Have you heard about New York’s ‘gay underground ballroom’ culture in the 1900s? For many of us, the answer to this question may be a no. I didn’t know it either. After digging deeper, I unearthed a world of cabarets, queer saloons and gay nightlife which existed even before the movement for pride gained global momentum. From the origin of this underground community to how media represents it today, here’s your insider summary on everything you ought to know about America’s gay nightlife in the ’90s and how it’s helping the global movement now.
Origin And Evolution
Gay nightlife existed in America through the 1800s but was entirely hidden. These ‘underground ballrooms’ were not only spaces where the LGBTQIA+ community was visible but also celebrated. Even though these ballrooms were inclusive, they couldn’t escape the discriminatory clasp of racism. The consequence of this racial discrimination was the Black and Latino queer community leaving the groups and moving to Harlem in New York. There, they began forming their own community and eventually new, contemporary underground ballrooms.
The era of the Harlem Renaissance (1920-1935) was deeply influential in this build-up. This intellectual, artistic and cultural movement took the neighbourhood of Harlem by storm by putting literature, art, music and the importance of Black lives at the forefront. With this Renaissance being led by leaders who were openly gay or identified with nuanced sexualities, the Black queer community in Harlem was empowered. Through the early 90s, the city remained a renowned site for LGBTQIA+ art, music and culture. What started as a highly stylised form of dance during this time, turned into elaborate battles and pageantry over the years.
As a result, by the 1960s-1980s, Harlem became the epicentre of gay nightlife. These ghetto battles came to be known as ‘balls,’ where members of the LGBTQIA+ community would dance, walk, model, lip-sync and present a mix of performances. A majority of this population were African-Americans and Latin American who were abandoned by their families after coming out. These gay teens and young adults found solace in this underground ballroom community which became their surrogate family. Promising a radical acceptance, these legendary ‘kiki houses’ emerged as a lesser-known community that exists even today.
Social Hierarchy And Performances
As these underground communities began to organise lavish masquerade balls, queer people found a safe haven to be themselves. Avant-garde outfits, dramatic makeup and a larger-than-life persona amalgamated together to bring members of the kiki houses, come alive. Each kiki house had a mother (drag queens), father (drag kings) and their children who got together to participate in the extravagant competitions. The balls were highly influenced by hip-hop fashion and music which lasted for as long as ten hours a day. Through a series of runway competitions and dance battles, participants competed against each house to win trophies and cash prizes.
As the LGBTQIA+ community partook in catwalks and dancing, they were judged on the basis of their costume, appearance and attitude. A common category within these competitions was called ‘Realness,’ where participants in drag were judged on their ability to ‘pass’ as heterosexual males or females. Another popular performance was called ‘Voguing,’ wherein the participants would dance and use hands in an exaggerated manner to narrate stories. Voguing would consist of five basic elements: duckwalk, catwalk, hands, floorwork, and spins and dips. Through these acts, they would showcase how gender is just a performance: they would put on heavy makeup, style their hair and don extravagant clothes. Ultimately, the winner would be the one who ‘threw the best shade’.
With white men and women on the panel as judges, the participants often were subjected to racial discrimination. This white privilege barred the Black performers from winning in the competitions. Many people started believing that there were no Black judges because the balls were rigged in order to make the whites win.
Black queer communities started developing almost 50 years ago in Harlem, and still haven’t stopped expanding to other parts of America. Today New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Baltimore, Atlanta and San Francisco are home to the world’s biggest drag ball community.
While ballroom culture has been fairly underground, pop culture and media focused the spotlight on it through a myriad of mediums. From movies, shows to music sensations leveraging the culture, it opened doors to others in the LGBTQIA+ community by lending a sense of belonging. When Paris Is Burning hit the cinemas in 1990, the documentary created a revolution. It chronicled New York’s iconic drag scene in the 1980s with a major emphasis on fashion, dance and more. It painted an intimate picture of the kiki houses and displayed the flamboyance and fierceness of the performers which was new to the outsiders.
A major catalyst to draw attention to this culture has also been RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality show with the world’s most famous drag queen, RuPaul as its host. With its first episode in 2009, the series is equal parts sassy and liberal. RuPaul’s Drag Race garnered the public eye for its audacious vibe, cheeky attitudes, quick-witted comments and people of the LGBTQIA+ community just owning it.
In a more contemporary world, series like Pose with Billy Porter in the lead spotlighted the legends, icons and ferocious house mothers of New York’s underground ball culture. Apart from showcasing the extravagant world of ball culture to the viewers, the hit series also revealed stories and struggles of the trans community navigating AIDS and capitalism.
Today, kiki balls have become a space for pride advocacy and empowerment as the community gets together to celebrate their identity. On the other hand, the media has become a vehicle of progress as it makes drag-inspired phrases like ‘yas kween,’ the new millennial slang. Despite the progress in contemporary times, issues of representation and appropriation still prevail. While the queer community certainly lived an ‘underground’ public life, it’s about time to address the notion that at the end of it all, we’re all human.