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'Chosen family': How ballroom instills pride in Black, Latino LGBTQ community

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 7/5/2022 Tiffany Cusaac-Smith, USA TODAY
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"Did you think she deserved it?" a contestant roared. 

"Darling, she didn't deserve nothing!" Crystal LaBeija responded. 

LaBeija, a contestant in the 1967 Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant, walked off stage after coming in as third runner-up in a drag pageant system where people of color could compete but were rarely the winner.

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"The Queen," a 1968 documentary, captured LaBeija’s rage and was a possible catalyst for her and other Black people to find a place of their own, helping to lay the foundation of modern ballroom. 

Brought into the mainstream with Madonna's "Vogue" and later with the cult-classic documentary "Paris is Burning," the thriving ballroom subculture showed eye-catching walks while also being a source of family, social critique and mutual aid for many Black and Latino LGBTQ people.

Many decades later, with ballroom now part of everyday life with TV shows such as "Pose" and "Legendary," LGBTQ Black and Latino people said these safe spaces remain as crucial as ever. 

The cast of "Paris is Burning," pictured in 1991. Back row, from left: Angie Xtrava, Kim Pendavis, Pepper Labeija, Junior Labeija. Middle row, from left: David Xtrava, Octavia St. Laurent, Dorian Corey, Willi Ninja. Front row: Freddie Pendavis. © Courtesy of Janus Films The cast of "Paris is Burning," pictured in 1991. Back row, from left: Angie Xtrava, Kim Pendavis, Pepper Labeija, Junior Labeija. Middle row, from left: David Xtrava, Octavia St. Laurent, Dorian Corey, Willi Ninja. Front row: Freddie Pendavis.

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Michael Roberson, a professor at the New School and Union Theological Seminary, both in New York, said ballroom can teach the world over about "what it means to be human and the struggle for freedom in the face of real catastrophe."

"Somehow, it still grows," Roberson said. "Somehow, it continues to be on intimate terms with death and still rise." 

On that night of the beauty pageant in New York, City, LaBeija felt slighted. During her outburst, a documentary camera captured somebody telling LaBeija, "It's in bad taste, and you're showing your colors."

LaBeija responded, "I have a right to show my color, darling. I am beautiful, and I know that I'm beautiful." 

After her outburst, a nod to the "Black is Beautiful" movement of the 1960s and others, she started the house balls, demanding equal rights for LGBTQ people of color around the time when Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson and others who initiated the Stonewall rebellion against law enforcement at a gay bar in New York City in 1969.  

These balls started in halls and other spaces in Harlem in New York, but soon spread to other localities, such as Washington, Baltimore, and elsewhere. 

"She's no longer waiting for somebody else to bestow a kind of beauty on her or to affirm or recognize her beauty,” said Julian Kevon Glover, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor whose work focuses on Black/brown queer cultural formations, of LaBeija's outburst.

She's saying, "No, I am beautiful, and if you don't recognize it, that's your loss," Glover added. 

'I have a right to show my color'

After the Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant, LaBeija left behind white-run pageants and moved on with her friend, Lottie LaBeija, to organize house balls in Harlem. 

They held their first house ball in 1972. The event helped to transform drag pageants from being solely about individual talent to a celebration of a group of performers. 

More events were held, cementing stars of the scene, including Paris Dupree, Dorian Corey and others. 

At the balls, attendees joined together to form houses, establishing a new kind of kinship. The houses were led by leaders known as mothers and later fathers, who were experienced in the ballroom scene and gave guidance to their house "children." People in the same houses sometimes lived together.

By that time, Harlem had played host to the drag ball circuit for generations. Poet Langston Hughes described attending one ball in his book "The Big Sea," calling them the "strangest and gaudiest of all Harlem spectacles in the '20s." 

Documentaries of the ’80s and ’90s showed ballroom contestants dressed in their best, competing in categories while a sea of Black and other people of color watched, judged and cheered. An emcee often narrated their walk under pulsing songs such as "Got to be Real,” "Love Is the Message," as well as disco and other genres.

As the popularity of ballrooms grew, so did the houses. 

In the '80s, Hector Valle founded the House of Xtravaganza, which was made up mainly of Latinos and ushered more Latinos into the community. 

Many houses are named after fashion houses, such as Dior. Some are named after notable figures such as artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. 

