The Emergence of Underground Ball Culture


Freedom of expression is a fundamental right that belongs to every single individual. However, it appears that LGBTQ people receive the short end of this basic human right. Societal attitudes toward the queer community remain controversial. This controversy can make it difficult for LGBTQ people to openly express their gender identity and/or sexuality due to fear of social rejection from family members or peers. To cope with their fear, they can turn to underground ball culture, a haven for queer youth to live their authentic lives.

Drag is an aspect of underground ball culture. It is a sport that involves experimentation with gender and was assembled by members of the LGBTQ community in New York City in 1867 (Lindores, 2018). Drag queens, typically males, wear exaggerated makeup and clothing styles that are stereotypically made for women. Some drag queens add on silicone pads to increase breast size. In contrast, drag kings are often females that exemplify a masculine gender role. For instance, some drag kings perform impressions of male celebrities such as Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. Every drag queen and drag king adopts a creative name and a unique persona that is displayed on stage.

In addition to drag, ball culture comprises numerous talent competitions where participants compete for trophies, fame, fun, etc. Voguing, a category of ball culture, involves two participants who have a rivalry. Instead of physically fighting, the voguers compete on the dance floor with dramatic, angular movements and poses that were inspired by models in Vogue magazine. They get judged on their dancing, attitude, creativity, and appearance. In 1990, Madonna, a famous American pop singer, incorporated voguing in her music video for her song, Vogue. Since the release of her song, public exposure to the dance style has increased significantly (Chatterjee, 2019).

Television shows such as Pose and RuPaul’s Drag Race have brought LGBTQ culture to mainstream media. However, before today, it is important to note that ball culture was not always an accepting place for drag queens of color. During the early 1900s, racial tensions were high because the subculture consisted of mainly white men as the participants and judges of the talent competitions. When people of color such as blacks and Latinos/Latinas competed, they often lost, and they were coaxed to lighten their complexion before competing. Crystal LaBeija and Lottie LaBeija, drag queens of color, were enraged with this racial discrimination. In the 1970s, they decided to establish the House of LaBeija, a place for drag queens of color to engage in ball culture without having to worry about racial prejudice (Goodman, 2018).

Crystal and Lottie LaBeija reshaped ball culture with their house system. Currently, there are over 100 active ball culture houses, particularly in popular cities in the United States (Grinnell College, 2020). Houses have been named after ball-walkers who were known for winning or being successful in ball competitions. Houses are led by “mothers” and/or “fathers” who are usually older LGBTQ individuals with genderless roles (Mohenu, 2018). Many LGBTQ individuals join a house at a young age and compete against other houses for entertainment purposes and to freely express themselves.

Aside from competition, ball culture houses are important because they provide guidance and a safe shelter for queer youth that seek help. Manuel Xtravaganza, a member of the LGBTQ community and House of Xtravaganza, was a teenage runaway and experienced hardships living on the streets. However, the support he received from his house family members motivated him to go back to school. He now has a master’s degree in nursing and wants to be a role model for gay teenagers. Hector Xtravaganza, founding member of the House of Xtravaganza, said, “They are sent to us. We don’t pick them. We just love and nurture them. It goes both ways; the children nurture us as well. This family is more real to me than my biological family. They are first” (Bullock, 2018).

Unfortunately, some biological parents do not accept their children once they find out that their children are not heterosexual and/or cisgender. Ball culture and its house system reminds LGBTQ individuals that they have their own form of entertainment and a community that encourages self-expression and self-love. It is pivotal to educate the public about queer culture because LGBTQ people deserve to have freedom of expression everywhere, not just in their ball culture family houses.

References

Bullock, M. (2018). From Paris Is Burning to Pose: The House of Xtravaganza. Retrieved from https://www.thecut.com/2018/10/the-house-of-xtravaganza-at-35.html

Chatterjee, U. (2019). What is voguing? 10 things you didn’t know. Retrieved from   https://www.redbull.com/us-en/10-things-you-didn’t-know-about-voguing

Mohenu, M. (2018). Here’s everything you need to know about the ballroom scene. Retrieved from https://www.redbull.com/za-en/guide-to-ballroom-vogue-scene

Goodman, E. (2018). Drag herstory: how Crystal LaBeija reinvented ball culture. Retrieved from   https://www.them.us/story/how-crystal-labeija-reinvented-ball-culture

Grinnell College (2020). Underground ball culture. Retrieved from https://haenfler.sites.grinnell.edu/subcultures-and-scenes/underground-ball-culture/

Lindores, M. (2018). Voguing: a brief history of the ballroom. Retrieved from  https://mixmag.net/feature/a-brief-history-of-voguing

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