How does Ball Culture Impact LGBTQ Youth?
The following piece is my argumentative research essay about Ball Culture originally submitted to my University Seminar 200 course.
LGBTQ youth, one of the highest risk minority groups for abuse, depression, and suicide, are finding newfound joy in the Ball Culture community. As LGBTQ youth, and those perceived to be LGBTQ, come out, they are often affronted with violence, both externally and internally. For many LGBTQ youth that have found themselves faced with these different forms of marginalization and abuse, they frequently turn to damaging and self-destructive behaviors. How can Ball Culture confront these abuses that LGBTQ youth face? Can it work as a positive coping mechanism and as a forum for community building for those in need? LGBTQ youth around the world have exhibited need for a strong sense of community as well as a setting in which they are permitted freedom of self-expression. To find a safe and accepting environment where LGBTQ youth can go when in need could be potentially lifesaving to hundreds, if not thousands, of young people all around the world. Ball Culture, which has set the stage for freedom of expression for LGBTQ youth of color since the 1900s, can exist in contemporary times offering today’s LGBTQ youth a positive outlet and escape from discrimination in a cisheteronormative society.
What issues do LGBTQ youth face?
All across the world, youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning (LGBTQ) or are perceived as such are at risk for discrimination and familiar rejection. These enumerated struggles are then compounded by the intersections of race, class, ethnicity, and geographical location. According to Gregory Phillips II, assistant professor of medical social sciences and epidemiology at George Washington University, many LGBTQ youth, particularly youth of color in urban centers, are rejected by their families and “forced out of their homes [...] when they express their sexuality, sexual orientation, or gender identity” (516). As LGBTQ youth come out to families, there is often no telling how their families may react. While many LGBTQ youth have supportive families (including biological, adoptive, foster, or otherwise), there are multiple accounts of LGBTQ youth being shunned by their families. This rejection can come in various different and often overlapping forms. Associate Professor of women and gender studies at Arizona State University, Marlon Bailey, explains how, while some LGBTQ youth may either be forced out of their homes or even choose to leave in search of some place safer, those who remain at home “often experience the home and biological family as coercive, [experiencing a] ‘familial ultimatum’ that requires them to hide or dispense with their non-normative gender and sexual identities and practices in order to remain a full-fledged part of both the [family and homeplace]” (496). One of the ways in which LGBTQ youth are shunned by unaffirming families is through either being kicked out or by sacrificing part of their identity. In a repressive and potentially even hostile environment, LGBTQ youth are forced to make the critical and even life-saving choice to filter their words and actions. This survival tactic is employed by LGBTQ youth as a means to maintain a roof over their heads and to avoid conflict or confrontation. Similarly, youth who engage in this repressive behavior often do so to maintain a mild amount of bargaining power during day-to-day activities with the family. LGBTQ youth, those perceived to be, and/or those which are closeted must navigate potential familial rejection, resulting in many LGBTQ youth having to pick their battles.
For some youth who choose to stay with their families and are unable to conceal their LGBTQ identities or perceived affiliation, the outcome can be dangerous and even deadly. Internationally recognized LGBTQ youth suicide prevention organization, The Trevor Project, explains how conversion therapy, the emotionally and physically traumatic pseudoscientific practice(s) of trying to convert LGBTQ people in order to eliminate their LGBTQ identity, is still being widely practiced, highlighting studies by the UCLA Williams Institute that state “more than 700,000 LGBTQ people have been subjected to the horrors of conversion therapy and an estimated 80,000 LGBTQ youth will experience [it] in the coming years, often at the insistence of [...] misinformed parents or caretakers” (par. 1). Conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy, has been used as a way to shame, humiliate, and traumatize LGBTQ people, most of which are LGBTQ youth forced to attend conversion therapy camps by their parents. Conversion therapy consists of any number of dehumanizing practices including both emotional abuse and physical abuse, among others. These various practices can result in extreme psychological damage. Other harmful practices include some parents becoming so enraged by the idea of having an LGBTQ child, they lash out in homophobic attacks. This can range anywhere from physical abuse to murder. Journalist Alex Bollinger, who received his master’s degree from the Paris School of Economics, highlights a case in which a father was “accused of killing his [14-year-old] son for being gay” (par. 1). Sadly, this story is not unique. Bollinger then references another case in which a “Republican lawmaker said he would drown his own kids if they’re gay” (par. 5). Despite efforts made by LGBTQ youth to conceal aspects of their identity, homophobic attacks, including those perpetuated by family members, have cost many youths their lives. As unfortunate as it is for some LGBTQ youth to go down the path of tolerating unsupportive parents in the hopes of survival, that is not always the case.
