Honoring The History Of Ballroom Culture During And Beyond Pride

by Jose Soto

The impact and influence of ballroom culture on the movement for LGBTQ+ inclusion and equality is undeniable. For decades, ballroom culture – a queer subculture dating back to the mid-19th century Harlem Renaissance era, which took prominence within queer communities in the late 1970s and 1980s – has been a space for queer folks to jovially express their identities free from discrimination, ridicule, and harm. Ballroom is sacred for many and deserves to be celebrated and protected.

During this year’s Pride Month celebrations in Detroit, Michigan, folks gathered for a ball event. At the ball, folks celebrated the joy and beauty of the local LGBTQ+ community while honoring its intrinsic activism and resilience. Ballroom culture has made rich contributions to LGBTQ+ culture at large and its history, spawning iconic queer staples and ideologies. Hosted in part by Lilianna Reyes, a local Latina trans activist and Health Equity and Outreach Director at the Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit, the ball event uniquely uplifted Black and Brown, BIPOC, queer, and trans locals.

“Balls are integral for community gathering,” said Reyes.

“They have always been and will always be used to gather and to create a space for creative gathering and competitions," she continued. "During Pride Month, we should honor ballroom by celebrating bigger and louder. You will see major cities have balls to celebrate Pride. Many Prides are white-led and often may use ballroom to bring Black and Brown folks to the events, but they often do not work closely with the actual scene, so ballroom folks usually create their own spaces during Pride, and rightfully so. Our history, ballroom history, was birthed and has continued to thrive largely because of the work that Black and Brown queer folks do.”

Like many other queer people of color, Reyes found community through the folks who attended local ballroom events.

“I learned about ballroom like many other trans women of color during the early 2000s through LGBTQ+ safety networks,” said Reyes.

“I first came out to myself as a gay young man in 2000, and through ballroom, I met other LGBTQ+ people, mostly Black and Brown folks. I had older friends who drove me to these balls when I was young. I saw that these places and the people in it were safe places for LGBTQ people of color. It seemed so under the radar and safe for gender expression and being one's true self. The ballroom scene saved my life. Sometimes people think it's simply a club scene, but it is a family scene.”

A few years later, around 2003 and 2004, Reyes came out to her family as a trans woman. “I left my home and the ballroom scene, along with my chosen family, took me in and kept me alive and safe,” said Reyes. This was during a time in Michigan where girls like me did not have actual jobs aside from sex work. I noticed that in ballroom, women figures, or trans women, were uplifted and held power. It was so refreshing to see.”

Historically, balls and ballroom culture have served as lifelines for many, including trans and non-binary people, but especially for trans and non-binary people of color. Black and Brown trans women were the pioneers and trailblazers of ballroom, creating welcoming and nurturing social dynamics that have remained intact in modern ballroom culture. These social dynamics have allowed trans women to thrive and overcome the many societal challenges they faced then and continue to face today: discrimination, unacceptance, ridicule, and, most disturbingly, violence.

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Trans Justice Initiative has been working with transgender and non-binary folks from across the country to build a strong and formidable network of trans leaders and advocates since 2019, namely working with Black and Brown trans folks to combat stigma and discrimination, help end trans violence and HIV, promote sexual health and equity, and provide access to work opportunities, professional development, and education.

The initiative has galvanized many Black and Brown trans people, like Reyes, who is Latina, to take action against the many social barriers and injustices they face through strategic community organizing. Many of these trans community activists have helped keep queer traditions like ballroom alive while spearheading change and progress.

My identity is uplifted in ballroom because Latinas have been part of the blueprint. And through that, I can help build up and empower other trans women like myself, especially Black and Brown trans women.”

Lilianna Reyes

Aside from being a safe and welcoming space for many LGBTQ+ people, ballroom has also served as a bastion for community outreach, especially health-related outreach. Having been detrimentally impacted by the AIDS crisis during the 1980s and early 1990s, ball events came to serve as forums for resourceful discussion around health safety and prevention, galvanizing community members to take their health into their own hands. Today, ballroom events help connect folks to essential health and well-being information.

“I have been part of the generation that has used ballroom as a platform to help with health navigation for the community,” said Reyes. “The ballroom scene used their community power to shape nonprofits focused on health in Black and Brown communities. They advocated to be more than clients.

At a time when legislatures are attacking the transgender community, with many state bans on gender-affirming care, Reyes said that ball events can serve as an opportunity for folks to learn more about how state legislation comes to impact trans and non-binary folks directly, but mostly as mediums for escapism and rejoice.

“Balls can sometimes enlighten the community about state bills, but the space for ballroom culture within balls is often less mainstream political and more a visceral safety for folks who are experiencing backlash from political climates.”

Additionally, Reyes said, balls can help build community strength and resilience against the ongoing and alarming violence against trans women, particularly Black and Brown trans women.

As this year’s Pride ends, Reyes said that ballroom will forever help LGBTQ+ people find time and space to honor their truest identities.

“I think balls create space for people to live authentically, now and after Pride,” said Reyes. “That’s what they’ve always done and will continue to do.”