Butch Queens Up in Pumps: Gender, Performance, and Ballroom Culture in Detroit

Butch Queens Up in Pumps: Gender, Performance, and Ballroom Culture in Detroit

by Marlon M. Bailey


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472051960
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 06/30/2013
Series: Triangulations: Lesbian/Gay/Queer Theater/Drama/Performance Series
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 686,192
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Marlon M. Bailey is Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University.

Read an Excerpt

Butch Queens Up In Pumps

Gender, Performance, and Ballroom Culture in Detroit

By Marlon M. Bailey

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2013 University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-07196-8



Performing Gender, Creating Kinship, Forging Community

It is my contention that the doing that matters most and the performance that seems most crucial are nothing short of the actual making of worlds.


The House of Supreme International Ball

I attended my first ball on a snowy evening in January 2001 while home for the holidays. Since leaving for graduate school in California a year and a half earlier, my visits to Detroit had been infrequent. On a previous trip to visit friends and family, I had met several members of The House of Ford, who informed me of an upcoming ball that I should attend if I was interested in learning more about an emerging Ballroom scene in the city. The House of Supreme International Ball was being held at Club 2000 on East Woodbridge in the Warehouse District near downtown Detroit. Located just east of the General Motors World Headquarters building, the tallest building on Detroit's skyline, the Warehouse District is a mixture of downtown renewal and urban blight. In this district, new loft apartments, law offices, condominiums, and restaurants stand side by side with abandoned buildings. Resting on the waterfront of the Detroit River, the body of water that separates the city from Canada, the close proximity of new and dilapidated buildings explains why many residents describe Detroit's cityscape as "spotty." It is against such an urban backdrop that I would attend that first ball.

This Sunday is a typical cold January night in Michigan. At about 10:30 p.m., I am driving down Jefferson Avenue heading east. As I make a right turn toward the river to Woodbridge, I recall going to Club Taboo on the same street in the late 1980s to see Sylvester, the flamboyant Black disco diva, in concert. When I look at the building now, I remember that Club 2000 used to be the Warehouse Club, a straight club that could be rented out for a variety of events, including those attended by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) patrons. As I pull up in front of the building, I see very few cars on the narrow street where I want to park. I must be early. The street is desolate and the place feels tucked away, hidden from the rest of what is going on in the city, even for a Sunday night.

Once I enter the building, I am frisked meticulously by security at the club entrance. I pay $25.00 at the table just beyond the entrance and proceed into a large room. House music beats are pumping. An internationally popular music form, particularly in Black gay urban spaces, house music is the signature sound of Ballroom culture. I see two rows of tables, each decorated and bearing signs indicating the names of houses: "Reserved for The House of Prada," "Reserved for The House of Ford," the signs read. Houses, which are like families, pay money to reserve their tables so that their members can sit together. As I walk toward the center of the room, I see the "runway," a long platform adorned with red ribbons, situated between the two rows of tables and chairs, extending the length of the entire room. This runway is where the participants perform in each category in front of the judges during the competition portion of the ball. My early arrival allows me to see the setup, snap some pictures, and find a good viewing spot, which is important since it is my first time attending a ball. Yet I quickly learn a lesson that will hold true for every other ball I attend: balls never start on time, at least not by the time indicated on the ball flyer. A ball begins only when its commentators arrive, and no commentator takes the microphone on this night until approximately two hours after my arrival. I feel fortunate that The House of Ford has invited me to sit at its table because, by the time the ball starts, the hall is full of people. I see Black LGBT people everywhere. "D.J., give me a muthafuckin' beat; let's get this shit started. And where's my cocktail?" admonishes the commentator. Finally, the ball begins.

Once the ball starts, all I can hear is house music blasting over the large speakers elevated in various places throughout the room. After the commentators announce upcoming balls around the country, they begin the "Legends, Statements, and Stars" portion of the ball. "I wanna see that legend femme; I wanna see her voguing femme, that pussy, pussy, dainty femme," the commentator yells in sync with the throbbing house music beats. It does not take me long to realize that balls are very structured and, despite always starting late, they exhibit an amazing continuity. Moments later I notice that there are only a few lights on and they seem to be blue and red or something close to that. Otherwise, it is rather dark, reminding me of being at a gay bar late on a Saturday night. These lights create a perfect ambiance for the Grand House March, which is an opportunity for the sponsoring house to show itself to the audience through a concerted display of house unity, as the local chapter is often joined by members from other chapters. Contrary to its name, The House of Supreme International is not international, but each of the seventeen house members (I will learn later that this is an unusually small number) walks on the platform with gait accentuated, drawing focus to his or her extravagant clothing. Some members of the house enter the space wearing little more than tight-fitting underwear with see-through backsides. Some are shirtless, exposing their perfectly chiseled torsos. Members of the crowd scream "You give me trade boy!" commenting on a Butch Queen — a gay man. I see another Butch Queen wearing red pumps — what we call a "Butch Queen up in pumps" — prancing down the runway in high-fashion celebrity model style. Other members sashay fervently across the walkway. Many wear long, flowing silk capes and gowns. "You wear that suit, Miss Thing," someone says from the audience. Most of their gaits exude glamour and grandeur as their garments swish and swirl behind them.