For LGBTQ youth who either decide to leave the homeplace or are forced to, the situation can be just as dangerous.Some LGBTQ youth end up in child welfare systems while others become homeless and must fend for themselves.University of California Riverside professor of gender and sexuality studies, Brandon Robinson showcases through a study of his own how “[LGBTQ] youth detailed incidents of gender segregation, stigmatization, isolation, and institutionalization in child welfare systems that they linked to their gender expression and sexuality, which often intersected with being a youth of color” (29).Once LGBTQ youth entered into the child welfare systems, they found the systems themselves to also be unsupportive of their LGBTQ identities.Many young trans and gender non-conforming youth reported having their gender identity disrespected, saying they were forced to live in gender-specific housing aligned with their gender assigned at birth rather than where they felt most comfortable.Robinson expands upon this idea by emphasizing that “youth of color who are [LGBTQ] face compounding stressors and experiences of discrimination within child welfare systems, whereby racism and racial profiling can shape how some youth’s behaviors, including their gender behaviors, are monitored and disciplined” (31). Gender roles are reinforced, removing youth bodily autonomy.LGBTQ youth of color in these environments are often forced to conform to harmful cisheteronormative standards that also uphold white supremacy, shaming them for exemplifying any sort of behaviors deemed to be too eccentric or obnoxious.Youth also reported foster families being equally as queerphobic and repressive.When it feels like there are no other options permitting freedom of expression, some youth will choose to run away, joining the population of homeless youth that are overwhelmingly LGBTQ.It is estimated that LGBTQ youth “make up at least 40% of [...] youth experiencing homelessness, despite being about 5-8% of the general U.S. youth population” (Robinson 30).There are many different reasons as to why LGBTQ youth experience homelessness at such a higher rate than their cisgender and heterosexual (non-LGBTQ) counterparts.While many youths are forced onto the streets as a result of rejection, it can also be alluring to choose the safety of the streets over the insecurity and instability of unsafe housing environments.Some LGBTQ youth will choose to be homeless to escape the discrimination, policing, and rejection they have faced elsewhere.This is the idea that homelessness is, to some degree, the better option.
What are the impacts of these issues stripping LGBTQ youth of support systems?
What happens, then, to LGBTQ youth who must contend with homophobia, transphobia, and racism in these different realms? When LGBTQ youth, particularly youth of color, lack support, acceptance, and healthy outlets, they turn to increasingly self-destructive behaviors. These behaviors can include unsafe sexual practices, substance abuse, self-harm, and even suicide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that “72% of HIV infections reported among male adults and adolescents in 2007 occurred in men who have sex with men (MSM) (CDC, 2009). This can arise as a result of young MSM being at higher risk for engaging in unprotected anal intercourse (UAI). Similarly, young LGBTQ people, typically assigned male at birth (AMAB), are also at higher risk of engaging in UAI with men of unknown HIV status. This can include young MSM and transgender women. Phillips II explains how many LGBTQ youth of color, particularly transgender women “often resort to commercial sex work for survival” (516). Many transgender women of color experiencing homelessness engage in risky sexual behavior with strange cisgender men as a way to support themselves financially, living and working from the streets. These encounters warranted highly unpleasant outcomes. Individuals could contract STDs or STIs, be physically abused or kidnapped, and potentially even murdered as a result of being LGBTQ. Among the homeless LGBTQ youth interviewed by Bailey, “many [...] expressed feeling particularly vulnerable to race, gender, and sexual violence because their queer gender and sexualities signal to a would-be assailant that queers can be robbed and beaten, even murdered, with impunity” (366). Unsafe sexual practices for LGBTQ youth rejected by their families can then be made more dangerous through accompanied substance use and abuse. According to a study performed by Caitlin Ryan, a professor at San Francisco State University and founder of the Family Acceptance Project, “Higher rates of family rejection were significantly associated with poorer health outcomes. [LGBTQ youth aged 21-25] were 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs” and “more than half (54.7%) reported at least 1 substance use-related problem” (346; 349). For LGBTQ youth struggling with rejection from family, social isolation, and decreased supportive environments, turning to improper drug use as well as illegal drugs can be used as a form of escapism. For those struggling with mental health issues, this desire for escapism relies on the hope to numb emotional pain caused by rejection while also attempting to evoke some sort of pleasure, albeit temporary. Both improper and illicit drug usage and unsafe sexual practices are used in this way—a physical rush, a distraction to fill the void, a means of survival to cope with the feeling of rejection.
