While watching a screening of Paris is Burning hosted by the Smithsonian Latino Center, I was entranced by the dazzling participants as they competed, fiercely owning the floor in their glamorous gowns. Twenty-five years ago, this famous cult documentary captured the lives and culture of African American, Latino, gay, and transgender communities involved in New York City drag balls. The film captured a slice of the 1980s unknown to many, with roots in a fascinating culture.
In 1869, within Harlem's Hamilton Lodge, drag balls began. As the secret of the balls spread within the gay community, they became a safe place for gay men to congregate. Despite their growing popularity, drag balls were deemed illegal and immoral by mainstream society. A moral reform organization known as the Committee of Fourteen periodically investigated the balls. In 1916, the committee released a report detailing the scandalous behavior they witnessed. The report described a scene filled with "phenomenal" "male perverts" in expensive frocks and wigs, looking like women. The committee later released 130 reports describing its visits, demanding that such perversion must desist.
By the 1920s, the balls had gained more public visibility. What were once known as Masquerade and Civic Balls were dubbed "Faggots Balls" by the general public after it became well known that these spectacles were frequented by gay, lesbian, and transgender people. The balls did not attract just queer patrons, though straight artists, writers, and ball appreciators outside the LGBTQ community frequented these spectacles for their renowned reputation. Among them were Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler, two writers who found themselves attracted to the exotic nature of the balls. The writers, in their co-authored The Young And Evil, detailed their extraordinary experience on the floor as "a scene whose celestial flavor and cerulean coloring no angelic painter or nectarish poet has ever conceived . . . lit up like high mass." Though drag balls were created for fun and as a place to connect with other gay men, the association of the notorious balls to LGBTQ people helped pave a way for the establishment of queer culture.
The balls were crucial in the creation and maintenance of LGBTQ culture. Historian George Chauncey has pointed out that Harlem "enhanced the solidarity of the gay world and symbolized the continuing centrality of gender inversion to gay culture." Powering through harassment and arrests, Harlem became a "homosexual mecca." Police, politicians, and mainstream society found themselves simply unable to suspend the famous ball scene. Rather than abandoning the scene, the participants fought for change and opportunity. From the early days of the balls, remarkable persistence of patrons and ball organizers in the face of adversity made the drag ball scene unstoppable. It is this fighting spirit that allowed balls to thrive, and that spirit lives on through today within the LGBTQ community.
For more information about the early drag ball scene, the author recommends George Chauncey's Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940.
Oliver Stabbe is a former intern in the Division of Medicine and Science and an undergraduate student at the University of Rochester.