In the midst of all the excitement, I sense a few people looking at me as I jot down notes in my little notebook. Later, during the competition portion of the ball, a couple of inquisitive guys approach me. One of them asks, "Why are you taking notes?" Then the guy sitting next to me chimes in, "Yeah, you've been writing in that little book since you got here. Whatcha writin' about? Write my story," he says jokingly.

Among all the memorable aspects of that night, that gentleman's seemingly playful comment stayed in my mind throughout my subsequent work on Ballroom culture. As I mobilize various theories to analyze this cultural phenomenon, that request — "Write my story" — reminds me that this project is ultimately about everyday LGBT people. The Black LGBT people on whom I focus are poor or working class and must struggle against the odds to find and make meaning in their lives. These Black LGBT people occupy one of the most marginalized social locations within blackness in Detroit. Therefore, chiefly, this book is about how these Black LGBT people, who are marginalized in so many ways, perform gender, create kinship, and forge community despite their marginalization. I ask what can be learned from everyday Black LGBT lives in Ballroom culture, particularly those who are largely ignored in dominant academic and sociopolitical discourse.

What Is Ballroom Culture?

Sometimes called "house/ball culture," Ballroom culture was first captured in mainstream media in Jennie Livingston's popular documentary film Paris Is Burning (1990). Livingston's documentary was the first work to bring mainstream exposure to Ballroom practices in the late 1980s in New York City, and it continues to be the film most often screened and referenced, even by Ballroom members. Given the limits of documentary film, Paris Is Burning provides only a glimpse into the world of this cultural practice. The films The Aggressives (2005) by Daniel Peddle and Wolfgang Busch's How Do I Look (2006) capture Ballroom culture in its more contemporary form. Ballroom culture has also received popular exposure through music videos and live performances by entertainers such as Madonna in her notorious video Vogue (1990), which features members of the Ballroom community "voguing." Vogue, a dance form created by the Ballroom community, has been appropriated by entertainers like Madonna without properly crediting the community that created it. More recently Ballroom community members and the culture have been represented in the popular media by the dance group Vogue Evolution and in an episode of Noah's Ark, a Black gay television series that aired on the LOGO Network. This commercialization of Ballroom culture has overshadowed the daily practices and functions of the community, which this book seeks to redress.

Three inextricable dimensions constitute the social world of Ballroom culture: the gender system, the kinship structure (houses), and the ball events (where ritualized performances are enacted). What members refer to as the "gender system" is a collection of gender and sexual subjectivities that extend beyond the binary/ternary categories in dominant society such as male/female, man/woman, gay/lesbian/bisexual, and straight. Ballroom members conceive of sex, gender, and sexuality as separate but inextricably linked categories. Ballroom gender and sexual identities serve as the basis of all familial roles and the competitive presentation and performance categories at ball events.

Houses and balls are inseparable core social dimensions of Ballroom culture. Houses are family- like structures that are configured socially rather than biologically. Most houses are named after haute couture designers, but some are named after mottos and symbols that express qualities and aims with which the leaders want a house to be associated. Houses are also alternative families that are led by "mothers" and "fathers." House parents provide guidance for their "children" of various ages, race/ethnic identities (usually Black and Latino/a), genders, and sexualities, who come from cities and regions throughout North America. In general, a "house" does not signify an actual building; rather, it represents the ways in which its members, who mostly live in various locations, view themselves and interact with each other as a family unit.

The most conspicuous function of houses is organizing and competing in ball events. The gender system and kin labor create a close-knit community, and that community expresses its essence at these events. Thus, house parents recruit, socialize, and prepare their protégés to compete successfully in categories based on the deployment of performative gender and sexual identities, vogue and theatrical performances, and the effective presentation of fashion and physical attributes. Participants compete vigorously on behalf of their respective houses, and at times as individuals, in which case they are "free agents" and "007s."

