Harlem’s Drag Ball History

Numerous historians and cultural commentators have traced the origins of today’s house ball scene to the notorious culture of Harlem drag balls in 1920’s and 1930’s 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 establishing new trends in black literature, music and politics,but also the scandalous locale for night life and party culture.

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Writer Zora Neale Hurston

The Harlem drag balls–which accepted visibility of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and even transgenders– were held at venues such as the Savoy on Lenox Avenue, Rockland Palace on 155th street, or later the Elks Lodge on 139th Street. They were initially organized by white gay men but featured multiracial audiences and participants. The annual pageants became a who’s who of Harlem’s black gay literary elite: Langston Hughes, Bessie Smith, Countee Cullen and Richard Bruce Nugent were all frequent attendees. These balls also attracted many high-society voyeurs and housed interracial crowd. Many of the “Negrotarians,” a term Zora Neale Hurston coined for white patrons of black artists, were themselves gay.

The mixed racial dynamics of these early drag balls reflected the interracial nature of the Harlem Renaissance. 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 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, the early drag balls were plagued by an imbalance of racial power. Black performers, though allowed to participate 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 began to form around the 1960s; almost three decades after the first “girls” started to compete at the earlier drag events. However the neighborhoods’ earlier carefree “acceptance” of drag culture had changed drastically.

Because of the growing popularity of 1960s black nationalist rhetoric, and, its rigid restrictions on how “real” black men should express themselves, the balls became a more dangerous pastime pleasure. They 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 wearing 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.

Because of a growing hostility towards black gay cultural practices, the time had come to create infrastructures that could help organize the balls and mobilize the friendships and alliances that being formed. As the result, the world of Harlem drag balls was about to transform itself once again.

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 Ninja, (who’s House mother Willi Ninja (left) is best known for introducing the mainstream to “Voguing”), the House of Corey, the House of Wong, the House of Dupree, the House of Christian, the House of Princess and tarage, the House of Pendavis.

The super hit “Gotta Have House Music” around 1986.

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.

By the mid-’90s, long after the documentary Paris Is Burning had come and gone, house ball culture continued to evolve, while still remaining true to its history. It became a form of cultural expression by and for working-class African-American and Latinas. But, after continued assaults against members of the gay community, the culture and the participants migrated from the neighborhood.

So, the scene started in Harlem, 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.

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