Between Blackness: Ball Culture’s Influence on Black Straight Men
Ballroom Freedom School (11/11)

Between Blackness: Ball Culture’s Influence on Black Straight Men

A Black, straight man disrupts his notion of allyship and masculinity when he encounters the Ballroom communities in Toronto and New York.

Introduction

My name is Brandon Hay and I am the founder of the Black Daddies Club, which is a Toronto-based grassroots organization that works with Black men and Black fathers. Our three mandates are:

  1. To co-create spaces for Black men and Black fathers to speak about the issues that impact us and solutions to these issues. The aim of this is to decrease the isolation that a lot of Black men and Black fathers experience every day.
  2. To work with the media and create our own messaging depicting Black fathers and Black men through a more positive and nuanced lens.
  3. To co-create community-based educational spaces to engage Black communities in Toronto and across diaspora (virtually or in-person).

November 2023 marked 16 years that Black Daddies Club (BDC) has been doing work in Toronto’s communities, and it is important to highlight the impact and learnings of the Black LGBTQ2S+ communities that helped shaped, inform, and inspire how BDC has designed co-created community spaces over the past 12 years, and also how Black LGBTQ2S+ communities have helped with my personal development, growth and liberation as a Black straight cis man.

Black Allyship

The necessity of Black allyship comes from my belief that if I have experienced discrimination because of my Blackness, my maleness, and my fatness, why would I want to discriminate or oppress another Black person because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, or entry point into Blackness as an identity? I do not think we should be using these markers to separate ourselves from each other as Black people. In fact, I believe that we should use these markers as places to come together to learn from each other about our experiences of being Black people—these markers should be opportunities to come together in Black allyship. I also believe that my quest for Black liberation as a heterosexual Black man is deeply connected to the liberation of Black LGBTQ2+ communities and other diverse Black communities (i.e., Black people with disabilities, mixed Black people, Black sex workers, etc.). I don’t believe we can find Black liberation if we are marginalizing other communities of Black people based on their subcultures within the greater Black diaspora.

Growing Up In Jamaica

I think it is important to give a little background about myself as a cis-gendered Black heterosexual man in a big body, born in Jamaica and then migrating to Canada at the age of 10. Growing up in Jamaica, the narrative that I received from a young age was that gay Black men were not real men at all. They were deemed abnormal, perverse, an abomination punishable by death or injury. 

My childhood music of choice was Reggae and Dancehall.

But that music would use gay men as the “low hanging fruit” punchline in their songs, with the musicians decreeing to murder or injure any Black gay man that they came across. The DJ’s would use homophobic call and responses to manipulate the audience into crowd participation, for example, “Put up your hands in the air or spark your lighters for this song, if you don’t like batty men (gay men).” I didn’t like the idea of being told what to do, especially if I didn’t agree with the views of this DJ or those around me in this party. So, at 20 years of age, recognizing that I am not 10 years of age anymore, and that I don’t have to follow the masses, I decided to protest silently at this party by not putting up my hands. However in this simple protest, I found myself terrified not to follow the masses at this party. I felt like I was singling myself out as a gay Black man or a gay ally. After the DJ did his call and response and started to play the music, I felt anxious about showing a piece of my authentic self in the public arena of this beach party, by not putting my hands up, even though no one around me really noticed or was paying attention to me. I felt an urge to perform hegemonic masculinity in that moment and I needed to hide the authenticity I displayed moments before. So, I would sip (nurse) my red stripe beer, roll a spliff, stand in a manly stance, and skank (dance) in my most masculine dance that I had in my arsenal while the music vibrated through the speakers behind me. I recognized the need (I felt) in that moment to overcompensate in my performance as a straight man, due to how unsafe I felt in the moment I tried to display allyship with the LGBTQ2S+ communities at the beach party in Jamaica that night.

Paris Is Burning at University Of Toronto

In the spring of 2014, I attended a film screen and panel discussion for the documentary Paris is Burning, which was held at the University of Toronto, St. George Campus. I had watched the film a few weeks before, but it was by myself at home on my laptop. I jumped at the opportunity to watch it for a second time, this time with people around me. One of the things highlighted by the panel was that so far that year (April 2014), there were approximately ten Black men murdered in Toronto, and most of those cases made it to the front page of popular media outlets. By contrast, more than eight Black and racialized trans women had been murdered in (April) 2014 in Toronto, but none of their deaths had made it to any major media outlets. The high number of deaths within the Black trans community and the silence in the media blew my mind as I sat in the audience. One of the panellists described it as the “erasing” of Black trans people. 

