What is ballroom? The first time Jacen Bowman attended a house meeting, he had no idea what LGBTQ ballroom culture was.
Going into his final year in high school, Bowman was approached to join a “modeling company” by a man at the former Gallery mall in Center City, Philadelphia. After some persistence on behalf of the stranger, Bowman decided to attend an informational session.
When he arrived, a group of fellow LGBTQ folks welcomed him to what he learned was a “house meeting” at the House of Prestige, founded in 1990 by the stranger who had approached Bowman in the shopping center: Alvernian Davis, known in the scene as Alvernian Prestige.
The house was one of the first in the City of Brotherly Love’s ballroom scene — “a space where your femininity and you being unique and different was celebrated,” said Bowman, now 36 and a celebrity makeup artist.
Ballroom is an underground LGBTQ subculture in which participants, who are largely Black or Latinx trans people and gay men, compete for prizes, trophies, titles — think “legend” and “icon” — or cash at events known as balls. Judges evaluate those who “walk” in a ball in various categories, including voguing, pretty boy realness, butch queen, face, body, Wall Street, best dressed, pop fashion and sex siren. Winners can take home earnings totaling hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
People in the ballroom scene are also part of house culture, meaning each participant is a member of a specific “house,” or ballroom unit, that has its own leadership and rules. Each house is governed by a house mother and/or father, as well as board members, a treasurer and various other hierarchical couples that can include prince and princess or duke and duchess.
“Just seeing … the joy and excitement of people when they hit the back of that runway, their talents come to life. It's overjoying for me,” said Davis, the original house mother of Philadelphia’s House of Prestige who currently serves as house father.
Creating safe spaces
When Bowman entered ballroom, he said he found a lot of people who looked and talked like him.
“It was just a safe space of where my femininity or my different way of thinking or way of talking, my body gestures, my movements, were celebrated,” Bowman said. “It definitely created that safe space because it’s true that you can be who you want to be. You can be whatever it is that you want to be.
As a world “built on the backs of African-American trans women,” Davis said the ballroom world has historically created a haven for trans people and folks of color, especially those experiencing hardships like homelessness or being cast out by biological families because of their LGBTQ identities.
“It is imperative that we form a unified fellowship of brothers and sisters, especially our trans sisters, battling the true enemies of our oppressed communities, which also include racism, HIV, homophobia, discrimination and other social misfortunes,” Davis added. “It’s always been a safe space.”
Bowman introduced Richard LaBoy, an Afro-Latino out gay man to the ballroom scene when LaBoy was in 10th grade at Philadelphia’s Central High School. At the time, LaBoy was in and out of youth shelters.
“Ballroom is definitely a community, it’s definitely a family. … Ballroom started in the early ‘70s because a lot of people of color specifically from communities and cities were kicked out of their homes, like me, for being gay,” said LaBoy, now 35. “I came out and didn't have a lot of places to go. Ballroom actually is one of the places that accepted me, and it accepted a lot of people since its founding.”
Promoting health and wellness for the next generation
Rooted in a decades-long tradition of promoting health and wellness in the queer community, the Kiki ball offshoot largely grew out of social gatherings hosted by LGBTQ organizations that connected young ball community members to health services.
Milan works as the social engagement and arts program manager at REACH LA, a youth organization founded in 1992 in response to a lack of HIV/AIDS prevention education for young people of color. In 2006, to better address the health disparities in underserved communities of color, Milan worked with the group to found the Ovahness Ball, now the longest-running and largest ball on the west coast, he said.
LGBTQ young adults have a 120-percent higher chance of experiencing homelessness than their straight, cis peers, according to a 2017 University of Chicago report. Twenty percent of trans people have experienced homelessness at some point, the National Center for Transgender Equality indicates.
To address such issues, house parents split their time between preparing their “children” for balls and helping them grow personally and professionally.
“We have a golden rule that you've got to work, go to school, do some type of volunteering, because that’s what our house is about,” Davis said of House of Prestige. “We don't only just walk balls, we try to be a community activist house also.”
As house mother to about 125 children at Philadelphia’s House of Prodigy, which was founded in 2002, Bowman said he aims to show them that ballroom extends beyond the runway. His goal is to “nurture and help develop” the kids to “make them be the best that they can be.” Having once been incarcerated for 10 months, he draws on his experiences to exemplify how to get through difficult times.
“As young people that … go through different things, they may experience homelessness or they may experience losing their job or losing a friend or losing a family member, they don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Bowman said. “My primary job is just to make sure they see that light and help them get to that light.”
Ballroom is “a great teaching tool” that prepares participants for other life experiences, Milan told PGN.
“You prepare for the ball, you walk your category in front of judges and whatnot and it’s the same thing as you would do if you go to a job interview,” he added. “You have to prepare for the job interview, you may have four or five different interviews, you don’t know any of the people really who are judging you at the interview. So there are a lot of life skills that young people are actually able to learn in the ballroom scene, and they’re able to learn them as who they are, as opposed to what society says they should be.”