The Church of OVAH: Transcendence in the House Ballroom Scene

For centuries the Christian church has fractured time and time again when the Church did not or would not meet the needs of a community. The subsequent Christian denominations, sects, cults, and ecclesiastical communities have established themselves under a variety of beliefs and practices. Similarly, when Africans were enslaved and removed from their homeland, they created new religions adapted from their former ones. Communities of slave and former slaves gathered in plantations and in cities for rituals and worship in the new ways they’d come to know. Their African practices transformed as a result of their new realities, available materials, limited opportunities to gather, and the Indigenous, European and African religions they came in contact with.[1]

In the Black and Latinx transgender, gay, lesbian and queer community, it was the House Ballroom scene that emerged. Much like Dr. Samuel Cruz describes Pentecostalism as bearing a “close affinity to Afro-Caribbean religious sensitivity,”[2] the Ball scene has also morphed into an alternative faith community that incorporates both Christian and African religious concepts, beliefs, and practices. Michael Roberson, an activist, public health practitioner and an adjunct professor at The New School, says “there is no choice.” There is no choice but for the Ball scene to be infused with Christianity and Africanisms. “It is Black church. It is God in motion.” Mostly an African American and Latinx scene, though not exclusively, the House Ball scene can be described as a competition, an art, a community—and I would argue, a religion or in the very least, a faith community. African religious practitioners speak of their traditions as a discipline, a responsibility, a way of life. The same can be said of Ball. It’s a tradition based on rituals designed to worship the bodies, aesthetics, movements, and most importantly, the survival of Black and brown transgender, gay, lesbian, and queer people. When we speak of Western religions such as Christianity, the main concern is usually the theology, the formally formulated set of ideas and beliefs of said religion. When we speak of African religions, though, the focus is on the rituals, the practices, the way of life of the practitioners. Thus, in this paper, I will focus not on the theology of the Ball scene, but on the spiritual praxis of the community.

Félix Pimenta and Eduardo Kon, father and mother of the House of Zion Brasil, performing at the Ataque! ball in São Paulo, 2016. Photo by Pato Hebert

This research came out of a series of classes[3] on African diasporic religions, especially Santeria, Vodou, Candomble, and Pentecostalism. The rituals, community structures, and way that authors, speakers, and videos in the class talked about their respective religions reminded me of how I had heard my gay Latinx and Black friends speak about voguing and performance in California. During that same semester, I attended a short two-day course led by Michael Roberson called “Trans Sounds of Black Freedom & Black Spirituality.” The course focused primarily on the history of marginalization of Black trans women and gay men and examined the House Ballroom scene as a social network, kinship system, cultural group, and artistic collective. Part of the course also addressed how the Ball scene is a Black Trans-Womanist theological discourse, a freedom movement, and a spiritual formation response to race, class, sexuality, and gender oppression.[4] Shortly after this brief introduction to the themes of womanist theology, Cornel West’s works, and some of the theological themes of death in the House Ballroom community, I began my investigation on parallel Africanisms within the scene. I interviewed two scholars on this topic, Michael Roberson and Dr. Edgar Rivera Colón, author of “Between the Runway & the Empty Tomb: Bodily Transformation and Christian Praxis in New York City’s House Ball Community.”[5] I also interviewed two performance artists, Javier Stell-Fresquez and Cuauhtémoc Peranda (henceforth referred to by his vogue name, Father Dante Omé Lauren). In addition to being a performance artist, the father of the California House of Lauren, Father Dante is also an up and coming scholar of the House Ballroom scene as a Ph.D. student in the Critical Dance Studies program at the University of California, Riverside.

History of the House Ballroom

Black and Latinx transgender, gay, lesbian, and queer people have largely been outcasts of society: bullied in schools, shamed from churches, unwelcomed in sport teams, expelled from their families, and siloed to barely visible sectors of society. Because of this, nightclubs became one of the few places where they could gather as a community to celebrate being alive—surviving one more day or night of the harsh realities of being Black and queer and transgender and poor. Out of the music, the dancing, the weekly gathering, a community developed with a set of beliefs, rituals, language, and history which can now be found in most urban areas with large concentrations of Black and Latinx communities, most notably in New York, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Newark, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.[6]