Making Connections

In the second year of delivering the Black Love Matters Un-conference course at York University in Toronto, BDC wanted to collaborate intentionally with the Black LGBTQ2S+ communities, so I reached out to Michael Roberson.

I was introduced to Michael in 2016 by my friend and colleague Dr. Alessandra Pomarico (Ale), who is based in Italy and New York. I met Ale through our connecting work at the Ecoversities Alliance. Ale, who is a good friend of Michael, thought his work in the USA with Black gay men in the House/Ball community and my work through the Black Daddies Club here in Toronto had some synergies, and she was right. Michael Roberson is a public health practitioner, advocate, activist, and leader within the LGBTQ community. His work focuses on the health disparities of Black gay men, many of whom are part of the House/Ball community.

Michael created The Federation of Ballroom Houses, co-created the nation’s only Black Gay research group, The National Black Gay Men’s Advocacy Group, and the Nationally Diffused CDC Behavioral Change HIV Prevention Intervention “Many Men, Many Voices.” Most recently Michael was a consultant for the hit FX TV series “POSE”. Michael is also an ICON in the Ballroom community, co-creating The House of Blahnik, Maasai and Garcon, and most recently co-creating THE HAUS OF MAISON-MARGIELA. Michael and I spoke a few times over the coming months, getting to know each other and the work that we were a part of, then we thought of some ideas that would make our work a mutually beneficial collaboration.

House Lives Matter Convening in Harlem New York

Attending the House Lives Matter Convening in Harlem, New York was a game changer for me. The week-long event had me learning and unlearning a lot of things that I knew about the Black and racialized LGBTQ2S+ communities, Ballroom culture, and approaches to community engagement and education.

A group of 20 black men pose outside for a photo.
Photo-op at the House Lives Matter Symposium (various Black male participants). Union Seminary in NYC (2016) Photo: Brandon Hay

The first event I attended during New York Pride was the Arbert Santana Ballroom Freedom and Free School convening at Union Theological Seminary in Harlem. The event was hosted by Michael. During this event, I noticed the many continents and countries that were represented by the people in the room: there were people from Brazil, England, the USA, and people from Toronto (myself being one of them). As I sat in this room filled with these various international faces, I found myself excited and also nervous, as I was coming face to face with my own angst around homosexuality. As most of the men in the space began to speak with each other and hug each other, it became apparent to me that most of the men in the room identified as gay and they were not shy about this. In fact, there was a pride in their sexuality, which, up to that point, I had never seen amongst Black gay men in my life.

Two women with long dark hair pose for a photo wearing shirts that say "hashtag house lives matter"
HLM co-organizers Dr. Jenny Lee and Legendary NYC Mother Jonovia Xclusive-Lanvin at the House Lives Matter Symposium (2016) Photo: Brandon Hay

The first question I wondered was, “Am I the only straight man in the room, and would my straightness make me an outsider in the space?” This was, however, the farthest thing from the truth, as the vibe in the room was very warm and welcoming. The men embraced and engaged with me like I was someone who they had known for some time. After hearing everyone that spoke in that room, I was amazed at their brilliance. Hearing more about the work that each individual was doing in their home countries, I found myself inspired.

I felt a deep connection and compassion among the individuals in the place and I was curious about what the connecting point to all these folks was. I still felt like an outsider, so I found myself walking around with my camera as a remedy. My strategy in foreign places is that I use my camera as a tool of connection. I first introduce myself and then ask folks if I could take a photo of them to document the moment, which helps me settle in the space. But in some ways my camera also allowed me to hide my outsider-ness behind the lens. As the day went on, I was greeted by folks I met the previous two nights at various events across New York City.

 The Moistness of Icon Hector Xtravaganza, Grandfather of The House

A latino person with curly salt and pepper hair speaks in front of an audience
Icon Hector Xtravaganza at the House Lives Matter Symposium held at Union Seminary (2016) Photo: Brandon Hay

One of the people I spoke to was the vibrant Icon Hector Xtravaganza, and there was something about his warmness and his willingness to support me grounding in the space that morning that helped relieve my sense of being an outsider. Hector’s kindness beamed throughout the dialogue that we shared that morning. He spoke about his past growing up in New York in the 1980s and the kind of toughness and grit that he had to display for survival as a part of his masculinity as a Puerto Rican gay man of colour. This toughness that Hector Xtravaganza spoke about was also echoed by other older Black men that I spoke to that week at the House Lives Matter convening who themselves also grew up in the 1970s and ’80s in New York as gay (Black) men. They talked about fighting a lot with other boys to display that they were not sissies or any less of a man because of their sexuality. Some of them spoke about making sure they were more violent than the other person to prove a point and to send a message that they shouldn’t be messed with in the future. Hector shared with me some of his experience in the ballroom in “choosing” his family after he was ostracized by his own family (this choosing of family was also echoed by other folks I met at the gathering). Hector’s experience in choosing family began when he joined the House of Xtravaganza and I realized during our conversation—by the amount of people showing him love—how much of a force in Ballroom culture this man was and how much of a family environment this was.

