The FX show Pose has been on my “TV Shows to Watch” list for a while and two weeks ago, I finally started watching it. Prior to watching it, I just knew it was a show about the lives of transgender and queer people. So, I basically wasn’t aware of the plot. After watching the first episode, I got to know more about the characters as well as how the show takes place in New York City in the 1980s. I also got to know one thing they have in common: house balls. These house balls are not just things that occured in Pose. They are a real aspect of the LGBTQ+ culture. To get to know more about the house balls, here is a history lesson on them.
The origin of house balls could be traced back to the post-Civil War era. After the Civil War, Hamilton Lodge No. 710 in Harlem became the spot for drag balls. Attendees and contestants were of a diverse array of races, genders, and sexes. Contestants were either men dressed in women’s clothes or the opposite; the former was the aspect that made these balls so appealing. These balls were held in pageant-style and had judges judging the contestants.
Decades passed, and these balls became more popular. Unfortunately, though, the more they came to be classified as a disgrace to society and unlawful. As a result, drag balls became more of an underground occurrence. This, however, eventually ended up serving as an appealing factor. From the 1800s to the 1930s, the number of attendees grew exponentially.
The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s was monumental for the Black LGBTQ+ community. It allowed them to live and dive deeper into gender, sex, and sexuality even more. It also helped highlight how drag balls were filled with racial prejudice. Despite balls at the Hamilton Lodge being racially diverse, contestants with white, Eurocentric features received special treatment by the judges. It took 69 years since the first ball for a Black contestant to win the top prize. With drag balls becoming established in other major cities, racial prejudice in judging would also spread.
This would all change with drag queen Crystal Labeija. In the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant, Miss Philadelphia Rachel Harlow, a white contestant, won the pageant. Miss Manhattan Crystal Labeija, a Black contestant, asserted that the pageant was rigged in favor of white contestants and the judges exuded racial prejudice towards the Black and Latine contestants. Because of this, Labeija didn’t compete in later pageants. However, Labeija remained and made a change to the ballroom culture thanks to Lottie Labeija. Lottie Labeija, a drag queen hailing from Harlem, encouraged Crystal to start her own ball in the early 1970s. Crystal took on the opportunity and created the House of Labeija. The House of Labeija is the very first “house” and Labeija became its “mother.”
After the birth of the House of Labeija, more ballroom houses would be born. They would also serve as sanctuaries for Black and Latine gay, queer, and trans people. While they served as teams, they also served as families. Each house had its own “mother” or “father,” and they would raise their “children” to help them succeed in the world. Julian Kevon Glover, Virginia Commonwealth University’s assistant professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies; and Dance and Choreography, states that these houses “demonstrates [sic] alternative possibilities for what kinship can look like. Moving away from this reliance on one’s biological family, and complicating ideas of a family of choice.”
Crystal and Lottie held their first ball, House of Labeija Ball, in Harlem in the early 1970s. It was catered exclusively for Black and Latine trans, gay, and queer people. The ball was successful, which is evidently marked through the numerous houses that were born inspired by the house ball and House of Labeija.
House balls evolved from a drag ball foundation in 1973, the year Erskine Christian became the first gay man to compete in a house ball. This moment would result in house ball contestants not being exclusively trans women and female-presenting people, to now including gay men and male-presenting people (they would go on to be included in houses too). Houses also began to transform from mother-children dynamic to a mother-father-children dynamic.
House balls also began to stray away from a pageant-style competition to a competition among houses. Houses would compete under different categories. Categories prominent in house balls are face, body, runway, and performances such as voguing. This is the kind of competition that is presented in Pose. I’m really glad Pose introduced me to house ballroom. I was already aware of it prior to watching the show. But the show made me want to learn more about it. And learning about it made me want to write and share information about it! I really hoped you learned a lot about house ballroom from my piece on it. You can catch Pose on Netflix. However, season 3 (unfortunately, the final season) is not available on Netflix yet. Still, go watch it though!