While LGBTQ youth and adolescents may struggle externally through risky sexual behaviors or seeking out illicit drugs, LGBTQ youth may also struggle internally via depression, self-harm, and suicide. Ryan discovered in her research that LGBTQ young adults who experienced familial rejection were “5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression” (346). Depression itself can become increasingly difficult to navigate as moods fluctuate. Depression and depressive episodes can push LGBTQ youth to engage in the aforementioned risky behaviors as well as brutally harm themselves in an act of desperation. Depression caused by familial rejection can act as an underlying drive to act out both externally and internally. Some LGBTQ youth struggling with mental health issues resort to inflicting pain upon themselves in various ways including but not limited to self-mutilation, restricting food intake, bingeing/purging, and other various harmful behaviors. Some LGBTQ youth who are profoundly struggling may even elect to end their own lives. LGBTQ young adults who experienced familial rejection were found to be “8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide” (Ryan 346). For too many LGBTQ youth, suicide is viewed as the only possible answer to bring an end about their pain. When met with unsupportive family, caretakers, or guardians and no positive outlet, LGBTQ youth may struggle with mental health issues causing them to either hurt themselves, abuse substances, or engage in unsafe sexual practices.
What is Ball Culture?
Ball Culture is one of the many names used to describe the performance dance competitions and accompanying houses championed by LGBTQ people of color. Though Ball Culture can be traced all the way back to 1930’s Harlem, contemporary Ball Culture emerged in New York in the 1980’s during the HIV and AIDS crisis. According to Bailey, “Ballroom culture consists of two inextricable dimensions: houses and balls” (367). These two domains work together to create a safe environment for LGBTQ people of color, particularly black and latino LGBTQ people, to explore themselves as well as their fantasies. In a world that consistently rejects and represses this multiply marginalized community, the contemporary understanding of Ball Culture developed to fill a much-needed void.
First, there are the houses which work as both centers and homes for LGBTQ people to come together. Bailey explains that houses are “familial structures that are socially rather than biologically configured. Although in some cases houses serve as homes where members live and congregate, by and large, houses are social configurations that serve as sources of support” (367). Since many LGBTQ people of color that participate in Ball Culture have faced familial rejection, these houses can work as a place to live, but also as a place to network and establish a sense of community. This is also explained by Diana Rowan, professor of social work at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, by sharing how houses work as “an organized social structure, based on acceptance and celebration of their sexual and gender expression” (182). These houses are communal buildings designed to cultivate a safe and supportive environment for LGBTQ people of color away from the harsh mainstream world where many of them have to contend with violence related to cisheterosexism and racism. Houses are dedicated to specific members, of which there are different levels. The leading member is known as the mother or the father, although as Phillips II notes, “neither role is gender-specific nor is defined by level of masculinity” (517). The mother/father of the house is typically its founding member. They lead the way for planning the house's involvement in both local affairs as well as the ballroom competitions themselves. One becomes a founding mother/father once they have proven themselves in the competitions and established a following. All members work together to advance the house as a supportive, tight-knit team and to excel in competitions.
