“Drop Dead” was President Ford’s response to bankrupt New York City when they requested Federal aid in the 1970s. But the city didn’t die. On the contrary, the city began to thrive. The 1980s was a boom for New York. Economically, the city saw mass investment in real estate and a growing job market. In the shadows, culture exploded. Pushed to the background, criminalized, and demonized, queer culture ingrained itself in the underground city. When disinvited from the outside world and told to drop dead, the Black and Latinx community created their own space, where they not only kept themselves safe, but where they were able to thrive.
Taking place mainly in Harlem, individuals would come together every week to compete in ballroom competitions. Face, butch queen, body, executive, home and country, ethnic, model effect were just a few of the many categories that were competed in. Houses, a group of people that acted as a family, worked together to compete in front of judges to win trophies. But more importantly, they competed to gain notoriety within the ballroom world. In the words of Pepper LaBejia in Paris is Burning, one of the most legendary and prominent drag queens that is credited with forming the first House, once said, “The ball is as close to reality that they will get to fame and fortune.” The ballroom was a place of manifested fantasy for everyone that participated. Realness. That is what the 1980s Ballroom scene was all about. How real do you embody that fantasy that you are so desperate to be your reality? How desperate do you pursue your ardor?
Extravagance, beauty, opulence, seductiveness, arrogance is what the queer community embodied at the balls. In their clothing, their jewelry, their makeup, their hair, their walk, their posture, their movement, thought and intention went into how they pursued the fantasy they wished to portray to the world. The balls were an opportunity to express oneself in any way that they wished. The only person that could limit them was themselves. Their only limit was their own creativity, confidence, dedication, and desire. That was what the balls gave to many young queer Black and Brown individuals, the permission and the ability of self-expression.
Just the balls themselves do not properly embody the ardor of the queer community. It is the hate, disregard, fear, rejection, and insult that preceded the ballroom scene and each ball that took place in 1980s New York. It is the love and community that the Houses were created for those who were seeking refuge from houses that disowned them, a society that wanted them to disappear, and streets that wanted to kill them.
In the midst of the ballroom scene, the AIDS epidemic was ravaging through the gay community. Hundreds were dying and there was little to no support from the government. Not only was the Black and Brown community in New York already disproportionately poor compared to their white counterparts, but gay and trans Black and Brown people were put between a rock and a hard place. That left many to turn to the underground job market and engage in drug dealing and sex work, leaving those who were already vulnerable and neglected in even worse situations. In the face of such negative circumstances, the queer community still pursued their ardor for life. They took that passion for life and went at it with vigor.
The culture that developed in the shadows of New York has found itself becoming more mainstream and accepted. What was once both socially and legally demonized has been taken into the mainstream pop culture. The release of Vogue by Madonna in 1990 and the creation of RuPaul’s Drag Race has helped alter the public’s negative perception of ballroom. The ardor of the balls to the queer community has translated into acceptability. They are undeniable in their pursuit of passion and excitement. And there is no stopping the queer community.
Written by Matthew Calma