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But the rivalry wasn't the only reason Starr scanned the ballroom warily as people started to stream in. Competition gets harsh at balls, sometimes even violent, and the previous weekend at a ball in Atlanta, members of the House of Khan and the House of Manolo Blahnik ended up smashing each other's heads with metal chairs, reportedly putting at least one person in the hospital. Starr had witnessed the whole debacle on YouTube. "Whenever you have a group of faggots together in one room, there will absolutely, positively be mess," she said.
Finally, about two and a half hours behind schedule — pretty prompt by ball standards — the "Stars, Statements, and Legends" kicked off. It's the equivalent of a roll call of the well-known folks in the room, who show off their specialties in a sort of pregame for the ball itself. It soon became clear why Starr wants this more than anything else: Life simply doesn't provide many chances for people without recording or modeling contracts to be as loved and glamorized as they can be here. To have hundreds of people jammed up against the edges of the runway, watching the voguers fling themselves to the ground belly-up like wounded fighters from Mortal Kombat — the more seemingly injury-worthy the plunge, the more oomph with which the crowd members scream "Ahhh!" and dunk their arms in time to the moment of the dip. To sashay as the commentators chant your name to a hypnotizing beat that drives on, on, on.
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."
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