Hector’s demeanour was playful, but he also exuded wisdom. He spoke about the idea of him being “moist” as a man; this made me smile when I heard it, as I only heard of women saying that they were moist. This moistness he spoke of taught me that there is strength that comes from being free and vulnerable in expressing yourself as a man. As a Puerto Rican gay man Hector Xtravaganza was able to express his strength and softness, his masculine and his feminine in duality, and this was a beautiful learning that I took from the conversation. The importance of intergenerational wisdom became evident in the room. There was engagement between the elders and younger generation in the LGBTQ2S+ communities at the convening, and there was beautiful learning that arose from the various conversations that took place over that week. Hector also spoke about the important role he plays as an elder in the Ballroom community. He noted that some people call him Grandfather of the House of Xtravaganza and that it is a title that he sees as important in the Ballroom community. Hector also told me about his advocacy work and his own lived experience as someone living with HIV/AIDS. He spoke with a sense of humility and vulnerability that wasn’t lost on me. He politely ended the conversation and told me to keep in touch, and left me with a powerful sense of gratitude from the wisdom that he had shared with me during our brief conversation. A few years later Hector Xtravaganza was asked to be one of the consultants for the hit FX TV show POSE, and the Ballroom community was devastated to hear that Hector Xtravaganza died of lymphoma in New York City on December 30th, 2018. Here are two videos of some folks speaking of the impact of Hector Xtravaganza in the Ballroom community (Video A, Video B).

My Views on Black Masculinity Getting Disrupted

“What makes a black man? What is black masculinity? How might we imagine black masculinity? To read this image is to engage the history of plantation slavery; its production of modes of black selfhood, especially womanhood and manhood; and the contemporary politics of nonheteronormative and nongender normative identities, desires, and practices” 

Reconstructing Manhood; or, The Drag of Black Masculinity
by Dr. Rinaldo Walcott, March 2009 

When I first walked into the House Lives Matter convening in New York, which was a part of Pride events, I saw and met Black cis and trans women, Black cis and trans men. However, my understanding for Black masculinities deepened when I saw gay Black men who looked like me, who dressed liked me (or at least how I would like to dress, if I had the budget). I saw Black men who were heavy set, wearing baggy jeans, with full beards. My stereotypes of gay Black men having sculpted bodies from living in the gym because they had to stay physically attractive, wearing only fitted clothing was disrupted. This brought up the complexities of Black masculinity and heterosexual eyes that I had been trained with to look at the world. This was being disrupted with the new idea that Black masculinities allow for multiple subidentities that define what it means to be a Black man. Prior to the House Lives Matter convening, I perceived gay Black men to have a certain aesthetic and mannerisms; this all got disrupted for me when I entered the House Lives Matter convening and saw gay Black men who were flamboyant, vibrant, stoic, reserved, etc. The gay Black men in the space highlighted to me that there were multiple ways to enter or perform Black masculinities; that there was plurality to our manhood. This was a new discovery for me. 

Six black men pose for a photo in a gallery setting.
Courtnay McFarlane, Dr. Lance McCready, Ajamu x, Brandon Hay, David-Lewis Peart, and Nigel Barriffe at the Black Love Matters Course, OCAD University, Toronto (2017) Photo: Harmony Adzido

Black Trans Women Are Black Women, And Black Trans Men Are Black Men

Black women’s bodies have been the site of trauma and violence—a violence which has been inflicted by people and systems that are outside of Black women’s communities. The violence has also been inflicted by people and systems that are inside these Black women’s communities, and the violence has also been inflicted by people and systems inside the homes of these Black women. Where do Black trans women come into the conversation around gender and Blackness, and what violence do they face in their daily lives?

I have had to constantly retrain my eyes and my brain over the years to see Black trans women as Black women, and Black trans men as Black men, and not as the gender that they were assigned at birth. This was difficult and it has been a constant and ongoing struggle to put into practice, even though it can be uncomfortable for me. It brings up my vulnerability, but it is worth it to ensure that I can respect a person’s identity. One of the ways I practice this has been to ask what is a person’s gender pronoun (how that person identifies), or offering my gender pronoun first during an introduction. In this small act, I am able to ground myself in knowing that I am not assuming someone’s gender, rather I am getting direction and permission from the person that I am speaking to; this way I can address them in a way that they identify. In the past, I would feel really uncomfortable asking a person how they identified, and then I would inadvertently misgender them, inflicting micro aggressions of violence onto them. This did not feel good to me knowing that this was happening.

