This essay accompanies Benji Hart’s conversation with Pony Zion, “Now We Know We Can Reclaim the World We Want.” It was originally published on Benji Hart’s Radical Faggot blog on May 31, 2015.
I began voguing as a sixteen year old high school student.
Still struggling with what it meant to be gay and Black, learning of the ballroom scene both relieved me and ignited within me whole new passions. It had never occurred to me that I could be openly queer without sacrificing my Blackness. It had never occurred to me that whole communities, whole traditions, whole histories existed that were Black, queer, Brown, femme, trans, poor, working all at once. My original interest in vogue, therefore, grew from the deep desire to be all parts of myself authentically and simultaneously.
Learning to vogue was learning that the embodied knowledge of my multiple oppressed identities had always informed one another. Once I understood this within my own body, I learned to see it in my family, my community and the larger social structures that governed my life.
At least once a week, someone sends me an article or video of voguing appearing on a European runway, in an upscale art gallery, or a new music video by a pop artist, and asks me what I think. The inquiry always revolves around the ethical use of vogue: Were the dancers named and given credit? Did the artist properly compensate the voguers she worked with? Who is in the audience consuming the dance form? Ultimately, the question is, can voguing be appropriately appropriated?
My answer is always the same: No, it can’t. Appropriation is always a form of coercion, and that coercion is born out of white supremacy. Here is what I mean:
There is a deep history of white supremacy in the ballroom scene. Much of it was controversially documented in the cult classic Paris Is Burning. The film’s thesis is ultimately that trans/queer people of color are doomed to their own depraved outsiderness, and while their yearning for acceptance by the mainstream is futile, it is, at least, flashy. While the movie itself is a white supremacist document (and its conclusions about the ballroom scene tainted by its white cis director), its very existence uncovers something real: There is a real issue of our community finding its value in its consumption by other, more privileged communities.
Vogue is blowing up in new ways in European dance studios, in suburban recreational centers, in movies and music videos. As has long been the case, voguers often don’t see themselves as successful, don’t feel they can be taken seriously as dancers until they are able to teach, perform or be featured on one of these platforms. The internalized message is clear: Voguing at a ball is the starting point, but voguing for the elite is the mark of success.
This mentality results in the disinvestment in poor and working queer communities for the sake of teaching vogue in spaces that never created or shaped it, but that are fascinated by it, and have the resources to consume it. Instead of expert voguers taking pride in passing on their knowledge to the young oppressed people most in need of it, new generations of our community are abandoned for the notoriety of white, wealthy, straight, cis patronage. Opportunities for mentorship, empowerment and intergenerational solidarity are lost, and the alternative only serves to further make the plight of our communities invisible—obscuring homelessness, poverty, state violence and police brutality behind the glossy sheen of commercial spectacle.
And yes, even when artists of color appropriate our art form, white supremacy is still at play. Beyonce, Kelly Rowland, Jennifer Lopez, Estelle, Janelle Monae, Lil Mama, and FKA Twigs have as much to do with our exploitation as Madonna, Lady Gaga and Jennie Livingston. For philosophy aside, our cultural cameos in these (corporate) artists’ work have done nothing—do nothing—to illuminate our histories of struggle, nor to combat the structures that generate our need for resistance in the first place. Cis people, straight people, wealthy people, even those who share some of our other oppressed identities, still desecrate our art and our community when they objectify our aesthetic, without taking on accountability for the ways they benefit from the violence we face at the hands of the systems that are cutting their checks.
Because there is such a long and well-documented history of the appropriation of vogue, it is one I do my best to take a hard line in discontinuing. I will not teach voguing to professional dancers, to companies who want to use it to make choreography. I will not teach it in white spaces, in wealthy spaces, in spaces that are not queer-controlled and affirming. My conviction for taking this stance is this:
Voguing belongs to queer people of color—specifically trans, poor, working, sex-working, homeless and young queer people of color. We created it, we need to be the ones dancing it, and we need to be the ones protecting it. In a society that is constantly limiting our access to housing, education, land and resources of all types, it is laughable that the privileged find such discomfort in our limiting their access to our bodies, traditions and genius. Anyone who objects to being told they can’t vogue needs to first ask themselves how they are impacted by the systems that result in the daily deaths of queer people of color, and what they are doing to combat our institutional disenfranchisement.
I currently work at a drop-in center for homeless trans and queer youth. Voguing is part of our everyday routine. Every day I watch young queer people use it to resolve disputes, lift their spirits when they’re feeling defeated, affirm their bodies, build their confidence and shape themselves as artists, teachers and leaders in their community. There is nothing more powerful to witness, and no better use of the form I can think of.
I am blessed to be able to co-teach voguing workshops at this same drop-in center. The guidelines that ground the philosophy and values of our workshops, and which we try our hardest to incorporate into every new session, are these:
We have knowledge – Our lived experiences as Black, Brown, poor, working, homeless, immigrant, sex-working, trans and queer people have taught us skills, given us knowledge that no one else can claim, no matter how much they study or read about us.
We have the right to share our knowledge with each other – Our wisdom is real and valid, and we are the deserving recipients of each other’s learned knowledge. The truths we posses don’t become valuable when those from outside our community take an interest in them. They are valuable because they come from us!
Our needs change – The conditions we need to share our knowledge—like the conditions we need to live full lives—change as we change. Our learning space, our communities and our movements need the flexibility to change as we do. We are the ones who will determine when, where and how those changes occur.
We are experts – We are the voices that need to be heard, and we are the ones most in need of hearing them. No one understands queerness, transness, homelessness more deeply than we do. No one is better prepared to teach us how to survive than we are. No one can come up with a more vivid vision for the future of our community than we can.
Our history is now – We are agents of change! We are the shapers of our community’s future! This realization teaches us to build our communities on trust, generosity and affirmation, and to act with the knowledge that future generations of our people depend on us!
The point of all this is that voguing is a tool we created, not merely for expression, but for organizing, empowering, surviving the daily violence of a white supremacist society. This tool will never mean the same thing, can never serve the same purpose for those who do not share our same need for survival.
The benign belief that crossing boundaries always promotes diversity, that sharing space and culture results in sharing privileges and resources, needs to be finally debunked. For this same soft rhetoric is destroying Black and Brown communities, forcing people out onto the street and filling up prisons. The truth is that when the powerful cross boarders, the flow tends to be unilateral. When the wealthy lay hands on our culture, the outcome is our displacement, not our inclusion. The endpoint is the depoliticizing of our most sacred sources of resistance, which only benefits those who seek to quell our demands for change.
The best way to support our community, to show us love, is to give us room to affirm ourselves and each other, and to share our wisdom with those who really need it. It is to fight alongside us the systems that deny us our basic rights and resources—heterosexism, transphobia, prisons, policing, gentrification—not robbing us further in the name of visibility and tolerance.
Special thanks to NIC Kay.