Although contemporary Ballroom culture has existed for at least five decades, this community of Black and Latino/a LGBT people remains largely underground. Since its beginnings in Harlem, Ballroom culture has expanded rapidly to almost every major city in the United States and Canada. There are major Ballroom scenes in Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore, Washington DC, Charlotte, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Cities like Cleveland, St. Louis, Newark, Columbus, Miami, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Richmond have smaller Ballroom communities but thrive all the same. There are regional Ballroom scenes that include collaborative relationships between scenes in two or more cities, such as The Kentuckiana scene, involving Louisville and Indianapolis; The West Coast scene in California, consisting of Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area; and The Carolina scene, which includes Charlotte, Fayetteville, and Raleigh/Durham joined with cities in South Carolina. Recently a Ballroom community has emerged in Toronto, Ontario. Ballroom participants in the United States have helped to cultivate house/ball practices in the United Kingdom, Japan, Russia, and Sweden. Clearly, Ballroom has gone global, and there are many more cities in which Ballroom is growing and its members participate in balls throughout the world.

During this culture's early years in New York City, older Black and Latino/a LGBT people made up the majority of its membership. Yet, in just the past decade or so, members of Ballroom scenes across the country have become markedly younger. Indeed, especially for LGBT people of color in their late teens and early twenties, this community offers an enduring social sanctuary for those who have been rejected by and marginalized within their families of origin, religious institutions, and society at large.

From 2001 to 2007, the period in which I conducted most of my ethnography, the Ballroom community experienced rapid change and growth. Technology has played an integral role in the expansion of Ballroom culture, allowing its members to stay connected throughout the globe. For instance, the national Ballroom scene uses websites, such as walk4mewednesdays and thehouseofballs, as well as Yahoo groups, electronic mailing lists, and blogs that are set up and maintained by houses and individual members in order to connect with the community at large and to communicate with their chapters throughout the country. More recently members of the scene have begun to network through Facebook and to post performances on YouTube. Members use all of these social media to announce balls, discuss the highlights of previous balls, organize events, and gossip about the scene. Ballroom culture also has a presence in magazines, a few of which focus on Ballroom in their entirety and others of which devote several pages to it, such as Swerv, CLIK, and Ballroom Rockstar.

Several organizations hold balls annually within the context of HIV/AIDS prevention efforts that target the Ballroom community. For example, organizations such as The Gay Men's Health Crisis (CHMC) in New York City, The National AIDS and Education Services for Minorities (NAESM) in Atlanta, and The Minority AIDS Project in Los Angeles sponsor annual "prevention balls." Finally, The National Confederation of Black Prides is an umbrella organization that works with citywide Black Pride festivities to bring together Black and Latino/a LGBT members of the community to participate in national balls.

Shared race/ethnic identity and class status in the United States shape the demography of Ballroom communities in all cities in which there is a scene. In New York, Newark, San Antonio, and Miami, the community consists of Black and Latino/a LGBT participants, whereas in most other locations membership is almost exclusively Black LGBT people. The cultural critic and former member of The House of Ninja in the New York City scene, Tim'm T. West aptly explains how the intersections of race/ethnicity, class, and sexuality affect the makeup of the community, particularly in a city like New York:

You have Black people in New York City who are very much embedded geographically in Black communities. New York is a very segregated city, so if you are Black and from New York, chances are you grew up in a Black neighborhood or maybe even a Black/Latino neighborhood. Therefore, you are not just dealing with coming into your gayness, but it's like finding a space where both your blackness and gayness can evolve in tandem. So, for the culture that you grew up in, there is a sort of recognized cultural fluency that you share with other Black gays. [Ballroom] houses sort of help to facilitate and maintain that.

Notably, most of the Latino/a participants in New York City and Newark are Puerto Ricans, many of whom identify as Blaktino (Black Latino/a). Thus, West suggests further that, in addition to the shared race/ethnicity of Ballroom members, "the house scene," as he calls it, consists of "kids" who are urban and lower class. "We are talking about kids who are much more latch-key, who have a lot more independence as teenagers to leave and roam about."


Excerpted from Butch Queens Up In Pumps by Marlon M. Bailey. Copyright © 2013 University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1 Introduction: Performing Gender, Creating Kinship, Forging Community 1

2 "Ain't Nothing Like a Butch Queen": The Gender System in Ballroom Culture 29

3 From Home to House: Ballroom Houses, Platonic Parents, and Overlapping Kinship 77

4 "It's Gonna Get Severe Up in Here": Ball Events, Ritualized Performance, and Black Queer Space 124

5 "They Want Us Sick": Ballroom Culture and the Politics of HIV/AIDS 182

Epilogue: The Future of Ballroom Culture 221

Notes 229

Glossary: Ballroom Community Terms and Phrases 253

Bibliography 255

Index 265

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