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Gay and Transgender Divas Battle for Stardom in Bay Area's Ballroom Scene 

Wednesday, Feb 6 2008
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Those experienced in the scene know how addictive the adulation can be, and how risky, because outside the ballroom it confers no real wealth or power. "I can't go put 'sex siren' on my résumé," one says. "Unless you're a solid runway walker ... balls are not gonna pay anyone's bills." Many house parents make sure their "kids" go to school or work, so they don't get lost in a quest for the limelight. And that's exactly the quest Starr is on. She emblazoned her ambition into the name she gave herself back in New York, the one she now goes by in daily life, and she intends to live up to it.

"Nobody's going to hand me a damn thing," she says. "I gotta earn it. And I will. I will do whatever it takes to do it."

The ones who have already earned it are on the runway. Starr stands at the edge of the crowd and looks on.

Starr had never heard of the ballroom scene before moving to New York. The culture remains largely underground today, a decade and a half after the documentary Paris Is Burning presented it to the mainstream and Madonna's "Vogue" ripped off its signature dance style and returned little credit. Although the scene's roots date back to queer black functions during the Harlem Renaissance, most agree its current form started in the 1960s, when black drag queens hosted balls for female impersonators who were overlooked at the white-run drag pageants. In the early '70s, some well-known drag queens and pre-op transgender women started the first official houses, which provided teams for the balls and a surrogate gay family for members who'd often been cast out of their own.

Although New York retains its reputation as the capital of the scene, dozens of houses have spread out across the country, networked on MySpace, YouTube, and ballroom Web sites. The scene first cropped up on the West Coast in the late '90s in Los Angeles and appeared in the Bay Area soon after, with a half-dozen houses setting up chapters here.

In urban centers like San Francisco where the mainstream gay scene has lost its edge — "everyone wants to look like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," says Frank Leon Roberts, a New York–based Mizrahi house member who chronicles the ball scene on his Web site and in photographs — the ball scene provides a space to bust boundaries. "They come for the funky gender fluidity that's going on, the fierceness of competition, the entertainment value of the scene more so than, 'My gosh, my mom and dad threw me out on the street and I had nowhere to go,'" he says. "Of course, you're gonna get that [too], because these are young queer youth of color and that's the way it is, unfortunately."

Ball participants find discrimination not only from the mainstream, but also in homophobia from black culture itself, which has an interest in policing the image of the community, says Dr. Marlon Bailey, who wrote his dissertation on the ball scene at UC Berkeley and has competed in balls for the House of Prestige as Professor Prestige. "Those that speak for us don't want people to know there's black gay people running around in our community," he says. The scene is often depicted as a superficial pageant for transgender folk and gay men, while its function is ignored: "It has helped to sustain a critical mass of black and Latino community members who otherwise would not have had access to kinship, love, and productive critique ... merely because of their sexuality."

If many of the ball kids have weathered oppression, part of the beauty of a ball is it doesn't show. The recent "Fusion of Time" ball looked like a cherry-picking from area high schools and colleges of the most beautiful and well-dressed young black men — and the majority of the scene is male, with smaller numbers of transgender women, lesbians, and even straight folks joining the scene — with a few Latinos and Asians sprinkled in. Few in the room were over 30. "Everything's gotta be on point," explains China Ultra-Omni, house mother of the Bay Area chapter of the House of Ultra-Omni, a feather ascot at his neck and a pink faux-fur tail hanging from his jeweled belt, displaying a white leather Yves Saint-Laurent sunglass case with no small amount of pride. "This is like casual for me."

While local houses and nonprofits have hosted a number of smaller balls, the Fusion of Time on January 26 marked a coming-out of sorts for the Bay Area on the national circuit. The $5,000 in prizes — donated by private sponsors — was the most cash ever offered on the West Coast, and lured competitors from New York, Chicago, and Atlanta. The event organizers from the Sexual Minority Alliance of Alameda County, known to the ball kids who practice there as the SMAAC Center, had hired legendaries Jack and Kool-Aid Mizrahi, two of the scene's best-known commentators, who bring cachet to wherever they land. This was their first time landing in the Bay Area.

But not all is glamorous at the ball, as the brawl in Atlanta in January attests. Before that, ballroom folks report that a security guard shot a butch queen in Detroit, and someone detonated tear gas at a ball in Washington, D.C. Some describe creative forms of sabotage by the competition: finding powdered glass in their foundation, glue squirted inside their shoes, or grease smeared on the soles. And then there's the stealing: With kids in their late teens and early 20s regularly flying to out-of-state balls, you can bet some airline tickets are bought thanks to credit-card fraud, many in the scene say.

About The Author

Lauren Smiley

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