Black and Brown LGBTQ+ Advocates on Modern Ballroom Culture

By N. Jamiyla Chisholm Dec 12, 2019

From Jennie Livingston’s iconic 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning” to the groundbreaking FX series “Pose,” the “underground LGBTQ ballroom competitions [that] started in the 1970s as a safe haven for Black and brown young people” was the subject of the “On Point” podcast released Wednesday (December 11) by KUOW

On an episode titled “The Growth (And New Contexts) Of LGBTQ Ball Culture,” host Meghna Chakrabarti spoke with guests Marlon Bailey, professor of women and gender studies at Arizona State University School of Social Transformation; multidisciplinary artist Rashaad Newsome, whose work explores Black and queer culture; and Sydney Baloue, writer and ballroom performer, about ballroom’s New York City origins, international appropriation and everything in between. 

Below are three takeaways from the discussion.

Bailey on the good and bad of ballroom’s global reach:

The upside to the visibility of ballroom, in terms of popular culture, is that it is providing exposure and invitation to the community formation that many would not have had before and it also gives actors who are trans, and Black, and LGBT people of color jobs and careers and awards, like Billy Porter. But, what I worry about is one, this visibility is not able to provide a full, complete, comprehensive view of this cultural formation and the lives of the LGBT people of color who make up this culture and the ways in which they struggle with the structures of oppression that we experience on a daily basis.

Baloue, a Black trans man who is currently chronicling the evolution of New York City’s ballroom scene, agreed that the increased media visibility does not tell the entire story:

Black and Latinx LGBTQ youth, and even older folks, could still be fired from our jobs for being who we are at work. And the reality for Black transgender women is that it can be very hard to just get a job. There’s a myriad of intersectional oppression that specifically affects that part of the communities.  

Newsome, who has staged a performance competition called the “King of Arms Art Ball” since 2013, said he’s most interested in decolonizing power structures with Black queer spaces:

There’s so much in ballroom that needs to be dealt with. This whole idea of ballroom being this utopian space, safe space for Black queers, and in some ways it is, but in a lot of ways it’s not. So much of us in those spaces are coming from violence and diminishment and abandonment and I think the notion that we’re going to go over here and create this space and those things are gonna be nonexistent are not real. I think we have to deal with that and a lot of the ways that I see folk dealing with that is rooted in the culture of domination that teaches us that we need things to have power rather than thinking about power from within. In an equitable society, Black folk in particularly Black queer folk aren’t given the same opportunity to “get things”… So a lot of the work that I’m trying to do is to get folk to decolonize.

To listen to the complete episode, click here.