By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
For many observers, their first taste of the house/ball scene came with the 1989 documentary “Paris Is Burning.” The indelible film took viewers in Harlem’s African-African and Latino LGBTQ subcultures, where members formed surrogate families, with names like the House of LeBeija and the House of Ninja, and competed in voguing and catwalking battles.
Twenty five years later, author and academic Marlon M. Bailey offers readers both an update on this culture and a thoughtful, scholarly look at its roots, its place in U.S. society, and the vital meaning it holds for participants.
To research his book, “Butch Queens Up In Pumps,” Bailey spent six years in and around the Detroit ball scene, joining the House of Prestige himself, and walking in numerous balls as a butch queen, or cis gay man. His writing balances “you are there” style reportage, deep analysis, and occasionally wonky academese.
Bailey’s thesis is a large one: that LGBTQ African-American (his focus omits Latinos), excluded from African-American culture by homophobia, and white LGBTQ culture by racism, formed houses to provide themselves nurturing and support, and throw balls to both acquire the skills they need to survive in a world that’s hostile toward them, and as ceremonies for their identities.
He demonstrates his ideas handily, in a work that ranges over many topics, such as house culture’s gender system, the houses’ family structures, and ball dynamics. One topic Bailey delves into masterfully is “realness.”
A viewer watching “Paris Is Burning” might find realness, which measures a person’s ability pass as cisgender if they are trans, or as heterosexual is they are gay or lesbian, as non-progressive. Bailey, however, displays the social circumstances that make realness competitions so important for ball participants. Surrounded by violence and hostility, learning to pass, or to “unmark themselves as non-normative,” allows house members to navigate their worlds safely. Likewise, acquiring these skills with the support and mentoring of their house families reinforces participants’ value to themselves and each other.
As Bailey sees it, houses could not exist without balls, and vice versa. The need for family is always balanced with the thirst to “slay and snatch”: slay the competition and snatch the trophy. Both aspects give members a chance to create a world in which they’re valued and can see themselves as participants.
While the house scenes are home to all sexual and gender identities, Bailey critiques the way in which it reproduces the femmephobia and transphobia of mainstream culture. Masculinity is privileged, meaning “butch queens” hold a dominance over “butch queens up in drag” (cis gay men who perform drag), and “femme queens” (trans women). Likewise, “butches” (trans men) are valued above “women” (cis lesbians).
Bailey’s book offers fascinating looks at how voguing has evolved since “Paris Is Burning,” the ways homophobia has caused house music, which is integral to the ball scene, to be undervalued both academically and within the African-American community, and the place that call and response dynamics, which play out vibrantly between the commentator and the ball contestants, holds in African traditions. That said, the author also displays some of the traits, such as explaining at length what he plans to discuss in each chapter, and using words like “labor” and “kin” in incredibly broad, repetitive ways, that can make academic writing off-putting for lay readers.
While clearly concerned with and sympathetic toward trans participants in house/ball culture, Bailey is more sure-footed when discussing gay identities than trans ones. He uses the terms “male-bodied” and “biologically male,” for instance to describe trans women, both problematic, and less respectful of trans identities than “assigned male at birth” would be. Likewise, his recounting of a discussion between a trans man and a trans woman about gender roles within houses is offensively sensationalized. He describes their dynamics as “paradoxical,” basing his view on the speakers’ birth assignments, rather than their identities.
Bailey’s more insightful when comparing the world of balls with that of mainstream culture. In examining “stunts and crafts,” for example, the use by ball goers of identity theft to fund their outfits, and their trips to competitions, he gives space for people who condemn such illegal practices, but also places them in the context of a U.S. culture that appears to condone corporate fraud on a massive, ongoing scale.
The author, likewise, delves deeply into the widespread use of words like c-nt and pussy by commentators, participants and promoters in the scene to connote femininity. He explores the idea that the terms’ meanings have mutated subversively in their journey from the broader culture to the subculture, so that they might not carry misogynist charges any longer there, while conceding that their use may simply be a replication of misogyny that’s been unconsciously reproduced.
Nearly every page of Bailey’s book contains thought-provoking ideas, as it explores an inspiring, fascinating culture. Pick it up, but be warned: in the words of ball commentator Frank Revlon, “It’s gonna get severe up in here.”