Trans folks conversation circle at House Lives Matter (2016)

The fragility of immature, toxic, rigid heteronormative Black masculinity can be very problematic for the safety of Black cis women and Black trans women. Some Black men inflict violence on trans-women when they find out that the woman they have been attracted to isn’t a cisgender Black woman, but rather a Black man assigned at birth. For some of these men who feel that they have been betrayed are not able to see any duality in these women, their response to these Black trans women is to engage them with violence. Even amongst heterosexual Black men who are in consensual sexual relationships with Black trans women there is violence, which is a growing concern. I was really surprised to hear stories of violence being inflicted on trans women in consensual romantic relationships as an outcome of immature heteronormative Black masculinity being performed not only from Black gay men, but also butch lesbians in romantic relationships with trans women. I learned from this that the performance of an immature toxic rigid heteronormative Black masculinity is hurting both Black heterosexual men and Black LGBTQ2S+ folks, and that we have to look at different ways of performing Black masculinities that will allow for tenderness, softness, strength, and fluidity. For me, this also brought up the question: Why did it seem like there was perceived disposability of Black women and Black trans women’s bodies, and why did violence and erasure seem to be normalized with their bodies?

The Heritage Ball: Family Reunion III

The “Heritage Ball: Family Reunion III” took place at Irving Plaza, Irving Place New York on Friday, August 18th, 2017. This was my first ball and it didn’t disappoint! The production value was on point and the people who walked stage at the ball were immaculate in their attire. A lot of the people attending the ball were dressed in custom made outfits. I quickly felt underdressed in my button-down shirt, jeans, and converse. The venue was a huge two floor space. The first floor packed quickly, with throngs of people surrounding the catwalk. The second floor was a circular space with the middle part of the room protected by octagon banisters and the floor was opened, allowing attendees a bird’s eye view looking down on the first floor. I went to grab a drink and headed to the second floor and I noticed how electric the energy in the venue was getting as the ball was getting closer to beginning. The emcee (or commentator) and DJ worked in unison having commanded the crowd and began to do a type of roll call called “Legends Statements.” They said the names of various ICONS and Legends that were present at the event. As the commentator said each name, that person would come up onstage, using the stairs that were at the nose of the stage that was accessible to the crowd on the first floor. Some of the ICONS and Legends were seniors, some of them had to get support from people from their house or entourage to walk the stage. This display of intergenerational respect was dope for me to take in. The roll call which took place at the beginning of the ball was the indication that the ball was about to begin, but more importantly the roll call was recognizing people who were a part of co-creating the culture of ballroom. This made me think of the importance of honouring our ancestors at Black community events, whether it is through ceremonies like pouring libation or having Black elders take part in the event in some capacity if they are still alive.

How “Real” Are You?

As the Ball started and I quickly realized why House balls were such a big event—there is a lot of effort that goes into a person’s performance. A ball in essence is where various houses in Ballroom compete based on costumes, appearance, vogue skills, and attitude. Performances are then scored by the judges and the audience, so the really big houses with a lot of members have an advantage to some degree because the audience that cheers loudest during the judging component may influence the judges in their scoring. In a way, there is a powerful democratic tendency at play in House Balls. The Heritage Ball like other Balls has a series of categories that range from Butch Queen, Vogue Fem/Female Figure Performance, Sex Siren, Body, Face, Best Dressed, Femme Queen (FQ) Realness, Bizarre, just to name a few. I thought about the ways that I perform masculinity daily as a heterosexual Black man in a big/fat body, and the ways that I look at myself has been impacted by how society as a whole says which kind of Black men are deemed attractive. For example, Idris Elba, Lorenz Tate, and Morris Chestnut are a few of the popular black celebrities idolized as ideals, but for the Black men with body compositions that fit outside of those molds, they find it harder to find love for themselves, or maybe this is just an issue that I am navigating on my own. However, I feel that this is a part of the important self-work that is necessary for me to do, to be fully able to love myself. Only when I practice this self-love, will I be able to fully give and receive love from other people.

