Watching Ryan Murphy's 'Pose' is not enough when you want to know about the true history of America's drag ball culture
FX 'Pose' is off to a decent start with two Sunday episodes so far and 'RuPaul's Drag Race' is renewed for the 11th season. But do we know enough of the drag culture?
With just two episodes of Ryan Murphy's 'Pose,' we already seem to have a brief idea about the late 70s and 80s drag ball culture in New York City. The glitter and glamor of ruffles, feathers, furs and high heels elaborately define the youth LGBTQ community fiercely competing in drag competitions known as balls.
Those familiar with a cult-favorite documentary, 'Paris is Burning' will get an even more clear insight into this subculture that existed far underneath the city's skyscrapers. As the sun went down, individuals from marginalized communities, including African American, Latino, gay, and transgender, fiercely competed in drag balls owning the runway in their glamorous gowns. This subculture has been captured in Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary.
Now fast forward to the time where 'Rupaul's Drag Race' is renewed to the 11th season, it is important to know the history of drag race culture.
What is a drag race culture and what is Pose?
Blanca Rodriguez, played by MJ Rodriguez, says in the first episode of Pose, "Balls are a gathering of people who are not welcome to gather anywhere else."
Drag balls are basically fashion shows that are fiercely competitive. Drag queens from different houses have a live face-off and each of them show up in extravagant costume to rule the runway. A panel of judges judge their outfits, appearance, strut, pose and attitude and there is only one winner. The main focus of the race is voguing while walking down the runway. Voguing is a dance form that originated during the ball scene in 1920s and majorly popularized by Madonna in the 1990s. The idea of voguing is to pose while doing the catwalk, mimicking the way models pose in magazines. In other sense, it is a nonviolent way of fighting during the balls.
Just like the way we see in FX's 'Pose,' the competition is divided into a lot of categories and a house member dresses accordingly to compete accordingly. Most of the categories include the house queen, femme queen, high fashion, and schoolboy.
It has been reported that the culture of drag was very much there even during the mid-1800s but the competition rose to prominence in the 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance as a form of expression for queer youth to have a safe space in the world where acceptance was hard to come by. However, most of the balls were then dominated by white males. Those of color were expected to lighten their complexion in order to compete. It was only in the 70s, that the black and Latina community branched out to create their own free space.
It has been recorded that one of the first balls for black queens was organized by Marcel Christian in 1962. In a 1968 documentary titled 'The Queen,' we see Crystal and Lottie Labeija, who founded the legendary House of Labeija and coordinated the first ball that was held by a house. Crystal and Labeija are the duo responsible for the origin of the house system and 'Pose' pays homage to that.
The first known ball was held in 1869, within Harlem's Hamilton Lodge, secretly. But the news caught fire and emerged as a congregate for gay men getting together. Despite the growing gay community, drag balls were deemed illegal by the mainstream society. A moral reform organization known as the Committee of Fourteen investigated the balls and in 1916, they released a report detailing the scandalous behavior they witnessed. The report described the ball as an event filled with "phenomenal" "male perverts" donned in expensive frocks and wigs, looking like women.
Once known as Masquerade and Civic Balls were dubbed "Faggots Balls" by the general public after it became known that these events were frequented by gay, lesbian, and transgender people. At that time not all queer patrons were in good favor of the ball but the very same space created for gay men to connect and interact with other gay men, paved way for LGBTQ+ community at large to establish the queer culture.
What is a house?
A house is a place where the community members find a sense of belonging. A house is a home with family members who are outcasts and are being taken care of by a house mother or a father. A safe space for African-American and Latina queer youth, since the racial tension, was looming large within and outside the community. A house emerged as a home for many who opted for an alternative family. As 'Pose' demonstrates the story of Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) seeking Blanca's help after being disowned by his parents. A refuge to those struggling, many houses did not have members actually living together, but some children had the option to live with their house mothers if they had nowhere else to go.
But the house was not only there for emotional support. Every house competed with one another at balls. In 'Paris is Burning' you get a deeper insight as Dorian Corey, the founder of House of Corey, says "A house is a gay street gang."
"Street gangs get their rewards from street fights. A house street fights at a ball -- and you street fight at a ball by walking in a category." After the first black drag ball was staged in 1962, it spurred the formation of "houses," after Marcel formed hers in 1972.
The houses fight for the identity of being a legendary one. The well-known houses include House of Labeija, House of Dupree, House of Ninja, and House of Xtravaganza all founded by iconic drag queens Crystal Labeija, Paris Dupree, Willi Ninja, and Angie Xtravaganza respectively. The founding years of these houses aren't certain, but the majority sprung up throughout the '70s and '80s. The houses, in an attempt to outdo one another, would throw their own balls. Paris Dupree, Mother of the House of Dupree, threw the first Paris Is Burning ball around 1981, which introduced the category system at the balls and only began to develop through the '80s.
There's a drag lingo too.
Ever since the 1890s, drag queens were identified with their own lingo with phrases that we are guilty of using almost every day now. Phrases like "throwing shade" can be credited to the LGBTQ community and the underground ball scene. The queen, not only had to walk and shine at the runway but talk the walk and outshine the rest.
Coming back to the series on television, with 'Pose' you can see the show forcing new conversations in the public and removing old boundaries. Will 'Pose' help expose the public to a greater tolerance and understanding of the community? Murphy seems to be hoping so.