From the outside, the LGBTIQ community may seem like one big happy family, but dig a little deeper and you begin to realise that it’s not all glitter and rainbows. The existence of racial cliques within this scene (and wider society) has led people of colour to create their own communities. In Kiki, LGBTIQ youth-of-colour are shedding light on Harlem’s Ballroom scene.
And the white drag queen takes the crown, again.
New York City has typically been a place where LGBTIQ people harbour a strong voice and ability to express themselves. Since its inception many decades ago, the Harlem Ballroom scene has existed as a vital form of expression for people of colour in the Big Apple.
The artistic movement began in the 1920s when racial segregation was still widespread across the USA; although an amendment to the United States Constitution 'allowed' black men to vote, black voters continued to suffer from discrimination which prevented them from exercising their constitutional rights. In the early days of the ball scene, white gay men were the executives of drag ball events, although many of the contestants were African American or Latino/Latina. However, these early drag balls exhibited power disparities. The vast majority of winners were white and non-white contestants felt unfairly limited in their ability to become involved in Ball culture.
These early drag balls exhibited power disparities. The vast majority of winners were white and non-white contestants felt unfairly limited in their ability to become involved in Ball culture.
Black queens became sick and tired of this restrictive racial polarity which favoured white participants. In the 1960s they decided to create their own scene, and so began underground Ball culture, an ever evolving custom that continues to this very day. The 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning propelled New York City’s ball culture into the spotlight, an award-winning film that gave intimate insight into ball culture in the mid to late 1980s, a time when “Houses” became a prominent feature of the scene.
What is Ball/House culture?
Balls are competitions where participants (often drag queens and LGBTIQ people of colour) compete in various categories or themes by artistically moving down a runway, often in elaborate costumes. Participants are then critiqued on their performance against a list of criteria such as the “realness” (authenticity) of their drag and dancing technique. Each performer will adopt a drag name and their own distinctive dance style and aesthetic. Academics have likened the performative nature of gender identity this iconic event to contemporary culture like reality televsion's RuPaul's Drag Race.
'Houses' exist as communities which provide support for young non-cisgender ball participants who come from troubled circumstances. They are run by “mothers” and “fathers” who are often described as the family that some people never had. Houses also “walk” against each other in balls as a form of friendly competition and for the chance of winning a trophy and prize money.
Resilience, acceptance, challenge.
Although I come from what is arguably a very different environment and upbringing from the Kiki youth, I do see similarities in myself, a young gay Aboriginal man. Kiki gives us a closer look into the struggles faced by youth who are of colour and are part of a gender spectrum, rather than a gender binary. They are members of two groups that continue to be oppressed, two groups that I belong to. Throughout this captivating documentary, it explores the resilience, acceptance and challenge of overcoming such oppression.
Gia Marie Love, a trans woman and one of Kiki’s prominent characters, challenges gender and sexuality norms.
“As queer people, we try to live in systems that are oppressing us. We try to live in heteronormative systems, and they don’t work, they oppress us. So why don’t we create systems that work and are successful and lift up our communities?”
In Kiki, we see a variety of gender expressions. The Kiki scene demonstrates that it is possible for people to live in systems where differences in gender, race and class are accepted and valued.
“A lot of families don’t support us when we decide we want to transition. And so, when we deal with those battles, we go out into the world saying “how are we going to make it… We need a way to survive”.
“When you’re one of a kind you get targeted”, but even in the face of adversity, these youth are determined to be themselves. They are brave. They are unique. They are resilient. They continue to fight for their rights and they never forget where they came from.
Kiki’s origins lie in social forums “kikis” where members of the Ballroom community unite to rehearse for balls and discuss relevant health issues such as HIV. Eventually, these forums blossomed into a distinct set of houses and balls, much like the main Ballroom scene, but existing as a separate system. Through a narrative focussed approach, Kiki producers Sara Jordenö and Twiggy Pucci Garçon cleverly explore important themes that permeate American history (as well as the present) and provide insight into a small utopia, a place where queer youth of colour can flourish.
Australia's LGBTIQ scene
There are similar movements taking place across the world, including in our own backyard. Sisters and Brothers NT is establishing a community of acceptance by providing a safe space for Indigenous LGBTIQ people to discuss and address issues of racism, sexism and homophobia. This year we also saw a Mardi Gras first with the participation of Tiwi Islands Sistagirls in the parade, further cementing Indigenous LGBTIQ representation amongst the colourful festivities and allowing for a non-colonial narrative expressing LGBTIQ rights.
Imagine a world where we didn't need these spaces to exist - what would that look like? I’m not sure. But one thing I can be certain of is that LGBTQ people-of-colour are here to stay and we are here to share our experiences.
You can watch Kiki, a dynamic coming of age story about resilience and finding a vibrant, safe space for LGBTIQ youth-of-colour, On Demand.