These competitions, which house members participate in by highlighting different gender and sexual ideologies, are known as balls. Ball competitions are grand events consisting of multiple different categories addressing the issues of gender and sexual identities, body presentation, and fashion. Members of each house compete against each other in these categories through different means. There are some categories where the main goal is to vogue, which Ph.D Candidate at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki conducting research in the fields of LGBT Studies, Performance Studies, and American studies, Constantine Chatzipapatheodoridis explains is “an intricate dance act inspired by the poses featured on the covers of the eponymous fashion magazine” (1). This dance’s goal is to move the body in such abrupt and striking ways as if endlessly posing, while also telling a story. The goal being that, at any time, someone could take a photo, and the dancer would always be camera ready. These stories told between competitors meld together on the dancefloor and are drenched in shade, subtle witty and snide remarks or behaviors against one another. Through these competitions, LGBTQ people of color are enabled to create “a mockery against, but, simultaneously, a glorification of standardized—typically Western—ideals of beauty, sexuality, and class” (Chatzipapatheodoridis 1). This is probably best exemplified in the popular category, realness. Realness gives specifically transgender and gender non-conforming people the opportunity to reinvent themselves in a way that best conforms to society. How real a trans person is considered is based upon how easy or difficult it is to discover that they are trans, a practice known as clocking. Though Ball Culture serves as a criticism of standards of beauty, it also allows members to play with those standards as if they were their own.
Ballroom competitions offer a unique opportunity for this marginalized group to create a world in which they are revered. It opens up the possibilities to design a world in which they are the ones in power, or even to break down power dynamics completely. Chatzipapatheodoridis explains how balls work as the “paradigmatic anti-heteronormative indictment against ills and flaws sustained by the dominant American lifestyle” (1). Where in mainstream society, LGBTQ people are antagonized, balls offer the chance for LGBTQ people to indulge in freedom of expression. Gender norms are not viewed the same way in the ball competitions. Queerness is not shameful or hidden in the ball competitions. All of the mannerisms and forms of expression that LGBTQ people sacrifice when out in public are welcome and celebrated in the ball competitions. Balls function as a reconstructed view of what society could be if anti-LGBTQ violence did not exist.
How does Ball Culture address the issues that LGBTQ youth face?
Through Ball Culture’s more than forty years actively serving as a hub for LGBTQ nightlife, Ball Culture has also served as both a safe space and resource center for members of the community. Phillips II comments how, “conservativism of the era forced homosexual culture underground, and balls were one of the few opportunities for members of this repressed society to mingle” (517). As the primary participants of Ball Culture are LGBTQ people of color, specifically black and latino, Ball Culture acts as an escape from both racism and cisheterosexism that participants had to face outside the walls of the competitions and houses. Houses and balls served a key function by offering LGBTQ people of color the acceptance, support, and liberation for self-expression that was stripped from them in the outside world either through unaccepting families, or queerphobic norms in society. According to cultural journalist, Tom Faber, the houses and competitions amplified aesthetics, but primarily prioritized community and giving a place to people who feel they have none (1-2). It becomes evident that the spaces offered through Ball Culture, both the ballroom and the houses, became centralized spaces that enabled LGBTQ youth to embrace who they truly are. These spaces allowed for LGBTQ people of color to come together in a safe and affirming space free from the rigid and harmful gender and sexual scripts so incredibly prevalent in society. Bailey also notes how LGBTQ people of color are largely excluded from or oppressed within their racially segregated neighborhoods for being queer, and then face more exclusion and oppression while in LGBTQ spaces which tend to be predominantly white (494). These multiple forms of marginalization and exclusion are what compel Ballroom participants to create their own spaces built on the foundation of inclusion, affirmation, and celebration (Bailey 494). Rowan also agrees that “the community inside the house/ball culture allows members to freely express their current gender identity and find acceptance from members of their own race—experiences that are not common for them when living outside of the subculture” (189). For the members of Ball Culture who must continuously battle for survival against cisheterosexism and racism in society, Ball Culture has existed as a safe and affirming space promoting unapologetic black and queer liberation and freedom of expression.