The Journey to Black Liberation Symposium and
The Black Liberation Ball in Toronto

In 2018 and 2019, the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto approached the Black Daddies Club to curate a symposium for their renowned Black history event called Kuumba Festival, which was a month-long event during the month of February. They had asked me to curate a three-day (Friday to Sunday) symposium on whatever topic that BDC wanted to tackle in the Black community in Toronto. I thought that the Kuumba Festival would be the perfect backdrop to do an international collaboration. So, I contacted Michael Roberson and Twysted Miyake-Mugler (Toronto) to see if they were interested, and they were.

After a few planning meetings between myself, Michael, Twysted, and the Harbourfront Centre, we decided the co-curated project would include a three-day symposium called The Journey to Black Liberation Symposium. The weekend would be capped off with a The Black Liberation Ball to pay homage to the Ballroom community that started in New York City, and migrated and evolved nationally and internationally. We wanted the symposium to be a convening or un-conference, which would allow multiple expressions of body, mind, and soul. We included art and photography into the symposium centred on Ajamu Ikwe-Tiyembe’s photographic life histories of Black sex workers in the UK.

A group of nine stylish black people pose for a photo.
GQ Balenciaga Telfar, Caesar Miyake-Mugler, Afrika Monroe, Jah Grey, Tywsted Miyake-Mugler (Co-curator), Icon Michael Maison Margiela (Co-Curator), Maurice Renaldo, and Icon Twiggy Garcon at the opening night of the Journey To Black Liberation Symposium and The Black Liberation Ball. Harbourfront Centre, Toronto (2018) Photo: Brandon Hay

We felt that the Journey to Black Liberation Symposium should include a multiplicity of voices from our Black communities, so each panel included individuals who were Black who identified as both heterosexual, and LGBTQ2+/. 

The Journey to Black Liberation Symposium (2018 and 2019) plenaries included panel discussions around:

  • Blackness and gender
  • Blackness, monogamy and polygamy
  • HIV/ AIDS and Blackness
  • Radical art and Blackness
  • sex workers and Blackness
  • Fatness and Blackness
  • Black masculinities, which included world renowned Black masculinity documentarian Byron Hurt and a broad panel which also included Black men who identified as heterosexual, gay, and trans.
  • and a vogue workshop (lead by world renown Ballroom Icons) to ensure that we had a plenary that got people into their bodies (this session was packed)

Celebrating Trans Black and Racialized Women

In 2018, for the first Black Liberation Ball in Toronto, we wanted to go with a performer that would be memorable, someone who epitomized Ballroom. After weeks of brainstorming and negotiating we landed on Leiomy Maldonado, who is an International ICON in the Ballroom community and is also a Latina trans woman. When Michael confirmed that Leiomy had agreed to be the headliner for the first Black Liberation Ball, I was geeked out and Twysted gagged. I had recently seen the Nike commercial that featured Leiomy Maldonado and was excited to see her perform live. Apparently, a lot of people in Toronto and outside of Toronto wanted to see Leiomy perform at our Ball—a week after we publicly announced that she was the headliner for the Black Liberation Ball, the event was sold out. Since that event Leiomy has been featured on the FX hit TV show POSE and is also a judge on the HBO show LEGENDARY, which highlights Ballroom culture from around the world.

Leiomy’s headlining performance at Journey to Black Liberation (2018). Photo: Ajamu

In 2019, we wanted to follow up with a strong headliner for the Journey to Black Liberation Symposium. After months of working with her lawyers, we were able to get our wish list and confirm to the public that Dominique Tyra A Ross-Jackson, who is a star and show favourite on POSE, was going to be the 2019 headliner. Once we made the announcement that Dominique was going to be the headliner, her plenary at the Journey to Black Liberation Symposium was also sold out.

Learning not to centre my heteronormative perspective was necessary during this process of collaboration between Michael, Twysted, and myself. There were a lot of compromises I made and a lot of heated conversations around the direction of the event. This left me as one of the curators feeling unheard or unseen at times, and there were a lot of times that I had to check my ego. The process of collaboration is something I have found necessary and fascinating for BDC over the past 16 years, but I found that for me there is a richness in the process of co-creating in partnership with another person.  This confirms one of the most important learnings that I took from this collaboration, which is that sometimes the process of collaboration has impacted my learning more than the outcomes or deliverables of the collaboration. The Journey to Black Liberation Symposium and The Black Liberation Ball was a beautiful experience that I still hold deep in my heart to this day. 

With Gratitude,

Brandon Hay  
Founder of the Black Daddies Club
Therapist-in-training at the Gestalt Institute of Toronto 

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

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Brandon Hay is a graduate of York University, with a Masters in Environmental Studies; and an Environmental Business Certificate from the Schulich School of Business. His thesis was titled “Scripting Mature Black Masculinities and Love in Toronto.

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