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There's No Place Like Home: A History of House Ball Culture
Jennifer Livingston's misleading 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning brought the underground world of black queer "houses" and "balls" to the attention of the mainstream public, yet the film left much to be desired in terms of understanding how these social networks have transformed the culture of black gay New York in innumerable ways.
Almost 20 years after Livingston began shooting footage for Paris, and perhaps as a result of the stereotypes the film presented, the house ball community continues to be grossly misunderstood and stigmatized by the masses of black people, both gay and straight. In a moment when being unapologetically black and gay has dangerous consequences, house ball culture continues to provide a viable space for a new generation of "ball kids," which has created a subculture that has redefined notions of family, masculinity, friendship and, of course, what it is means to be a diva.
Where did it all begin?
The history and legacy of the Harlem drag balls Numerous historians and cultural commentators have traced the origins of today's house ball scene to the notorious culture of Harlem drag balls in 1920s and 1930s New York. Between roughly 1919 and 1935, an artistic movement that would come to be known as the "Harlem Renaissance" transformed the culture of uptown Manhattan not only as a result of its establishing new trends in black literature, music and politics but also for its scandalous night life and party culture.
The Harlem drag balls -- usually held at venues such as the Rockland Palace on 155th street or later the Elks Lodge on 139th -- were initially organized by white gay men but featured multiracial audiences and participants. The annual pageants became a sort of who's who of Harlem's black literary elite: Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen and Richard Bruce Nugent were all frequent attendees. Moreover, white photographers and socialites, such as the infamous Carl Van Vechten (author of the scandalous 1926 novel Nigger Heaven), were also in attendance.
The mixed racial dynamics of these early drag balls reflected the interracial nature of the Harlem Renaissance in general: African-American artists looked to wealthy white investors for patronage, while white spectators flocked to "hip" Harlem spaces as sources of trend-setting and exotic "negro" spectacle. The drag balls thus became a space where newly migrated African-Americans from the south and "liberal" Northern whites could imagine themselves as mavericks, as radicals pushing the norms of a then highly racially segregated U.S. culture. The lavish, carnivalesque drag balls became spaces where racial taboos were broken through sexual and gender nonconformity. The events soon evolved from grand costume parties to outright gay beauty pageants with participants competing in a variety of categories, many of which still bear resemblance to the categories of today's house ball scene (such as "Face").
However, not surprisingly, the early drag balls were plagued by an imbalance of racial power. Black performers, though allowed to participate in and attend the events, were rarely winners at the balls and often felt restricted in their ability to fully participate in the scene. Soon the black queens looked for opportunities to create a sociocultural world that was truly all their own.
An exclusively black drag ball circuit in New York City began to form around the 1960s; almost three decades after the first "girls" started to compete at the earlier drag events. However the cultural and political landscape of Harlem, specifically the neighborhoods' earlier carefree "acceptance" of drag culture, had changed drastically.
Due to the growing popularity of 1960s black nationalist rhetoric (with its rigid restrictions on how "real" black men should express themselves), the balls became a more dangerous pastime pleasure. The balls began to be held as early as 3, 4 or 5 a.m. -- a tradition that continues to this day -- in order to make it safer for participants to travel the streets of Harlem safely with high heels and feathers when "trade" had gone to sleep. The early morning start times also made renting out halls cheaper, and ensured that "the working girls" (i.e., transsexuals who made their money as late-night sex workers) would also be able to make the function.
As the drag ball circuit continued to grow even in spite of a growing hostility towards queer black cultural practices in New York City, the time had come to create specific infrastructures that could help organize the balls as well as mobilize the friendships and familial alliances that were being formed between and among participants. The world of Harlem drag balls was about to transform itself once again.
From ballroom scene to house ball: moving from drag circuits to house networks
There has been a tendency among academics -- especially in the work of gay historians such as George Chauncey and Eric Garber -- to conflate the history of the drag balls with the history of the gay houses. While the "balls" can be traced back to the elaborate drag pageants of 1930s Harlem, it is important to keep in mind that the "houses" themselves were a new phenomenon that emerged in the specific socioeconomic and political contexts of 1970s and 1980s post-industrial New York. These contexts included a spiraling decline of the city's welfare and social services net, early gentrification of urban neighborhoods through private redevelopment, decreases in funding for group homes and other social services targeting homeless youth, a sharp rise in unemployment rates among black and Latino men, and a virtual absence of funding during the Reagan era for persons newly displaced and/or homeless as result of HIV/AIDS. All of these conditions forced blacks and gays (and especially black gays) onto the streets in unprecedented numbers.
Houses became alternative kinship networks that selected a "mother" and "father" as their leaders ("parents" could be of any gender) and "children" as their general membership body. The "houses" were a literal re-creation of "homes," in the sense that these groups became real-life families for individuals that might have been exiled from their birth homes. However, contrary to popular belief, many early "house" kids were still deeply connected to their biological families but still sought the unique protection, care and love the street houses provided.
Between 1970 and 1980 at least eight major houses formed in Harlem: the House of Labeija (an African-American vernacular redeployment of the Spanish word for "beauty"), the House of Corey, the House of Wong, the House of Dupree, the House of Christian, the House of Princess and the House of Pendavis.
Just as hip hop -- with its emphasis on street crews and other forms of black male fraternal bonding -- emerged in roughly the same era as an artistic response to some of the political and economic conditions plaguing black men in New York, the houses became underground social networks by and for urban black gay people. By 1980 three houses emerged straight out of Brooklyn: the House of Omni, the House of Ebony, and the House of Chanel.
