Published June 30th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
About six years ago, Kansas City didn’t have a ballroom scene.
Ballroom — widely known as a safe space for queer folk of color — has risen in popularity recently because of shows like “Pose” and “Legendary,” which have placed what was once underground in the spotlight.
But in Kansas City, the culture is still somewhat underground. Detroit native William Bruton – who goes by Xavier – moved to the area in 2012. He works at the Kansas City Care Health Center and is considered the local grandfather of ballroom, even though his efforts to cultivate the local scene have been slow-moving.
“Mobilization is difficult because there are no Black gay clubs. There … is no safe space,” Xavier said. “They have no agency focused towards their care.”
By “care,” Xavier means more than social support, though there’s a need for that, too. When he was 16, he witnessed voguing for the first time and he was floored. He also was in the marching band and was mesmerized by the percussive beats.
“I’m listening to the beat and this dah-dah-dah dah-dah-dah. And I’m watching them vogue,” he recalled. “I had never seen unapologetic Black beauty before. I had never seen unapologetic Black femininity before from men.”
That was Xavier’s a-ha moment. In a nutshell, the culture means many things to him.
“Ballroom, to me, is first and foremost, community belonging. It becomes family through that. It is talent, freedom. Had it not been for ballroom, I wouldn’t be where I am and who I am today.”
It is not just a safe place to perform and be seen, but also a hub for education, health care and community.
That’s how it all began in the early 20th century, anyhow.
As early as the 1800s and through the 1950s, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) communities congregated at saloons, speakeasies and, among other venues, drag balls. These were the only places where trans women and drag queens could be unabashedly themselves, away from public harassment and police arrests.
Ballroom was, according to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture blog, “where LGBTQ identities were not only visible, but openly celebrated.”
Then, during the Harlem Renaissance, the Black LGBTQ culture took center stage.
“The Harlem drag ball scene emerges — in many ways — in an intersection to contesting both … homophobia from the Black church and white supremacy,” said Michael Robeson, an adjunct professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
This continued from the 1940s and into the 1980s, when ballroom began to flourish in cities like New York and Washington D.C. Kansas City had a thriving drag ball scene in the 1950s and ’60s, as evidenced in this Private Birthday Party Collection.
The 1960s were a particularly important time for Black LGBTQ communities because this is when drag balls would transform to what’s known today as ballroom.
One example of trailblazers, Robeson pointed out, is the legendary Crystal LaBeija, who was a Black trans woman. During a pageant, she walked off the stage in 1967 in New York in protest.
It’s that moment when the drag ball scene began to transform into house ball because after walking out LaBeija created a house to make room for people like her.
In the culture, houses — comprising a house mother and her children — support one another and work together to organize and perform. These houses were places where LGBTQ folks, many of whom had been shunned by their own biological families for being queer, created new families.
By the 1980s, balls were popping up in the Midwest. Finding belonging was even more salient for Black queer folk, which crystallized in the 1980s during the AIDs crisis.
That’s what Robeson wants people to understand.
“Almost every thing that’s part of the Black gay infrastructure, for the most part, was created through the AIDs crisis,” he said. “We wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t have agency.”
Robeson, who’s originally from Camden, New Jersey, knows what it means to find belonging. His hometown in south Jersey was predominantly white, so when he would go to gay clubs in the 1990s, nobody there looked like him.
Then one night, he went to Virginia Beach.
“I went to my first Black gay club and I was in heaven,” he said. “I could not believe that there were this many Black gay men in the world.”
That made a lasting impression on him, establishing a space for people who were like him. As a professional, he’s worked to cultivate safe and educational spaces. For years he worked in the public health sector for the Kansas City Board of Education but was drawn to graduate school and to do work in HIV prevention in New York.
But Robeson also sought to confront something else: theology, race and identity. So he, a Black gay man, decided to go to seminary at Union Theological Seminary.
He wanted to understand why being gay was deemed an abomination in some religions. After studying for a few years, he became a resident scholar at the Center for Race, Religion and Economic Democracy and for the past nine years has been working as an educator, community organizer and theologian.
His conclusion? Ballroom “is the black church,” he explained.
Robeson isn’t a Christian. But he sees the church’s function in the theological sense.
“I am a believer that ballroom really has something to teach the world … about what it means to be human in the struggle for freedom in the face of real death, real catastrophe.”
And for Robeson, the way in which enslaved people found blips of time to release and find peace in the Black church influenced the LGBTQ community’s quest to carve out a space to celebrate their identities.
“(The enslaved) created these underground praise houses. And (ballroom’s) the same thing,” he added. “It’s a social network, it’s a kinship structure. It’s so many things.”
He also sought to drive this point home: If it weren’t for slavery or the Harlem Renaissance, ball culture wouldn’t exist. Surviving and pushing through oppression to find the space to feel free, if even for a moment, paved the path for what’s now allowed to be on TV.
Robeson would know. He was a culture consultant for the award-winning show “Pose,” which cast a spotlight on ballroom during its rise to popularity in the 1980s. It has been lauded by critics as a show that gives visibility to trans people of color.
Robeson and Xavier agree but say there is still lots to learn. One is that public health access is still an impediment, which is why both have been working as liaisons in their respective communities — the unifying thread of which is ballroom.
Looking ahead, there’s a clear need for Kansas City’s ballroom scene, Xavier said.
“We’re focused on – in this post-COVID era – gaining more partnerships to have more community health work at ballroom functions,” Xavier added.
“Also to provide more education. I didn’t just want to have balls. I wanted them to learn the culture.”
Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS.