The LGBTQ+ underground ballroom scene has been around, in some form or another, since at least the 1920s — and these spaces still provide essential support, community, and family for queer and trans folks. Ballrooms of today are divided into “Houses” of chosen families, who compete in niche categories such as fashion, face, creative costumes, and more.
“Ball can date back as far as the Civil War, honestly,” said Yohon Tatum (he/him), NYC’s LGBT Community Center‘s community engagement coordinator. “They used to call them ‘drag balls’ and men used to dress up in women’s clothes. And they used to call them balls because they would go there and have a good time, really for one place that they could convene without people harassing them or being disturbed by the law.”
The competitive aspect of ballroom can be seen in mainstream culture in shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race. However, for a better understanding of what the culture is really all about, you’d do better to check out FX’s award-winning show, Pose. Or, better yet, the seminal 1980s documentary, Paris Is Burning, says Tatum.
“I think before Pose and before shows like Legendary that gave you this insight into ballroom, a lot of people viewed people in that community as like thieves or uneducated. They viewed them maybe as hustlers or things of that nature, but they never knew the family values or the goal-oriented aspects that come along with ballroom as well. It comes along with being part of vulnerable families,” Tatum said. He added that shows like Pose really highlight the community aspect of ballroom communities, as well as the struggle for trans rights and gay rights in the midst of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s and 90s.
And the community continues to be a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community today, and particularly for trans people, whose rights are still very much in jeopardy in today’s society. In fact, ballroom was arguably the first safe community created for trans people and in particular trans women. “The transgender woman actually created ballroom. And they created this safe space where they could be beautiful,” Tatum said.
Over the years, ballroom evolved to be more than a place for fun and acceptance, ballrooms are also important hubs for LGBTQ+ support and activism.
“It’s not just a competition, everybody having fun, but there’s also places for people to get tested. There’s places for people to get food resources. We can do housing resources. We have organizations inside of ballroom, like House Lives Matter that does a lot with connecting people that need resources.”
Tatum says that you see a lot of community organizing and fundraising around the holidays, when the entrance fee to a ball may be in the form of a donated item.
“Every year in New York, The House of Milan has a canned food drive. So, the entrance to the ball will be a canned food item,” Tatum explained. He also said that people in the ballroom scene partner with other organizations or movements like youth pride. “We can get the youth in the ballroom community out and have a good time, but also they can talk to people, get resources that they need.”
Among the many inspiring and historic figures in the ballroom community is Timothy Tobias, who helped start Ballroom We Care, an outreach organization that partners with The Center. “We raise awareness around HIV treatment, PreP treatment. And we also raise awareness around drug rehabilitation and drug treatment as well,” Tatum explained. “Tim started this organization about a couple of years ago in Baltimore. We had started having this major epidemic with crystal meth usage and people that were HIV positive and missing. So, he pulled a couple of people together and they created Ballroom We Care.”
As awareness and visibility of ballroom grows, from the dance style that inspired Madonna’s “Vogue” music video to the essential community outreach programs hosted by different Houses across the country, the more good work they can do and the more acceptance LGTBQ+ people will feel in the world.