While houses were offering a safe space for members to congregate, they also began to offer life-saving resources to those that lived there and frequented them. The HIV/AIDS epidemic which brought about great loss and tragedy throughout the 1980s greatly affected those who were LGBTQ, people of color, and the intersection of those identities. “Many houses began taking an increasingly active role in HIV prevention. With social activism a key component of the social context, a grassroots approach to service delivery was born” (Phillips II, et al. 518). During such a critical time where many LGBTQ people were losing their lives in the fight against HIV and AIDS, houses rose to the occasion to start offering resources to keep members safe. Houses became hubs for resources and prevention, offering condoms, providing medical information and testing, and organizing movements for LGBTQ people to stay safe and involved in local activism. Houses have not only existed as safe emotional spaces for LGBTQ people of color, rather have also extended their reach to keep members safe physically as the fight against HIV/AIDS progressed.
How has Ball Culture then become popularized and persevered into modern times?
For nearly a hundred years, the unapologetically black and brown LGBTQ subculture has paved the way for huge cultural and performance movements all around the world. New York City has been the primary hub for every evolution of Ball Culture, starting in the early 1930’s. The balls of the 1930s were parties where race and queerness could thrive; these balls were held in a New York casino and attracted participants and spectators of all races and sexual orientations (Phillips II, et al. 517). Such balls were critical as they allowed for LGBTQ people of color at the time a more open and accepting environment where they could feel at ease. What started as parties in Harlem later evolved into contemporary understandings of Ball Culture around the 1980s. However, as Chatzipapatheodoridis notes, the first event that really pushed Ball Culture into the limelight was Madonna’s “extensively promoted music video of ‘Vogue’ (1990)” (1-2). This song and accompanying music video feature the queer nightlife and dance found primarily in the ballroom competitions. Madonna’s music video which boosted the visibility of voguing “was cemented as a culturally iconic performance for future generations of the LGBT[Q] community to emulate” (Chatzipapatheodoridis 2). Ball Culture first grew because it offered a safe space for LGBTQ people of color to embrace freedom of expression, and through that, birthed new dance and performance styles. Madonna’s music video promoting the dance style helped elevate Ball Culture only partly. Another key piece of media that was produced during this time was Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning (1990). This documentary which followed members of different houses in New York and their stories “spawned debates in the academic world and further invigorated dialogues, especially among gender and queer theorists, who sought to identify what the ballroom’s drag politics was and to what extent it was subversive against the (hetero)dominant culture” (Chatzipapatheodoridis 2). Both these key pieces of media began to raise awareness for what had originally been a rather niche subculture—unknown to those of different states and countries. Once these were out and promoted, Ball Culture began to grow as did its influence around the world. As Faber explains, “since Madonna, this small community has had a far-reaching influence across mainstream culture, from musicians like Rihanna and Beyoncé to the catwalks of London Fashion Week [and] RuPaul’s Drag Race and Pose” (1). Ball Culture’s existence as both unapologetically black and brown and queer has encouraged black and brown LGBTQ people all around the world to create their own ballroom communities, houses, and competitions. Over the past forty years as LGBTQ identities have become increasingly more accepted, there has been a boom in celebrating the legacy of Ball Culture through documentaries, music, television shows, and more.
Ball Culture has enabled LGBTQ youth, particularly youth of color, access to community resources, a supportive environment, and liberation for expression, therefore keeping youth off the streets and saving lives. Through searching for acceptance in society, LGBTQ youth of color have created an entire subculture dedicated to community building, grassroots organization, and celebration of queer identity. Young people, often those who deal with multiple forms of abuse either from those around them, or their own internal struggles, have found solace in the Ball Culture community. What started in the early 1900s in New York as a way for Black Queer men to mingle away from the discriminatory practices of society has evolved into an international hit among LGBTQ people from all around the world.
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