The history of gay liberation is often mis-remembered as starting in the 1960s, and even worse, is frequently whitewashed, erasing its far-earlier roots and its home in Black communities. While all of the lessons in this unit serve as counter-narratives to dominant-narratives that are taught or simply ignored in schools, this topic of queer resistance, perhaps more than any other in this curriculum, must be revisited and revised.
In popular culture today, we are seeing the beginnings of a reconstructed narrative. Television shows like Pose, for example, begin to correct some of false narratives we have been told. The ball community of the 1980s is certainly worth revisiting, but the history of gay balls began over 100 years prior to this era. Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge is known to have hosted a gay ball in 1869. By the early 1900s, Harlem was regarded “as the most exciting center of gay life.”21 These gay balls were one of many Black cultural expressions of New York City in the 1920s, yet they are often left out of curricula about the Harlem Renaissance. As Tim Lawrence narrates:
Invited to attend another ball at Hamilton Lodge by the entrepreneur and party host A’Lelia Walker, Harlem Renaissance social activist and writer Langston Hughes proclaimed the drag balls to be the “strangest and gaudiest of all Harlem’s spectacles in the 1920s’ and described them as ‘spectacles in colour”. Noting the presence of “distinguished white celebrities” during this period, Hughes concluded that “Harlem was in vogue” and “the negro was in vogue.”22
Harlem’s gay balls drew a crowd, with hundreds of drag queens and sometimes thousands of spectators. Black newspapers wrote about the balls, at first with some derision, but eventually with quite a bit of admiration or at least amusement. Most Harlem ball performers and spectators were Black, but there were some white audience members and dancers among them. The interracial aspect of the balls led to varied responses. As George Chauncey summarizes, “Racial divisions were hardly erased at the balls, however. Drag queens mixed across racial lines but never forgot them.”23
Harlem's gay scene was not just about gender bending performances and drawing spectators, but also about carving out spaces for queer folks to dress up and dance, to couple and find community with more freedom than could be found in most other places at the time. As George Chauncey writes of the visibility of queer and trans folks “in the streets and clubs of Harlem during the late 1920s and early 1930s,” this did “not mean they enjoyed unqualified toleration throughout Harlem society. Although they were casually accepted by many poor Harlemites and managed to earn a degree of grudging respect from others, they were excoriated by the district’s moral guidelines.”24
Eventually, the balls and neighborhoods were heavily policed, criminalizing queer and trans expressions, with frequent raids and many arrests, which trans and queer folks resisted not unlike the rise of the gay liberation movement of the 1960s. “The history of gay resistance must be understood to extend beyond formal political organizing to include the strategies of everyday resistance that men devised in order to claim space for themselves in the midst of a hostile society.”25 This is a queer tradition that would continue throughout the 20th century, certainly during the 1960s, but also in the disco scene of the 1970s and 1980s, and of course in the balls and houses of the 1980s and beyond.
Alice Echols echoes this sentiment in her book on the history of disco, whose Black origins and political undercurrents are often forgotten or ignored. In particular, Echols writes about Sylvester, an icon who “not only stood ‘at the origin of the disco tradition,’ he also embodied the genre’s upending of gender norms and conventions. When Sylvester sings ‘Mighty Real,’ [Walter] Hughes argued, the identity he enacts ‘will never be permanent, fixed, or naturalized.’”26
Queer Resistance: Gay Balls and Disco - Questions, Connections, and Activities
- In what ways do everyday forms of resistance, such as fashion, music, and dance, have a political impact and pave the way for liberatory political movements?
- Why has the history of queer expression and resistance been so whitewashed? What is the significance that these histories have their roots in Black communities like Harlem as early as the 1800s?
- Translocas: Puerto Rican Drag and Trans Performance, Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes
- Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric, Madison Moore
- Clotilde Jimenez
- Pose TV show
- Lil Nas X
- Bad Bunny
- Gallery walk of images from early Harlem balls and excerpts from newspapers of the time covering the drag balls
- Analyze live performances or music videos by Sylvester
- Analyze and read article about Bad Bunny’s “Yo Perreo Sola” music video (linked in resource section below)