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

Starr shifted her weight as she stood on a mostly deserted Broadway in downtown Oakland, looking up at the second-floor windows of Historic Sweet's Ballroom. The pounding house music taunted her, convincing her the action was already going down inside and that she was missing all of it. Yet entering presented its own risks: "I'm as nervous as hell," she announced. "I know how the Oakland girls can be."

Starr got off her job just three hours ago at the Ark of Refuge center in San Francisco, where she mostly works with black transgender girls like herself. Girls who, in a couple months, she'll not only feel like, but start to look like, as the estrogen shots coax her tiny adolescent male body down the road to breasts and hips. A friend picked her up from work, and Starr sprayed glitter on her hair and threw on her all-black costume of a loose button-down shirt and leggings, with condoms on lollipop sticks tucked into her Eskimo boots. She's gotten good at improvising on a budget since leaving her mother's house in Virginia some five years ago at age 13.

Starr hopped a San Francisco–bound Greyhound bus a few months ago, envisioning a gay lollapalooza awaiting her in California. It was the logical next stop on her runaway gay youth tour after Greenwich Village and, before that, Atlanta and, before that, a whole lotta foster and group homes down South that didn't accept her and just convinced her the gay life was somewhere else. Now holed up in a nonprofit housing program for LGBT youth, she's found San Francisco isn't the best fit either. There's not much of a place in the Castro for an androgynous African-American teen who hasn't finished high school and can't afford a spinach frittata at Cafe Flore.

But it's another scene from which Starr craves acceptance, and that's what got her calculating on this recent Saturday night: that it's after 7, and the flier posted on a Web site few people know exist (but which acts as a social calendar for those who do) said the ball was supposed to start by now. But those who know a ball has nothing to do with the foxtrot — and everything to do with being young, usually black, queer, fabulous, and saying "screw you" to the world that judges you — know that a ball never starts on time.

This kind of ball is the crowning event for the thousands of young gay and transgender people of color who circulate in a subculture known as the ballroom scene. They form into "houses" that function as nationwide fraternities with regional chapters and decadent names that often rip off fashion designers — the House of Manolo Blahnik, of Chanel, of Mizrahi — or just sound glamorous: the House of Infiniti, or Xtravaganza. Each chapter has a "mother" and "father," based more on personality than biological gender, who provide their "children" an alternative LGBT kinship group and a very concrete goal: to snatch trophies at balls.

Held nearly every weekend in cities across the country, the balls are equal parts runway show and a much hipper version of So You Think You Can Dance? House members compete in categories for the hottest face, the best body, which male-to-female transgender contestant (known in the ball world as a "femme queen") looks most like a biological woman, or which "butch queen" (a gay man) can best pass as a straight man. Then there's the most wicked runway catwalk, and the best voguer, the signature dance form created by the scene.

(Click to see a slideshow from the ball.)

Starr first discovered the scene back in New York. It opened up a community of black gay kids like her, and a tangible route to fame among them. To become a ballroom "legendary icon" is to be knighted a ball-scene megacelebrity, usually someone who has won his or her category nationwide for more than a decade. Starr, who was living off sex work with gay men in Greenwich Village, and whose life until that point had been more marked by fleeing from places than going to anywhere, suddenly saw a plan before her: to become a legendary icon, and, eventually, open her own house.

So she needed to start climbing the ladder. She attempted to start a San Francisco–based chapter of the House of DaVinci with herself as chapter mother, but it flopped a week before the ball (more on that later). Squirming at the idea of attending the ball as a "007" — a "free agent" without a house — she advertised her availability on ballroom message boards, and finally wrangled herself into the brand-new House of Richmond just three days before the ball.

But after walking into the darkened ballroom, she lost track of the two Richmonds she came with, and sat down alone on a bench at the room's edge. She would be competing in the vogue category for those who've never won or even competed before, and her usual streetwise bravado had withered. "There's alcohol in your drink?" she asked an over-21-year-old friend who walked over with what looked like a cocktail in a cup. "Gimme some of that. I'm not even playin'."

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