The history of the House Ballroom scene dates back to the 1960s. As alternatives to the “drag-themed fashion shows that were controlled by white men in gay bars and clubs”[7] in downtown New York City, Black gay men began to organize their own Balls in Harlem. More precisely, Michael Roberson asserts, it all started when legendary mother Crystal LaBeija took a stand against the racism among the white judges at the drag balls and hosted her own Ball and subsequently created the House of LaBeija. After the separation from the white dominated drag community, this new creation took an entirely new path. This was no longer about dressing in drag or receiving tips for lip sync performances. Under primarily Black leadership the Ball scene developed kinship structures not too different from that of African religions’ devotional families. Dr. Rivera Colón references Michael Cunningham’s assertion that the “term ‘houses’ was coined by Crystal LaBeija in 1967 as a marketing device to give the Balls the type of aesthetic and cultural cache associated with the larger fashion houses of Paris and Milan.”[8] From the start emerged the House of LaBeija and the House of Xtravaganza. Soon after formed the Houses of Dupree, Ninja, Pendavis, Omni, St. Laurent, and Lauren, and many more have followed since. Each house had their distinct movements, aesthetics, family codes, and philosophies. The House of Lauren, for example, was founded by a transman. During the interview that I conducted with Father Lauren, he explained that part of continuing with the founders’ vision is to pay homage to masculinity in masculine categories and to embody a non-destructive masculinity in a scene which centers around a sacred femmeness.[9] Dr. Rivera Colón echos this idea using the word reputation as the key distinguisher of houses: “Each house has its own reputation in terms of which categories of performance it excels in and is expected to maintain that tradition.”[10]

More than just the maintenance of their specific “reputation” or brand as in the European-American white fashion industry, houses quickly became make-shift families for poor, homeless and/or Black and Latinx transgender, gay, lesbian and queer individuals. Members of houses call themselves “children,” “brothers” and “sisters,” and their leaders “mother” or “father.” Much like in the realities of many of these “children,” houses are usually single parent homes—having either a house father or a house mother, but rarely both.[11] This kinship system is not unlike the devotional families of orishas in African diasporic religions such as Santeria. The followers of each orisha must be initiated into the family, having first learned the traits, dances, and information about the specific orisha to which they are devotees and then be initiated during a ceremony in which they are presented into the community. Although not as intensive a process as in African diasporic religions,[12] to become a child of a House in the Ball community, children must go through an initiation process. Upon being recruited, the initiation process of new children includes agreeing to particular codes of conduct, training under the tutelage of the mother (or father) of the house, knowing the history of their house, and proving they have mastered at least one category by obtaining scores of 10s at a Ball attended by the community. It is noteworthy to include that unlike in African diasporic religions in which children can be initiated into multiple houses and worship multiple orishas, in the Ball community children cannot belong to multiple houses at once.[13] The main reason for this is a practical one: Balls are competitions between houses and individuals.

First and Foremost, the Balls are A Competition

Most people who know of and participate in the Ball community consider Balls first and foremost a competition. Dr. Rivera Colón describes the contemporary House Ball community as “a working-class Black and Latino/a alternative queer kinship system and a national competitive dance performance circuit that is organized to meet the needs of its members for intergenerational social solidarity and mentoring in a white supremacist society still largely hostile to sexual and gender expression differences.”[14] Within the history and context of the community, it is not difficult to speculate why this community would develop a kinship-competition system. In the documentary film, Paris is Burning, a multitude of understandings of the competition are expressed. Here are three examples:

Kim Pendavis: I guess I like the excitement … It’s them cheering and screaming if you were good. And that’s what got me, ‘cause I like the competition. It makes me strong. It makes me think more. It makes me want to come back and get them. It’s not just about winning. It’s giving too. ‘Cause I feel that I give a lot of enjoyment to a lot of people who go to Balls. And they enjoy to see it, and I enjoy to walk for them. So that’s my philosophy, as I should say.[15]

Legendary Mother Pepper LaBeija: Those Balls are more or less like our fantasy of being a superstar. You know, like the Oscars or whatever. Or being on a runway as a model.[16]

Dorian Corey: A Ball is the very word—whatever you want to be, you be. So at a Ball, you have a chance to display your arrogance, your seductiveness, your beauty, your wit, your charm, your knowledge, You can become anything and do anything. Right here, right now, and it won’t be questioned. I came, I saw, I conquered. That’s a Ball.[17]