Ballroom 'has something to say'

Jeffrey Bryant, the overall overseer in the House of LaBeija, said the early days of balls were about survival. Bryant, who has been part of several houses since joining the community in the ’80s, said people needed help getting food or finding a place to live. 

Bryant described a system by which a gay man lived with a transgender person. The gay man would go out during the day to grocery shop and take care of other business because it was safer, while the transgender person might cook the food and go out at night: 

“These were the situations where people from the House of LaBeija, people of the House of Princess, people from the House of Wong, these were (some of) the very first houses, they all took care of each other, and then somehow they all celebrated each other at these balls”

When he joined, he said, he also learned life lessons.

Jeffrey Bryant attends the New York Premiere of "Shorts: New York Keeping It Real" at BMCC Tribeca PAC on June 12, 2022 in New York City. © Hatnim Lee, Getty Images for Tribeca Festival Jeffrey Bryant attends the New York Premiere of "Shorts: New York Keeping It Real" at BMCC Tribeca PAC on June 12, 2022 in New York City.

“I learned how to fill out a job application, I learned the importance of not becoming a felon, I learned the importance of being fully self-supporting and being a productive member of society,” he said. 

Roberson, who is also the founder and overseer of the Haus of Maison-Margiela, said ballroom emerged in the ’70s as other art forms embraced politics, including hip hop, salsa and the Nuyorican Poetry movement, an artistic tradition that spoke to social, political and other concerns in Puerto Rico and New York.

By the '80s, Roberson said ballroom faced an existential threat amid the crack epidemic and the onslaught of HIV/AIDs.

"When no one was taking care of ballroom, it was just taking care of itself," Roberson said. "It was finding ways to bury people and collecting money to feed people." 

In the 1990s, the GMHC, formerly Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a New York-based nonprofit, started the Latex Ball, which offers HIV-prevention resources. 

Other advocacy organizations also emerged for the community, such as House Lives Matter, a ballroom group that builds leadership and does social justice work. 

Ballroom has endured, Roberson said, because it has "something to say."

Ballroom thrives today 

Charles Roy (top right) is a dancer from Corpus Christi, Texas. He participated in HBO Max's competition program "Legendary" with his house, House of Ada. © HBO Max Charles Roy (top right) is a dancer from Corpus Christi, Texas. He participated in HBO Max's competition program "Legendary" with his house, House of Ada.

Today, the ballroom scene remains a place of support for many Black and LGBTQ people, though some of the music and fashion have changed. 

Marcus Henderson, New York City father of the House of LaBeija, said people who enter the ballroom scene still have varying levels of need. For some, it is housing and other food. The house often refers people to nonprofits that work in the space. 

Others come with educational degrees and vibrant careers, but need the community. 

“As a Black gay person, I feel alone in the world,” Henderson said. “Most likely I’m the minority at my place of employment. I’m a minority in my family, my biological family. I’m a minority almost every place I go. So, when I'm with my chosen family, that's not that reality."

Sevndeep a member of House of Basquiat and former cast member on the "Hot Haus" reality show on OutTV, said he was drawn to ballroom because of the freedom at events. He also saw posts in Ballroom #clips #dips #tea, a Facebook group where members post walks and other information about the ballroom community. 

"It's a place of refuge,” said Sevndeep, who grew up in a large Virginia family and now lives in Brooklyn. “It's therapy for you if you wanted to go there and just let it all out on the floor." 

He said the current ballroom scene attracts people from around the world, and he spends a good deal of his time with other members. 

“It's literally like, If you need anything I got you, and you know that you got me,” Sevndeep, 30, said. 

Jourdon, a 35-year-old model and member of the House of Basquiat, said the pull of having a family is what initially attracted him to balls, making him feel more comfortable being his authentic self.

That authentic self spills from the ballroom to his home life, said Jourdon, of Harlem. That means being able to walk into a room holding his boyfriend’s hand and walk in the category of European Runway, which is supposed to model itself on what is sometimes thought to be a more "feminine" walk. 

“I'm masculine-presenting, but I'm very in touch with my feminine side on the inside," he said. "And I'm able to let that out if I want to and if I choose to, and I am choosing."

The legends have laid the groundwork for him to choose. His advice to others looking to get into the ballroom scene: 

“Do what you feel is right for you.” 

“Walk in the path that you feel is right.”  

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Chosen family': How ballroom instills pride in Black, Latino LGBTQ community

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