Bay Area Ball Culture — The Black And Brown Gays Who Rule The Runway With Vogue

Since the 1930's the underground scene of black gay culture voguing down a runway has inspired the high fashion industry. The tradition continued this year here in the Bay Area. Photographer Jean Melesaine documents the Winter Ball.

Gay balls. It doesn't really sound right considering the context, but if you were talking to Felicia who is about to "walk" down the runway towards a panel of judges, it’s something to be considered taken seriously. I’m talking about the Winter Ball – an annual underground runway competition for gay Black men. And it’s as serious as getting your ass beat by some Oakland gay boys for laughing at their lip gloss application. And gay boys in Oakland don't play. Now I've been pretty gay and a person of color for as long as I can remember, but in all complexities of any culture, sub-culture for that reason, being a gay Black man in America and attending a ball is something that I can never personally understand, even as a queer person of color. It would mean something much more if I were a gay Black man in Oakland. But I'm not. I’m a Pacific Islander gay woman. It reminds me of a time I was in the city and a young father told his son who hugged his uncle, "Don't touch him like that. Boys don't touch boys. OK." It sounded more like a demand than a lesson. A demand that said what a man should be.

This Winter Ball was held at the Sexual Minority Alliance of Alameda County (SMACC), a center for gay youth in Oakland. "Balls" go back as long as the Harlem Renaissance, maybe longer, someone told me. It may even be derived from the South, but most people say the history only goes as far back as the East Coast in the 1920-30's of the Harlem Renaissance. It was the underground culture of rebellion against the structured society. The “house” concept, which are like teams for the competition, came along from that struggle. It was born from the reality that if you were a gay child coming out of the closet, you would be disowned or sometimes even killed, so makeshift families were set up and called "houses." This is when there would be a gay mother and a gay father who would take leadership of who would be a member of the house as a brother or sister. They're usually named after high fashion companies. It was at these events that the dance phenomenon “vogueing” began. At any "ball," houses would compete against each other in different categories for cash prizes, trophies, but most importantly, bragging rights. The categories can be as diverse as a shoe contest to a "School Boy Realness" category – where participants are judged on how close they can resemble a school boy while they walk the runway. "Realness" in any category is probably the most serious criteria, as contenders strut their stuff on a makeshift runway heading towards a panel of prestigious judges.

The Winter Ball was supposed to start at 9pm. By 9:30pm, there were about 7 people in the building. A friend that works at SMACC said, "Don't worry. Remember these are the divas of all divas," and I guess being late is still a fashion statement. At around 10:40pm, she's right. People start rolling in — the prettiest Black men I've ever seen in my life. The house members who would be walking had so much luggage with them it was like they were moving. I took pictures of some of the guys while their house was getting their members ready. When someone said he wanted to walk, his sister checked him and said "No, you cannot walk tonight. You know why? Let me show you," then pointing at his face, pointing out minor blemishes. "One, two, three, four reasons. The judges are going to be looking at your skin."

There were "sisters" there who made me feel bad for being a woman. I've been nearly flat chested all my life and never had curves like that ever. At 11pm it was packed. The line ran outside filled with some of the most pretty people; pretty skin, pretty clothes, everything pretty. Some trans women, some masculine, some look like Tyson Beckford, some who made me feel bad for being a woman, but all of them ready to walk a runway like they were in fashion week except the vogueing here can put any fashion show to shame.

The ball begins with the commentator. He/she will be the emcee of the whole night, which depending on their energy and their power to control the crowd will either make or break the ball. The commentator introduces each house in the beginning where one representative from the house will grace the runway, and tonight House of Chanel, Ebony, Revlon, and a couple of others will be "walking" down the runway. In each category, whichever one it maybe, you need to follow every specific thing they ask and impress the judges because they're judging everything from your skin to your dance to the way you keep your posture. If not, the one thing that everyone is trying to avoid will happen. You will be "chopped," which also means automatically cut from the contest.

During the category "School Boy Realness", which meant contestants walking needed to look like a real school boy and have a science project, one of the contestants brought water and vinegar in separate bottles and mixed it. According to him it was a chemical reaction, but it was not real enough for one of the judges. He was chopped. But when he was "chopped," I realized that maybe I hadn't been taking this category thing as serious as it was. He ended up arguing about why he was cut by the judges like someone threatened his life, so much so that two other guys had to stop him from going up to the judges. Another category that was based on Mrs. Claus said you must have home baked cookies. Someone had brought cookies that didn't looked home baked to a judge and was chopped. There were curse words thrown, finger pointing, veins popping after every chop. That would happen in between every category if a chop ensued, and a fight would break out.

By the end of the last category, I sat in front of the vogue-off and almost got hit in the face by sitting too close. The crowd who created the runway had gotten even closer, creating a circle between the two members vogueing each other. I had to leave before something happened, so I watched from behind with two other young men as they hugged each other. There I was reminded of how men should and could be, just themselves.

About Jean Melesaine

Jean Melesaine is a queer Samoan community activist, documentary photographer and editor with Silicon Valley De-Bug. 

This article is part of the categories: Arts & Culture  / Multimedia  / Photo 
This article is part of the tags: African American  / Bay Area Winter Ball  / LGBT  / Oakland  / SMACC  / underground  / vogue 

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