Although the interviewees’ dreams of Oscars, fame, and superstardom might appear vain, their aspirations are not superficial considering the context of the Balls. The goal of walking in a Ball is to become a “Legend.” The Legendary title is attained by those who win across multiple categories. Indeed, through movies such as Paris is Burning, the legacies of the houses, and the little documentation that does exist of the scene, Ball Legends become the icons of the community. More than that, to those who participate in the scene, Legends are local (and increasingly with the use of social media, national and even international) celebrities. Walking the Ball is about making history—doing what no one has done before, becoming a Legend. It is about being seen, being recognized, being adored in a society where trans, gay, lesbian and queer Black and brown people don’t matter and don’t exist. We can see the desire for the glory of Julius Caesar, the admiration given to the models of perfection in society, and the love and recognition of Hollywood Stars in the testimonies of Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija, and Kim Pendavis. In “Between the Runway and the Empty Tomb,” Dr. Rivera Colon writes that his main informant, Vivienne, “enjoyed her victory because she ‘got to be part of a bit of history’ that night at the House of Latex Ball … Vivienne created a new sense of time for herself and her house when she stepped off the runway triumphant … because new ‘standards,’ ‘reputations,’ histories, and, therefore, modes of embodiment were more possible in the wake of her victory.”[18] Each person who wants to be and arises victorious in their categories, especially Legends, creates new possibilities for other members of the community. Competition is not just a matter of winning for oneself, though there is an aspect to this; it is a matter of breaking the boundaries of what is possible, of what has been done before them, and carving themselves into history.

Becoming Part of History

This desire to become part of history for trans, gay and lesbian Black and brown persons is in fact about survival—it is about praxis and the theological discourse between life and death. “When the history of ballroom was written, at least in NYC … [it focused on the scene that] was involved in the 80s when people were dying left and right,” Michael Roberson says, “And the death question in the ballroom scene is really about a number of vectors: one being violence, people being murdered because they are LGBT, trans sex workers being murdered; but also the general violence of communities of color that they are exposed to, the structural violence”; and the HIV/AIDS Epidemic of the 1980s which the government refused to acknowledge existed.[19] Even today when various resources exist to treat and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, Gay Marriage is federally recognized, and transgender people can serve in the military, the Black and Latinx LGBTQ community is still disproportionately affected. Statistics show that in 2016, one of every two Black gay men will contract HIV/AIDS, and one in four gay Latinos, as opposed to one in eleven white men.[20] Moreover, “The Human Rights Campaign, in a [recent] report … calculated that 102 transgender people have been killed in the U.S. over the past five years—including 25 this year.” [21]

Therefore becoming Legendary and making history in the Ball community are about more than just fashion: they are about overcoming death and living the life you are not allowed to live. Colón Dr. Rivera writes, “To be a Ball walker … is to try to live a new body on a runway of one’s choosing, but not a world of one’s choosing.”[22] Participants in the community cannot stop being being Black or Latinx, nor can they stop being trans, gay, lesbian or queer. To survive in a sexist and racist world, to keep their integrity intact through authenticity, they have created their own rituals and traditions to connect to their own divinity. The Balls function as a community gathering in which the performers, houses, MCs, judges, and audience all come together to make sense of what it is to be alive as trans, gay, lesbian and queer people of color. What does it mean to be human when you are rendered inhuman? What does it mean to exist, to thrive and to be when you are seen as a disposable body? What is it to be loud, bold, colorful, beautiful, elegant, legendary, OVAH, when outside of the Balls you are not supposed to exist? Sound, movement, aesthetics, survival, and being are the dogmas of the Church of the House Balls. Through Balls, Ball children, fathers and mothers gather to worship bodies, to connect to one another, to be liberated and free, and to experience transcendence, or OVAHNESS.

The Church of OVAH

Much like in African religions, in the House Ball scene there is no separation between the divine and the secular, between art and the sacred, between surviving and living. Survival, art, dance, sex, music and the Balls are all a part of feeling, living, thriving, being OVAH. It is a way of life rather than a bureaucratic institution. Yet it would be misleading to suggest that Balls are considered church or religious gatherings by those who participate in them. They play with Christian themes and they follow similar ritual and kinship practices found in many African diasporic religions, but for those on the outside and inside of the House Ball community, there are no immediately apparent parallels between the various religious cultures from which Balls originated. When we look at the definitions of what a religion is and the way in which Balls operate, however, we can see how Balls queer the very concept of religion.

While we might often associate religion with written scripture and theologies, religion is about much more than that. A religion is “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”[23] If we accept the premise that Balls are a sort of queer religion inspired by African diasporic religions, we can see that the Ballroom scene is a tradition rooted in worship in which the power of the the body is fully present and as important as that of the mind; it is one in which praxis is weighed equally to theology; and queerness is as fertile as orthodoxy.

