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'.”
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.”
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.
Lifetime Achiever/Pioneer-Icon Kevin Ultra-Omni is one of the few surviving founders from the 1970s, after AIDS ravaged the community in the 1980s. He says the scene has lost some of its shimmer. He regularly posts on a ballroom message board declaring that today's ball kids are mentally ill. “I often wonder for my safety at a ball,” he says over the phone from New Jersey. Many in the scene say people get heated in all competitions, and shrug off such rants about today's generation as the ballroom equivalent of saying back in their day, they walked to balls in two feet of snow without stilettos.
“The drama and the histrionics just comes with being young and queer in an urban setting,” says New York–based Mizrahi member Roberts. There is “certainly nothing excessive about violence in the scene.”
At least at the Fusion of Time ball, the chairs surrounding the house tables were plastic.
Three days before the ball, Starr needed a house. Showing up at the ball alone was a last resort: “Oh, it would bother me to hell,” she said. “I just can't do it. To think that you went from mother of a house to 007 in a matter of a week's time span … does not look good.”
After an introduction on MySpace last fall to Overall Father Casanova DaVinci, who'd reopened the then-defunct House of DaVinci in Miami three years ago, Starr was anointed West Coast chapter mother. It was an unusual choice, given that mother status is most often reserved for those with years under their belts who can provide guidance, and Starr had competed in only one major ball. But for Starr, experience was relative. Occasionally, when she was mad at the behavior of her house children, she would claim she had legendary status for the authority effect.
Actually, the exact details of Starr's past are hard to pin down. Her account of growing up in the projects back in Richmond, Virginia, is blasted by a phone call to her mother, Leketia Christian, who says Starr grew up in a three-bedroom ranch house with Air Jordans and a PlayStation. “[Starr] had a warm and loving home,” she says. “This kid had it made!”
Starr says her mother is the one stretching the truth: “My mom will say anything to make herself look good. … I didn't want Jordans, I wanted Barbie dolls.”
Despite Starr's meager experience, Father Casanova liked her drive. Starr saw the position as a way to start her ascent through the ballroom world. By early January, Starr had recruited four or five other DaVincis to the house, but just two weeks before the ball, things unraveled.
• On Sunday, when Starr challenged two members on whether they were dedicated enough to back up the DaVincis in any possible fights — the answer was no — Starr said it would be better if they went to the ball as 007s, and they agreed. “I will not be the weakling chapter,” she said.
• On Tuesday in Harvey Milk Plaza, Starr socked a friend of one of the ex–house members in the face after she claims he slammed transsexuals and disrespected New York.
• On Wednesday, two remaining members decided they weren't committed to attending the ball.
Starr herself had a change of heart: She'd rather be in a house dedicated to slaying on the runway, not to drama outside of it — and it seemed to her that Father Casanova, who brags about his house being “badass gangsta … we have a type of swagger that would intimidate you,” was more interested in the latter. So on Friday, she disbanded the chapter, and posted a message on the West Coast ballroom Yahoo! Group list to say she was now Star 007, looking to join a house.
With multiple offers from houses on Wednesday — the mood on her MySpace page changed to “ecstatic” — Starr and her friend Jasmine went to interview with the House of Richmond, a new Atlanta–based house started by breakoffs from the respected houses of Cavalli and Ultra-Omni. The meeting was scheduled for 7 p.m. in the Hayward apartment of Nikki Richmond, the new West Coast chapter mother. Around 9:30, Angel Richmond, the national house secretary who'd flown in from Atlanta for the ball, strode in looking every bit the role of a Gap model in a black peacoat over white T-shirt, jeans, and Timberland boots. Angel explained the house rules with the charisma of a suave recruiter and an affected lisp: No fighting with house members in public. Keep any sex work discreet. Do something productive outside of the ball scene. Starr was clearly impressed. “For this to be a very, very new house, all y'all have things really together,” she said.
There was only one part of the interview left: Starr's voguing audition. With a beat playing on the CD player, Starr pulled out her arsenal of moves, constantly glancing over to Angel, whose eyes had narrowed in critique, his face betraying no emotion.
(Click to see a slideshow from the session.)
“Slow down,” he commanded. “Just catwalk.” Starr obliged.
