Past and Present"
(Full article written by Aaron Pierre Brown. Please do not copy and paste in part or whole without express permission from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Several times a month, predominantly black/latino gay social groups (called houses) get together at events where they compete in a variety of categories. The house that is hosting presents the theme and categories, circulating information months in advance, so that people can prepare. At the event, houses submit a variety of contestants to vie for recognition or defend titles earned previously. A hall is set with chairs and tables on either side of a "runway" that leads up to the judges' table in front. The deejay is in place with all the right records, old and new, to create various moods needed throughout the show. The emcee has the wit and the control to keep the program flowing, as well as keeping the audience entertained. It all begins with a Grand March (or "Legends, Statements and Stars"), to introduce the members of the hosting house, as well as the judges and other noteworthy attendees. Sometimes a new house will make a debut, or an individual may even change membership for shock value. As the program progresses, winners are awarded trophies, and the evening finishes with a Grand Prize category, usually offering cash and a trophy. This is what it means to have a "Ball", a tradition that has continued to flourish and mutate since the early 1900s.
The heads of a house are referred to as the Mother and Father, without regard to gender. In many cases, leaders have founded a particular house, but in the case of some longer running houses (such as LaBeija, at more than 30 years), leadership is passed down. Houses can be modeled after a range of organizational structures: fraternities, families, clubs, etcetera. Membership is determined by the Mother and Father, who often "shop around" for contestants, even from other houses. Individual house membership rosters range from a few local enlistees to nationwide membership, with chapters springing up from coast to coast. Even so, not all members "walk" categories. Some just aid and assist with contestant or event preparations. Pride is established through longevity and/or showmanship, as everyone strives for "legendary" or "icon" status, either as groups or individuals. These events are a celebration of characteristics or talents that might otherwise go unnoticed in the mainstream: an underground network that continues to flourish, immortalizing its own "stars."
We can trace an earlier semblance of today's house balls to the Harlem Renaissance in the 20's. In the midst of the flourishing black nightlife and culture, the underground gay/lesbian experience was usually celebrated at lavish and grand costume balls, where men were often dressed as women, and vice-versa. Straight and/or curious spectators would come to gawk at the spectacle, paralleling the phenomenon of "whites" coming to experience "exotic" Harlem nightlife. The Hamilton Lodge Balls were an example of fraternal orders of the day sponsoring events that would later be taken over by Grand-Prize-winning drag queens in the late 20s. Phil Black, a drag personality from Baltimore, went to New York in the late 30s and later became a founding promoter of the famous Funmakers' Ball. One of the more famous spots was the Rockland Palace on 155th Street, but Madison Square Garden has also been used throughout history as a location for hosting these earlier events. These events were some of the few places where many kinds of people congregated and "let their hair down" in a politically sanctioned and relatively tolerant environment, pre-Stonewall. Prizes would be awarded in a limited range of categories, usually "drag" and costume related.
Chicago also held drag balls, but like many large cities, they were limited to New Years and Halloween, the few times of the year a man could dress in womens' clothes and not be arrested. Alfred Finnie (a black gay street hustler) is rumored to have thrown the first Chicago gay ball in 1935, in the basement of a bar at 38th and Michigan. This stemmed from the Chicago Ball tradition of the late 1800's, when the aldermen team of "Bathhouse" John Coughlin and Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna (known as the "Lords of the Levee [District]"), threw the "First Ward Balls" at the Chicago Coliseum. Bathhouse John would lead a Grand March procession consisting of prostitutes, drag queens, pickpockets, pimps, madams and other colorful characters. The evening almost always ended in some type of riot. These were held annually through the turn of the century, until they were finally stopped by the mayor of Chicago in 1909, pressured by certain religious communities of the day. After this, various gay balls were held up until the 1920s, but documentation is scarce, probably due to the attendees' fear of discovery and disclosure during that period in history. It should be noted that Chicago allegedly started throwing these gatherings before New York, but the East Coast soon surpassed in the level of glamour and venue availability, receiving better media coverage than the "heterosexual" society pages of the day. Back in Chicago, Finnie's annual events continued even after his death in 1943. Later, the tradition was carried on into the 70s by Chicago Legends like Jacques Cristion and Dodi Danials, at places like the Grand Ballroom at 64th and Cottage Grove (recently renovated and experiencing a renaissance of its own as a beacon for one of the last remaining original Chicago ballrooms).
In New York, drag balls would continue in one form or another through the 60's, each adopting and modifying various protocols and conventions. During the 70's, Legendary Icons Pepper Labeija and Dorian Corey would host their annual "Harlem Fantasy" Ball, while Paris Dupree would kick off the season with the annual "Paris Is Burning" Ball, and Avis Penda'vis would host her autumn event. During the late 70's, the categories were being expanded beyond drag, for wider range and patron participation. The attendance level of certain groups would ebb and flow over time. Straight people, male and female, are now represented in smaller number, but do compete as well as spectate. The majority of house ball attendees these days are gay males (referred to as "butch queens"), but the transgender community (the "femme queens") still holds its show-stopping status on the "runway". The lesbian community has increased it's participation, sometimes creating houses that cater to mostly women, such as the House of Moshood.
As ball celebrities were
created during the 70's, they would draw a camp
who wanted to be associated with legendary status. Some of
these fans would be young and just coming to terms with their gayness,
sometimes banished from their biological families. They would transfer
the Mother/Father/Sister/Brother role to people who could better relate
to them. Out of a natural succession, "Legends"
became parents, role models, teachers, spiritual leaders, etcetera.
Though the documentary "Paris is Burning"
(taking it's title from Paris Dupree's yearly event) depicted many ball
patrons as homeless outcasts, many actually
did (and still do)
have the support of their biological families, who often
play a part in
staging these events. Balls became a way of offering something constructive
for young people to do: an arena to hone individual talents.