During our interview, Father Dante quoted Audre Lorde: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”[24] The Balls are not about Christianity, they are not about religion, or spirituality, Father Dante insisted during our interviews. Audre Lorde’s philosophy explains why Balls cannot and will never look like a Christian church, and why members like Father Dante refuse to think of it in that way. Balls mirror diasporic African religions much more closely. Balls might not worship the traditional orishas, but instead (and at time, also) the spirits of queerness, transness, femmeness, boihood, and most of all, survival. It is a worship of all of the identities which queer and trans people of color must wear, know, discard, and be in order to live. Audre Lorde says, “those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”[25]

It is in the same 1979 New York context in which Lorde spoke these words that the House Ball scene was the largest. At Balls, Black and Latinx transgender and queer communities, forged in the crucibles of difference, made (and still make) their differences strengths. In the midst of murders, illness, poverty, and daily harassment the community gathered to worship what they had been told was wrong about them: their sexuality, their bodies, their queerness. “In the ballroom scene, we see what are considered profane and sacred realms, not recognized as profane, recognized as sacred, as erotic, the erotic as sacred, fucking as sacred, the body as sacred on some level. It’s that notion that in that performance and even what you to do you body to prepare for the performance but also how people share bodies and party and do all this other stuff, that that itself is like church.”[26] The Balls are a manifestation of the Black and Latinx transgender, gay, lesbian and queer people’s strengths. It is an intricate system of beliefs concerning the nature of queerness, living and expression in humanity. As it has been expressed previously, it is a set of rituals and traditions under a kinships system with the goal of worshiping each others’ bodies, to connect to one another, to be liberated and free, and to experience transcendence, or OVAHNESS. “It is a form of ecclesial praxis that theologians should reflect on,” Dr. Rivera Colón asserts.[27]

What does it mean in the scene to experience transcendence, or OVAHNESS? Here we could use the Pentecostal notions of spirit possession or other diasporic African religions’ notions of being mounted by an orisha. As Dorian Corey stresses about the “Realness” category[28] in Paris is Burning, “it’s not a takeoff, or a satire. No. It’s actually being able to be this.”[29] OVAHNESS is when performers successfully push their and their audiences’ mental and physical boundaries. It is when the unimaginable is imagined, the impossible is made possible. For moments, time, place and society stop existing and it is just about the performer who is whatever category of identity (or spirit) they are embodying. For example, if the category is Executive or Going to School or Realness, in those moments, respectively, the performers are executives, schoolboys/schoolgirls, and real women/men. Javier described it as such, “there’s definitely a vibe of fierce warrior and intensity in voguing. … sometimes you can tell someone is in a trance, like they are fighting, but it’s almost like they are fighting with their own limits. And you see like this very trance-like-state in how they are released and working with their spine.”[30] Being in a trance is not an altogether foreign concept to Ball walkers, many of whom come from Pentecostal backgrounds, practice(d) an African religion, or know others who do (or have).[31] Dr. Rivera Colón remarks, “many members are practitioners of Santeria and know well the trance states that the Orishas initiate in their followers as an enabling condition to speak to their devotees; being a divinely penetrated, sacramental ‘bottom’ is a familiar experience for many community members of various religious backgrounds.”[32] It is also important to note that each African diasporic religion, even houses within these religions, has varying beliefs about how and when orishas mount individuals.

During our interview, Father Dante also said, “what takes you from a 9 to your 10s is an aura. It’s a transformation. You are that thug. That thug that has you clutching your purse. You have to be real. You have to master the category and embody it. You have to be able to pass.”[33] Much like in African diasporic religions, Ball audiences and judges have ways of knowing, of judging, when and if the performer (devotee) is indeed fully immersed in their category, in their identity—if they are fully merged as one with the “spirit” of that category. In many African religions, the community knows based on the type of postures, dancing, entrance and departure of orishas whether those possessed by the spirits are truly possessed or pretending to be. In the Ball scene, to serve (or walk) in the category, performers must first get their 10s from the judges. The 10s are the judges’ acknowledgement that the performers do in fact embody this category. Those who do not connect with the spirit of their category, are chopped (do not receive their 10s and cannot participate in the competition for that category).