These houses were composed of mostly men, many of whom preferred masculine aesthetics over drag. The creation of houses transformed the drag circuit forever as newer populations, some of which would have never been attracted to drag balls, entered into the community. A rich taxonomy of gender personas and identities flooded in: thugged-out hustlers who were "new" to gay culture, butch lesbians with erotic attachments to gay men, bootleg black designers and fashionistas eager to put their garments "to test" in a new, urban scene.
The term "drag" now meant something much richer than only men who cross-dressed as women. Drag was now a metaphor for everyday life -- everyone was in some way or another performing a specific identity, regardless of whether or not cross-dressing was involved. In attempt to make sense of this growing array of gender performance, ball kids adopted a complicated language system that accounted for the different types of identities they noticed in the community: "Butch Queens" was a term used to describe any biologically born male that presented himself of as male, "Butch Queens Up in Drag" on the other hand came to signify gay men who dressed in drag specifically for the balls, but still lived his everyday life as a man.
"Femme Queens" were preoperative male to female transsexuals, often known for their alluring beauty and uncanny "realness." "Butches" was a term used to describe either aggressive lesbian women or female-to-male transsexuals. The term "woman" was only reserved for either heterosexual, biologically born women or feminine lesbians that did not identify with the "butch" title. Finally "trade" was meant to describe men whose sexuality might have been in question even if their masculinity was not. This language system for describing gender in the house ball scene exists to this day.
By the end of the 1980s, the balls were no longer the single most important element of the culture, as the houses provided a new life outside of the balls. The drag ball scene had now become the "house ball scene," with hundreds of individuals belonging to "houses" even if they did not participate in the drag events.
How hip-hop changed house ball culture
By the mid-'90s, long after Paris Is Burning had come and gone, house ball culture continued to evolve, while still remaining true to its history. as a form of cultural expression by and for working-class African-American and Latina/o queer people from urban inner cities. Though the scene started in New York City, by 1996 there were sizable house ball communities in the roughest sections of Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles as well as in parts of North Carolina and South Carolina. In each of the cities, balls kids adopted and incorporated other, more local forms to make the culture regionally specific and relevant. This was the case with Atlanta's house ball scene, which borrowed from local black styles like "J-Setting," and Los Angeles, which even incorporated "krumpin'" into the culture.
Across all the regions one thing was clear, though: whereas house music and dance culture served as the soundtrack and political landscape of the '80s scene, by the mid-'90s the influence of hip-hop on house ball culture was transformative.
Hip-hop was much more than a musical style -- it was a movement. As a renaissance of sorts (albeit highly manufactured), hip-hop influenced and popularized certain notions of black masculinity and gender relations that found their way into the house ball scene.
Categories at the balls such as "Thug Realness," "Urban Streetwear," "Bangee Realness" and "Foot and Eyewear" were all indebted to hip-hop culture's emphasis on bling bling aesthetics, aggressive black masculinities, in your face black style, baby mama drama and other racialized forms of expression. Many "voguers" in the community started looking for gigs as choreographers for hip-hop artists, as was the case with legends such as Andre Mizrahi of Atlanta and Pony Blahnik of New York City. "Voguing" transformed from the Willi Ninja-esque, "pose" heavy style (mis)appropriated by Madonna, to more a fluid, acrobatic dance which now looked like a sort of new black gay break dance.
Moreover, because of the scene's deeply underground nature, and also because of the creation of categories like "best dressed man," "masculine face" and "realness," the house ball community provided a new space for discrete working-class men of color (men on "the D.L.") to feel comfortable participating in an openly SGL culture without necessarily outright identifying as gay. The incorporation of hip-hop into the scene broadened the full spectrum of gender performances that ball society became home to.
House ball culture today
Today's house ball scene features over 100 active "houses" in more than 13 cities across the country. In New York City alone there are at least 30 houses with memberships of a dozen or more: Aphrodite, Allure, Milan, Blahnik, Balenciaga, Mizrahi, Miyake-Mugler, Chanel, Infiniti, Revlon, Evisu, Prodigy, Latex, Xtravaganza, Ninja, Prada, St. Clair, Jourdan, Khan, La Perla, Labeija, Escada, Pendavis, Cavalli, Karan, Ebony, Omni, Tsnumani, Angel and Icon. While every individual ball can often have dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of specific criteria, all of the categories are still organized around six major concepts: realness, face, sex and body, runway, performance and fashion.
Many outsiders misinterpret the house ball scene's fascination with things like labels and fashion as a simplistic envying of white consumer culture. However, in actuality, a closer look at the sociocultural context of the balls shows that this is really not the case. The categories themselves are not nearly as important as the competition, kinship and relationships that are formed by and through the preparation for the events and the effects of gaining "status" within the community.
Also, house ball culture is rooted in a rich tradition of African-American cultural practices that privilege inversion, code switching and signifyin'. Thus, unlike hip-hop culture, the emphasis on bling bling and acting like a "white woman" is actually more of an ironic mockery and critique of these values more so than a straight-forward embracing.
In a moment when the culture of black gay life in New York has been reduced to an endless parade of "hot boy" parties, "sup niggah" salutations and lukewarm political "activism," the creation of spaces where new modes of black masculinity, kinship and love can thrive is particularly inventive. House ball culture, with its rich and complicated history as an alternative site of black "community," moves us forward to time and place where black queer people can imagine new ways of making home -- and identity itself -- from scratch.
Frank Leon Roberts is a 24-year-old public intellectual, cultural critic and doctoral candidate at NYU. Find his work at BrooklynBoyBlues.