Fluid Sexuality and the Harlem Renaissance

According the George Chauncy’s book Gay New York: ”black gay men nonetheless turned Harlem into a homosexual mecca…they build an extensive gay world in their own community, which in many respects surpassed the Village’s in scope, visibility and boldness. The Village’s most flamboyant homosexuals wore long hair; Harlem’s wore long dresses. The Village had cafes where poets read their verse and drag queens performed; Harlem had speakeasies where men danced together and drag queens were regular customers. The Village’s Liberal Club ball was attended by scores of drag queens and hundreds of spectators; Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge ball drew hundreds of drag queens and thousands of spectators.” (244-245)

In popular history, gay culture was repressed until the Stonewall Riots when it exploded into the mainstream. However, Chauncey disputes this common belief by noting the enclaves where gay culture and gender challenges were common and even accepted. “The casual acceptance of drag queens at Cyril’s Café and the frequency of their appearance in Harlem’s streets suggest a high degree of tolerance for them in the neighborhood as a whole.” (249) Chauncey notes that several drag queens were arrested by police officers with many of them taking their case directly to court. Chauncey also notes that there were several blues songs that invoked sissy men with a particular emphasis on the overtly feminine behavior. Bessie Smith talked about lisping, swishing, womanish-acting men while one famous Blues song demanded a woman and if not a woman, a sissy-man. The working class of Harlem was living in close proximity to the point where the people who followed non-traditional gender roles were visible.

The main difference between the Harlem Lodge balls of the 1920s and the 1930s is how much family is defined in these rituals. According to one observer, the ball drew together “effeminate men, sissies, wolves, ferries (sic), faggots, the third sex, ladies of the night and male prostitutes…for a grand jamboree of dancing, love making, display, rivalry, drinking and advertisement.” (Chauncey 257) Most of the men who attended these balls were working class. According to Chauncey: “The seventeen men arrested for homosexual solicitation at the 1938 ball included two laborers, two unemployed men, a dishwasher, a domestic servant, an elevator operator, a counterman, a handyman, an attendant, a clerk and a nurse along with a musician, an artist and an entertainer.” (257)

These were popular balls attended mostly by homosexuals but also by straight people who were coming to see something different. Women would loan their dresses to drag queens and straight Harlem residents would attend in greater numbers throughout the history. The balls were quickly becoming an acceptable part of the Harlem scene with even conservative newspapers admiring them for their pomp and their spectacle. There was a mixed race and a carnival atmosphere to these balls.

By contrast, the modern ball circuit is a less inclusive and more aggressive practice. According to Frank Leon Roberts: “Due to the growing popularity of 1960s black nationalist rhetoric (with its rigid restrictions on how “real” black men should express themselves), the balls became a more dangerous pastime pleasure. The balls began to be held as early as 3, 4 or 5 a.m. – a tradition that continues to this day — in order to make it safer for participants to travel the streets of Harlem safely with high heels and feathers when “trade” had gone to sleep.” (3) Where there was once an all-inclusive drag show that invited all comers, the current ball circuit is insular and peopled by “professional” drag queens including prostitutes.

One of the major contrasts between the Harlem Balls of the 1920s and the house ball circuit today is the convention of the House. In Roberts’ article: “Houses became alternative kinship networks that selected a “mother” and “father” as their leaders (“parents” could be of any gender) and “children” as their general membership body. The “houses” were a literal re-creation of “homes,” in the sense that these groups became real-life families for individuals that might have been exiled from their birth homes.” (4-5) Even though several of these house members have supportive families the idea of homosexuality as forming its own alternative family has become a mainstay of the house ball circuit. In the 1920s, the ball was about self-expression while the new balls are about placing oneself out there in a competitive and athletic display of virility that puts one’s house up front.

The aggressiveness of the balls and the forming of house units has created different gender roles for gay men. Since the aforementioned black nationalist movement emphasized “real men” there is an increasing number of openly homosexual men who identify as butch with stereotypical masculine behavior. The drag events have become underground even though “Many “voguers” in the community started looking for gigs as choreographers for hip-hop artists, as was the case with legends such as Andre Mizrahi of Atlanta and Pony Blahnik of New York City. “Voguing” transformed from the Willi Ninja-esque, “pose” heavy style (mis)appropriated by Madonna, to more a fluid, acrobatic dance which now looked like a sort of new black gay break dance.” (Roberts 7) The masculine has become as celebrated as the masculine feminine and the current term for “being in the closet” is “on the down low” which has a hip hop sensibility and respectability. Meanings are resignified in ball culture with terms like bitch and fierce being part of a performative gender model.

Although both the Harlem Balls of the 1920s and the house balls of today are celebrations of gay culture as well as safe places for gender challenging in the form of drag, the greatest irony is that the Harlem Ball of the 1920s had more respect as colorful aspects of urban life, whereas today the house balls are underground movements in which people are encouraged to be either closeted or in the case of some drag queens able to pass for women on the street.

Works Cited

Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books, 1995.