Those congregating around this particular type of worship, include the Master of Ceremonies, the DJ, the performers, the houses, the audience, and the laity. The Master of Ceremonies and DJ are the orchestrators of the Ball (or “service”). They set the tone with the music, pre-set order of the presentations (or “ceremonies”), and improvised lyrics and messages (or “sermons”). The performers in the Ball scene act as the preachers as well as the living texts. They interpret the categories and perform (“preach”) those categories to the audience after hours of rehearsals, studying past performances, and creating their own interpretations. While they are walking or serving they become the living text of the ceremony. The body is the sacred text which the judges, audience and all those present taken in, learn from, and are inspired by. A Ball is a dynamic gathering, not much different from a Pentecostal congregation on a Sunday or a Candomble ceremony taking place. It is a congregation with a lively call and response dynamic between the MC and the audience, the MC and the performer, and the performer and the audience. “The resolutely public nature of these performances allows the audiences that witness them to partake in the transformative temporal and fleshy registers inaugurated through these rituals. They rework not only the time of the collective history … but also the personal, autobiographical time of sexual and gender socialization in such a way as to redo the work of the self in both an affirming and an empowering way.”[34] The audience is made up of the Legends, houses, the children, the upcoming children, the mothers, the fathers, the laity, the friends of the performers, and the curious first-timers. The laity is made up of all those who set up the stage, the decorations, the make-up artists, the customer designers, and the performers’ “assistants.”

Other than the performances themselves, much like diasporic African religions, the Ball community gathers around family rituals, or house rituals. These rituals involve hours of watching videos of past performances. In our interview Dr. Rivera Colón emphasized the concrete “rituals of studying ballroom performance”:

Houses get together, or people in the ballroom, and they will watch in this case youtube or other media. And they will study the category, people who are the best in those categories. That’s a very constant practice, the constant watching people who are good. And critiquing them and also learning from them… You practice for a Ball. And those practices are very rigorous. They spend hours doing practice. And also practicing let’s say something like vogue femme, there are places where kids do that all the time, or the children as they call each other, at HMI [Hetrick-Martin Institute][35] they do that, at different youth centers they do that. So, it’s constant, it’s a constant thing.[36]

As described by Dr. Rivera Colón, practicing and preparing for Balls are regular individual and communal rituals. Voguing, reading and shade, are especially constant rituals in the Ball community as well. All of these include a cycle of practice, criticism or feedback, and more practice. Because of the competitive nature of the Balls, the community is fluent in the language of criticism as a cultural form of communication, competing, and fighting. Michael Roberson sees this as also being an alternative form of caring, “criticism is an attempt to get the person ready for an onslaught that’s already occurred.”[37] Roberson’s words remind us that criticism does not come from simple malice, though perhaps sometimes it does. It also comes from a deeply held belief of the community: a need to survive. Black and Latinx trans and queer people constantly face verbal and physical assaults based on who they are, how they act, how they are dressed, what their voice sounds like, how soft or rough their skin is, etc. The practice of reading and throwing shade are not purely malicious, but rather founded in a need for survival of self, of friends, and of the community.

When we speak of religion, particularly Christianity, there is a set of Western ideas that religious people are intrinsically ethical. There is a misconception that religion provides a set of rules, ethics, morality that then all participants of said religion follow. This is of course an idealized perception of religion rather than the lived reality. When it comes to diasporic African religions, morality and ethics are aligned with the orishas’ guidance as well as the community’s needs, tactics and organizing efforts. During the Haitian revolution, for example, it was Vodou which empowered slaves to rise in rebellion, take up arms, kill masters, and take lands.[38] The Ball community also has its own set of code of conduct. The houses are where you find these sets of morality codes spelled out. Each house has their own standards, some houses might say you have to “have a job, you have to be in school, you have to do both, and both is better, or you’ll get kicked out of the house.”[39] Father Dante spoke confidently about his house rules, stating that each person “must have their shit together. They must be able to buy what they need for the Ball. Now if after the Ball they want to exchange items with others, or share their things with others, that is fine. But children cannot depend on the house to support them. They must be self-sustaining.”[40] Roberson, Father Dante, Dr. Rivera Colón, and Javier all spoke on the importance of children contributing to the house, being held accountable for their mistakes, not breaking house rules, not being “a mess,” and being kicked out from the house if they cannot comply with these standards.

