within a marginalized group, where does that group of people go to feel connected with their community and to feel special?” asks Bataille. “I feel like that transformative nature is important to bring to the Springs and to any kid or individual who doesn’t have easy access to a place where they feel accepted and safe.”

LaVeau admits that the glamour and sensationalism of the ball scene can seem overwhelming, especially for people just getting started. “My first experience was hard. To see a bunch of kings and queens who look so great was hard, but it pushed me to be more myself. We want to provide that support to the youth.”

Getting involved with ball culture and drag can also be daunting when one considers the art form’s reputation for cattiness. The archetypal “bitchy drag queen” can seem intimidating, but Bataille notes that too has its roots in queer survival: “It keeps your claws sharp. When you go out into the world and people are attacking you, you have to be quick-witted and ready to go. You have to be able to flex your muscles. Amongst people who have developed these skills from years of bullying and abuse, to one-up each other as far as being creatively cruel becomes a game.” But, as this will be a youth event, Bataille is quick to point out that “while we acknowledge that history, it isn’t welcome here.”

When people participate in a ball, they “walk” in a variety of categories. The categories are usually a fashion style or aesthetic, and a panel of judges grades each walker. Participants walking categories do not have to be drag queens or kings, and they don’t have to be part of a house. “It gives everyone a chance to participate in the ball and allows them to know that this is a free space for everyone on the LGBTQ spectrum,” LaVeau says.

As the specter of trans oppression and government-mandated gender assessments looms on the political horizon, balls are once again providing a safe space and community for those on the margins.

“We’re not checking under anyone’s skirt,” quips Bataille.

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