If you attend most gay bars in major cities on any given Thursday, you’ll find that they are crowded with people excited to watch the latest episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality TV show featuring a number of drag queens all competing for a coveted title. Each Thursday, the audience brims with excitement, clacks their fans, debates which queen will serve “realness” tonight and how they’re all really into voguing now. And while RuPaul’s Drag Race has popularized drag more than ever and inculcated a culture and language within the LGBTQ community and beyond, we must recognize the individuals and the community that paved the road and the ballroom culture that continues to be influential to present day.
With decades of relevance, the ballroom subculture has gained thousands of members and inspired several productions from documentaries like Paris is Burning and The Queen to FX’s newest series¸ Pose. The national subculture which evolved from Harlem drag balls throughout the 1930’s Harlem Renaissance, provides a platform that celebrates all forms of gender and sexual expression, but most importantly, it provides many queer Black and Latinx youth and young adults a chosen kinship structure through which collective impact, resilience, and vital resources are shared.
Even today, balls are as necessary and crucial in the cohesion of LGBTQ culture as they were in their formative years nearly nine decades ago. Persevering against adversity and powering through systems and institutions that historically have and continue to fail them, queer youth of color have always worked to fill in the gaps. They have always and continue to find ways to survive, organize, and fight for themselves and their communities.
Though we may enjoy RuPaul’s Drag Race and the visibility it brings to the LGBTQ and drag communities, we must acknowledge the roots planted by queer youth and young people who envisioned a world where queer communities could be liberated through unapologetic love and transformative healing. The next time we praise a drag queen for showing “realness,” we must also recognize that there is legislation impeding LGBTQ and gender-expansive youth to be their total and true selves. We must continue to ensure that our work is focused on mitigating the impact of efforts that will undermine the rights and jeopardize the safety of LGBTQ youth, especially youth of color and those involved in public systems.
As we dance and vogue to CeCe Peniston or Cheryl Lynn, let’s remember that to pose is to resist. For many queer youth of color, the ballroom scene and houses stand as vital lifelines. These spaces are sanctuaries, transformative sites of community, and safe and loving homes. These are spaces that we need to celebrate, protect, and defend.
Learn more about CSSP’s getR.E.A.L initiative, which works to improve the lives of LGBTQ children and youth involved with the child welfare system. Within the getR.E.A.L initiative, our organizing work aims to strengthen the ballroom scene through Keeping Ballroom Community Alive Network. The network provides the alternatives for youth of color throughout the country to receive the supports and systems they need which our public systems have failed to provide.
***Photo taken by S Pakhrin of a Voguing Masquerade Ball at the National Museum of African Arts
Viet Tran is the communications manager at CSSP.