Dr. Rivera Colón also spoke of the alternate morality surrounding the kinship system of the Ball community: “what’s interesting to me about the houses is that it’s a kinship system that is not based on the incest taboo. It’s not based upon not having sex with your brothers and sisters in the house, people do have sex … and mothers and fathers may have relationships … and that’s always a scandal for people, why are you using this language?… but the point is that people actually connect to each other through their racialized sexuality, their racialized gender presentation, so that’s very different than a lot of systems … [especially from] bourgeois notions of the family and normative notions of the family.”[41] In his written work, Dr. Rivera Colón also categorizes the houses as a set of “[f]amily loyalties, the hard and soft sell, friendship alliances, and erotic interests, among other factors.”[42] Family are governed under a different set of moral codes, not excluding sex. Sex, sexual innuendos, sensuality and the body are major themes of the Ball community. It is precisely because of these things that the Black and Latinx trans, gay, lesbian and queer community has been ostracized—for the way they look, how they move their bodies, who they have sex with, how they have sex. Thus, all of these things become sacred, become honored, become a way of life in the scene. And just as there is no separation of the spiritual and the secular, art and the sacred, there is no separation of sex from the houses either. This is particularly true when we see that the Ball scene is a way of life, not simply a performance. It is not simply a network of sexual partners. It is an intricate web of sexual and non-sexual romantic, intimate, and platonic relationships. Because of this, houses, and particularly mothers and fathers are responsible for teaching their “children” the ways of the Ball as well as the art of survival. This is why houses have been essential in the work that Michael Roberson and Dr. Rivera Colón do around around health education and HIV/AIDs prevention and care. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and children take care of each other. In fact, during our interview, Dr. Rivera Colón confesses that in many ways, when prevention workers recognized the unity, effectiveness and reach of the Ball community, “the HIV community colonized the ballroom scene for labor and for publicity.”

A Recognizable Theology?

After reading this initial research report into the sociology of religion in the House Ballroom community, some might still ask—but is there a recognizable theology? Michael Roberson responds with an enthusiastic, yes: “Vogue is a political and theological response for us.”[43] Dr. Rivera Colón writes, “To be Christian is to desire to be materialized in another body, the transfigured and risen body … the House Ballroom is a palimpsest of bodies: afflicted bodies, restored/healed bodies, and transfigured ones. The runway is where these bodies are exhibited and their narratives invoked and transformed.”[44] During our interview, Dr. Rivera Colón said, “Well, it depends by what you mean by recognizable. If you are talking at the level of praxis, of transformative activity that is based upon an understanding of spirit in the world, or God in the world—yeah, I think there is.” There are moments during a Ball, aspects of the house system, and ways in which Ball children and mothers/fathers speak of the scene which would allow us to enter the vast realm of Christian theology and draw parallels.[45] For example, a theology of the “Dip” (otherwise known as the “Death Drop”) in the Ball scene would warrant an entire book on the subject. However, for the purpose of this essay I focused specifically on the set of praxis and rituals employed in the community for a few reasons. The first is that I myself am not a Ball child, and therefore I would have to partake in the community for a larger extent of time as well as speak to many more participants before I could draw conclusions on a native Ball theology. Secondly, I would need to lead further investigations in African diasporic religions and specifically interview members of the Ball community which are also practitioners of African religions.

Shifting Dynamics

Lastly, like in any religious community, dogmas, doctrines, practices and congregations are constantly changing and evolving. The House Ballroom community of today looks very different from that of the 1980s when Paris is Burning was first filmed. The increasing involvement of Ball children in African diasporic religions, such as Santeria, Vodou, Candomble, and Pentecostalism, is a major development which inevitably has effects on how certain houses and performers might approach the work. Moreover, Father Dante and Michael Roberson are examples of the increase of scholars arising from and working in the community, each in their own subject areas.

While some Balls retain the dynamics expressed in this essay, it is also true that Balls have been co-opted in many ways by prevention workers, “butch queens” (or cis-gendered men), and even white, gay (and cis) culture for their own purposes. Dr. Rivera Colón calls this “the historical defeat of the trans within the Ballroom scene.” Voguing is becoming a “performance” and Balls are being used as entertainment. With the recognition of specific Ball legends, voguing is seen more and more about dance and performers rather than a community affair. In becoming entertainment, the Balls and spaces in which Ball rituals take place are stripped of their Africanisms, such as the call and response aspects of the performance. Instead there is an increase of elaborate stages, decorations and much more structured separation between performer and audience.

During our interview, Father Dante said “Audre Lorde says that you cannot dismantle a house using the master’s tools, and so we have not! We have used our own tools. And so when the master comes to our space, they can try to emulate the moves, they can try to categorize and try to qualify and break down what the community is, but they cannot know. They cannot dismantle our house because they don’t have the tools. We do.”[46] These words capture an essence of the spirituality of House Ballroom. The people who I interviewed all agreed that in the House Ball community, you must feel it, live it, be it to fully capture what it means to walk and participate in a Ball. You cannot fully understand this faith community without understanding the character, history, cultures, and religions of the community. What happens at a Ball is indescribable, it is meant to be impossible, it is meant to not to be understood or categorized, but felt with your entire body.