“Duck walk.” Starr walked in a squatting position, bobbing on her heels, flipping her wrist one way and the other.
“Can you do floor for me?” Starr sat and kicked her legs out, up, and around, and rolled over. After she was done, Angel delivered the verdict: “You need a lot of practice.”
Starr laughed, allowing the critique. She sat down and asked Angel for more: “So what did you think, though?”
After the interview, Starr walked out to Nikki's car, full of the certainty other kids her age would have after a killer college visitation. “This is something I'm definitely willing to dedicate my time to and give my all to,” Starr told her, adding that she'd call the other houses and decline their offers. “So do you think we're definitely in, Nikki?”
Back on BART, Starr and Jasmine plopped down facing each other. Starr copied Jasmine in raising her arm and snapping, drilling the House of Richmond cheer Nikki had taught them: “R to the I to the C to the H. I'm rich, bitch! I'm rich, bitch!”
Starr's cell phone rang and she whipped it up to her ear. “Oh yes, girl, I'm a Richmond now.”
At the ball, the nine-judge panel of house parents was selected from the crowd to sit behind two tables onstage, reigning above the runway like royalty to be entertained. Wearing all black with a bejeweled eagle on the back of his shirt, MC Jack Mizrahi hit his two talking points — there's media in the room, so behave yourselves; and an AIDS prevention message. “The HIV and AIDS pandemic is not over. 46 percent of us tonight are HIV positive and infected,” he says. “Until there's a motherfuckin' cure, practice. Safe. Sex. Give me a hell, yeah!”
“Hell, yeah!” the crowd repeated.
After asking for a moment of silence for those in the ball scene who had passed, Kool-Aid Mizrahi yelled, “Let's start the motherfuckin' ball!”
First up: virgin vogue, Starr's category, with a cash prize of $25. The contestants must first show their moves and “get their 10s” from every judge, meaning they're deemed acceptable to continue to the “battle zone.” There, two dancers face off on the runway, with one eliminated each round until the last one standing is declared winner. Yet if even one judge eliminates, or “chops,” contestants when they first audition, they don't even get to compete.
That's exactly what was happening to the voguers before Starr. The runway was starting to look like a kill line at a meat factory, the dancers chopped before they could traverse its length with their fledgling moves. Winners of a virgin category must compete at the next ball against the voguers who have been doing it for years, so it's a judge's duty to chop anyone who hasn't reached that level — the message being, “Child, go home and work some more.”
The costumes of the virgin voguers, many of them 007s pledging a house, skewed more toward thrift than glam — sweatpants or hoodies decorated with a couple of condoms for the HIV prevention theme. The flashiest contestant, an Oakland boy with a mohawk glued to his head and a white tutu jutting out from his hips, was sprayed with Silly String from a judge while he was still lying down in a dip. Kool-Aid yelled his disapproval of the gesture into the mike: “If you're gonna chop someone with the Silly String, fine. But don't disrespect anyone!”
Starr was up, her jaw set with the determination of a boxer entering the ring. She started her moves down on the floor before strutting up the steps and moving down the runway, getting in a good two or three back dips before the judges dismissed her with a shot of Silly String. Chopped. Kool-Aid didn't contest it, instead resting his hand on Starr's shoulder and saying her hair looked like she'd taken a dunk in the pool.
Starr gave a laugh like she was in on the joke, then pooched her lips into a showy pout and padded down the runway, hips out front and feet flopping out under her, returning to Nikki and Angel.
Some say the “productive critique” from peers of the ball scene is better than being judged daily for your identity in the outside world. But in the outside world, Starr has honed her defenses. If Kool-Aid were some kook in Harvey Milk Plaza, Starr could have socked him in the lip; if someone laid a hand on her like that in Union Square, he probably would have gotten pepper-sprayed with the dented can she keeps ever-ready in her purse. In the outside world, Starr says, “there's a way around everything” — rules are to be bent and subverted, group homes escaped, identity tweaked — and the stinging words would have bounced off her. But here, Starr respects the ballroom hierarchy as if it were a religion, and for all her later shit-talking about “shady” judging, while on the runway, Starr accepted her elders kicking her off, even insulting her on the way out.
