Trans artist Our Lady J has been a writer and producer on Amazon’s Transparent and now the FX drama Pose, which graces the cover of EW’s annual LGBTQ issue. In a thoughtful essay, she explains why the term “Drag Ball” needs to be retired when talking about the ballroom culture seen on Pose.
The ballroom community started using the term “House Ball” as early as the 1970s to describe gatherings where house members challenge each other in various categories and are judged on fashion, attitude, and performance. Similar events known as Drag Balls had sprung up in New York as early as the 1920s in an effort to create a safe space for LGBT people to express their identities. However, due to mounting racism within the community, black and brown trans women broke away from the Drag Ball circuit in the late 1960s and created alternative families known as “houses,” each named after the legends of the Drag Ball circuit. These houses then came together to form their own balls, where gay men were also welcome to participate out of drag, and the word “drag” was dropped from the balls’ description.
Using “drag” as an umbrella term for ballroom culture is as misleading as using “trans” or “gay” to describe everyone in the ballroom community. “Drag” (as we use the word in 2018) is a term that describes performance, while “transgender,” “gay,” “cisgender,” and “straight” describe identity. Some drag performers identify as trans, some identify as gay, and some identify as cis and straight. While our trans characters on Pose might have referred to themselves as queens, transvestites, or transsexuals in 1987, the writers refrain from using these terms on screen because language around gender and identity has shifted so much since then. And it continues to shift.
Within our community, there is an ongoing struggle over language and identity, one that aligns with the power dynamics of privilege and status. At the moment, trans folks have very little privilege compared to cisgender gay men and women, which is a dynamic that has not changed since the period in which Pose takes place. And although some within the LGBT community have used the term “drag ball” to describe ballroom culture, we acknowledge that the weight of power from cisgender folks has influenced the language of mainstream identification, and that is why it is important to stay away from this as an umbrella term of identification. In an effort to lift trans voices and acknowledge our contributions to ballroom culture, it is best to use language that doesn’t erase trans identity. “Drag,” as currently understood by mainstream culture, has the power to do just that.