Crary, David. “2017 Killings of Transgender People Hit Record High.” Accessed December 10, 2017.

Cruz, Samuel. Masked Africanisms: Puerto Rican Pentecostalism. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Pub. Co, 2005.

Fernández Olmos, Margarite, and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert. “Haitian Vodou: Forging a Creole Religion in Haiti.” In Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santeria to Obeah and Espiritismo, 116-54. 2nd ed. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” 1984. In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 110–14. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 2007.

Moore, Darnell L. “Here’s What Some Black LGBTQ People Are Doing to Survive in the Age of HIV.” Mic. May 10, 2016.

Paris is Burning. Directed by Jennie Livingston. Off White Productions, Inc., 1990. DVD.

“Religion.” Accessed December 4, 2017.

Rivera Colón, Edgar. “Between the Runway and the Empty Tomb: Bodily Transformations and Christian Praxis in New York City’s House Ball Community.” In Christianity and Culture in the City: A Postcolonial Approach, edited by Samuel Cruz, 49-67. New York: Lexington Books, 2013.


[1] Fernández Olmos, “Haitian Vodou,” 116: “Slaves were brought to Haiti—the original Arawak name to which the Saint Domingue slaves would revert after the success of their revolution—from numerous different ethnic groups, and were systematically intermixed in an effort to destroy, whenever possible, all recollection of language, culture, ties of kinship, and connection to the motherland, ‘Nan Guinée. However, the Haitian slaves’ need to reestablish a connection to their culture and their gods, to seek the spirits’ aid in their desperate plight, clashed against the violence and repression of the plantation and the imposition of French Catholic culture. The result of this clash was the system of beliefs and rituals we know as Vodou, a term that encompasses a variety of Haiti’s African-derived religious traditions and practices.”

[2] Cruz, Masked Africanisms, 90.

[3] This research came out of primarily two classes which I attended at Union Theological Seminary in the Fall of 2017: “African Religions in the Americas” with Professor Samuel Cruz and “Trans Sounds of Black Freedom and Black Spirituality” with Michael Roberson.

[4] The description of the course reads: “Zora Neal Hurston stated once, ‘black women are the mules of the earth.’ One assertion is that black trans-women are historically and theologically situated somewhere between Howard Thurman’s notion of ‘the disinherited’ and Franz Fanon’s notion of ‘the wretched of the earth.’ One response to this marginalization has been the formation of self-sustaining social networks and cultural groups, such as the House Ballroom scene, a Black/Latino LGBT artistic collective and intentional kinship system that has grown over the past 50 years with its roots stemming from the Harlem Renaissance. This course will explore the history of the House | Ballroom community as a Black Trans-Womanist theological discourse, a freedom movement, and its spiritual formation responses to race, class, sexuality, and gender oppression. It will further examine its history in mobilizing as a resistance to these oppressions and place it in conversation with other historical struggles.”

[5] Both Roberson and Dr. Rivera Colón focus primarily on the House Ballroom scene and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment work, but both authors have written on the topic of Christianity and religiosity in the House Ballroom scene.

[6] Dr. Rivera Colón, “Between the Runway,” 50.

[7] Ibid., 66.

[8] Ibid., 66.

[9] Father Dante in discussion with the author, December 1, 2017. *Due to technical difficulties I was unable to record Father Dante’s interview. Thus, all quotes in this paper are paraphrases from my interview with him.

[10] Dr. Rivera Colón, “Between the Runway,” 50.

[11] This structure of a single parent home reflects the reality of the poverty devastated communities from which the Ball community emerged from, Michael Roberson explained during our interview.

[12] Based on the speakers and presentations in our class, it can also be be argued that it depends which African religion one is speaking on. For example, African diasporic religions such as Vodou and Las 21 Divisiones do not require as intensive of an initiation as that of Ifa or Lukumi (also known as Santeria).

[13] During our interview Javier explained that one can be a member of a general house and a Kiki house. One cannot, however, be a member of multiple houses. As explained by Dr. Rivera Colón, “Kiki houses are informal groupings of Ball children that originated in the Kiki houses, they were founded more than a decade ago in Philadelphia by Ballroom-connected preventionists who wanted to create venues for younger members to practice and demonstrate their Ball skills without the competitive pressure of the regular Balls” (“Between the Runway,” 64).