The sole voguer in the category who didn't get chopped was named the default winner, and the competition moved on.
Starr certainly wasn't the only one dissed that night, or “thrown shade,” in ballroom parlance. At one point, Kool-Aid smacked a towering femme queen on her ample rump hanging out of a stripper dress, yelling, “What's not real about her? What's not real about her?” (“Real,” as applied to transgender women in the ball world, means passing as a biological woman. The category has supporters who find it validating, and detractors who say it is insulting and out of date.) Later, a runway walker in a natty gold 19th-century-inspired outfit blew white powder in the face of a competitor as he sashayed past him. Kool-Aid denounced the show of unsportsmanlike shade — apparently only he gets to hurl the insults — and said he hoped the kid would show at the next ball, because “when it's my turn to get to the runway, I'm gonna get you!” The gold-clad guy nodded his head fiercely back as he descended the steps, in the “Bring it!” manner usually associated with basketball players being pulled away from a fight.
But the relative peace didn't last. During the voguing competition, as the time passed 1 a.m. with $500 on the table, a Flintstones-styled character in a leopard smock — whom people would later identify as Enyce Chanel up from Los Angeles, who knew he was about to lose — grabbed the wig of his competitor, a 17-year-old Oakland 007 butch queen called Maliyha Brown, who was dressed up like the Jetsons' maid. He yanked her hairpiece around a couple times in an apparent attempt to snatch it off, but, since it was bonded on by some heavy-duty glue, instead ripped Brown down with it.
That was all the provocation needed, and the fight was on: Spectators lunged up on the runway, while others stampeded to the ballroom's edges. Maliyha was hustled up onto the stage (“because I'm known to fight,” as she would later explain). Security men streamed onto the runway to separate the brawlers. Skirmishes erupted down on the floor, overturning two tables, the goody bags of condoms and dental dams skittering across the floor.
Jack Mizrahi channeled his stern authority through the mike, his apparent disappointment called into question by his other hand holding a camera recording the chaos for posterity, possibly for YouTube. “The ball is over!” he shouted. “Thank you. We are constantly labeled as a subculture community because of things like this. Get your trashy asses out!” The crowd eventually obeyed his demands and trickled out into the rain, while the Mizrahi house members grouped around the stage. Jack told them, “The revolution of this house starts in Oakland tomorrow night at 5 p.m.” at a house meeting. West Coast chapter father Duke Mizrahi screamed, “The way you motherfuckas carried on tonight … is fucked up! It's fucked up! It's fucked up!” He continued like a profane broken record until Jack calmed him down.
Starr missed all the chaos she had predicted. After she went outside to console an upset friend, the security guards wouldn't allow her back in, a parting insult to stack up with the night's others. Back in the Castro by 2 a.m., she was already planning to head home — to New York. “I'm really sad about how this ball turned out,” she said.
By the next afternoon, her gloom had morphed into anger. The ball “was a piece of shit. Someone who's walking virgin vogue shouldn't be chopped, period. Unless they're just beyond ridiculous, but nobody there was beyond ridiculous, so I don't know why they were expecting to just see the next hottest thing.”
Though Starr previously had said that criticism just made her work harder, this particular slam was now making her condemn the ball scene on this entire side of the United States. “I'm done with the ballroom scene out here on the West Coast,” she said. “On the East Coast, you don't see a virgin voguer chopped.” She figures ballroom stardom obviously cannot happen here, if it's a fixed game before she's even really started.
So Starr says she's booked her plane ticket for next week, arranging to stay at a friend's place. Her mom back in Virginia has her own hopes for Starr.
“Before all this gay stuff came out, he wanted to be a lawyer,” Leketia Christian says. “When he was in school, he was making straight As. … He's focused it all on gay issues. He lost concentration as far as what he wanted to be in life.
“He's probably going to be gay for the rest of his life,” she continues. “I can't change that. I accept that now. But I wish he'd get off the hormone shots and go back to school.”
Starr has looked into starting social work classes at a community college later this spring, but the estrogen shots aren't stopping anytime soon. First stop in New York: the club where all the ballroom kids practice. Wing it from there.
(Click to see a slideshow from the story.)