[14] Dr. Rivera Colón, “Between the Runway,” 49.

[15] Paris is Burning, [7:00].

[16] Ibid., [6:15].

[17] Ibid., [6:40].

[18] Dr. Rivera Colón, “Between the Runway,” 57.

[19] Michael Roberson in discussion with the author, December 3, 2017.

[20] Moore, “Here’s What Some Black LGBTQ People.”

[21] Crary, “2017 Killings of Transgender People.”

[22] Dr. Rivera Colón, “Between the Runway,” 60.

[23] “Religion,”

[24] Father Dante in discussion with the author, December 1, 2017.

[25] Lorde, “The Master’s Tools.”

[26] Dr. Edgar Dr. Rivera Colón in discussion with the author, November 26, 2017.

[27] Ibid.

[28] The House Ballroom scene has many categories in which performers can compete in such as: Realness, Butch Queen Vogue Femme, Face, Bizarre, Model, High Fashion. The Realness category is measured by the ability of performers to be undetectable. To pass to the untrained, even the trained, eye. To look as much as possible to your straight counterpart. In Paris is Burning Corey Dorian says, “when they are undetectable. When they can walk out of that ballroom into the sunlight, and onto the subway, and get home, and still have all their clothes and no blood running off their bodies. Those are the femme realness queens.”

[29]  Paris is Burning, [19:20].

[30] Javier Stell-Fresquez in discussion with the author, November 26, 2017.

[31] The increasing involvement of Ball children in African religion is something which all four of my interviewees mentioned. The consequences of this active and simultaneous involvement of Ball children in Ball and African religions is an area that requires further research.

[32] Dr. Rivera Colón, “Between the Runway,” 59.

[33] Father Dante in discussion with the author, December 1, 2017.

[34] Dr. Rivera Colón, “Between the Runway,” 57–58.

[35] Hetrick-Martin Institute was one of the first nonprofit organization to serve the LGBT population directly. As described by their website this is a brief history of its beginnings: “In 1979, Dr. Emery Hetrick and Dr. Damien Martin learned of a homeless 15-year old boy who had been beaten and kicked out of his emergency shelter because he was gay. In response, they along with other concerned adults, created the Institute for the Protection of Lesbian and Gay Youth, which was renamed in 1988 in honor of Dr. Hetrick’s and Dr. Martin’s commitment to service of LGBTQ young people.”

[36] Dr. Rivera Colón in discussion with the author, November 26, 2017.

[37] Michael Roberson in discussion with the author, December 3, 2017.

[38] Fernández Olmos, “Haitian Vodou,” 118: “Vodou is intricately connected to the twelve-year war of independence that we know as the Haitian Revolution (1791–1803). The Revolution’s early leaders—Boukman and Makandal—were reputed to be powerful oungans whose knowledge of the powers and poisonous properties of herbs had helped mount a campaign of terror and death among French planters in Saint Domingue. It was with the blessing of the lwa that slaves gathered in the Bois-Caïman, in the north of Haiti, on the night of August 14, 1791. In a Vodou ceremony that included the sacrifice of a wild boar, they swore a sacred oath to overthrow their French slave masters.”

[39] Michael Roberson in discussion with the author, December 3, 2017.

[40] Father Dante in discussion with the author, December 1, 2017.

[41] Dr. Rivera Colón in discussion with the author, November 26, 2017.

[42] Dr. Rivera Colón, “Between the Runway,” 50.

[43] Michael Roberson in discussion with the author, December 3, 2017.

[44] Dr. Rivera Colón, “Between the Runway,” 58

[45] Dr. Rivera Colón, “Between the Runway,” 58: “In that sense, they recapitulate and are deeply informed by the bodily landscape of the Christian scripture where an incessantly bleeding woman is restored to purity and her role as the keeper of a ritually pure home through touching the body of Jesus (Luke 8:43-48), Lazarus is resuscitated from the dead (John 11:1-44), and Jesus transfigured (Mark 9:2-8; Matt. 17:1-13; Luke 9:28-36) and later risen from the dead through the witness of the empty tomb (Mark 16:1-8; Matt. 28:1-10; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1018).”

[46] Father Dante in discussion with the author, December 1, 2017.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays


David E. Patiño is a second-year Masters of Arts student at Union Theological Seminary focusing on Postcolonial Christian Ethics and Theology. Prior to attending Union Theological Seminary, David graduated in 2014 from Stanford University with a B.

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