A ball is an underground competition where participants walk in categories to win. Walking is similar to a runway, where a contestant will show off their outfit, sometimes vogue, and always acting the part of the category. Competitors get prizes and trophies for winning, and there is the overall goal of becoming legendary.
Each category is, at it’s most basic, judged for what will “pass”. Most obviously, that fits in the context of someone who is transgender passing for their identifying gender in everyday circumstances. However, that is not the only case for the balls.
There are a variety of categories such as Butch Queen, Sex Siren, Face, Old Wave, Business Executive Realness, Jordan, a voguer in the ball scene, says about his categories, “With Face, I’m selling a straight nose, no missing teeth, good skin. With Sex Siren, I’m selling sex appeal, like what advertisers do with a magazine cover. Old Wave is old style vogueing.”
These categories span the range of feminine to masculine in order to provide an avenue for everyone to express different personalities and different facets of who they could become. Some report that categories that an individual will compete in is reflective of their place within the community. “For ‘thug realness’ the boys are transformed into drug dealers riding the Blue Line at late hours of the night. Oiled up muscled bodies are trotted out for a body contest and executive realness brings guys in suits and alligator brief cases. The femme-queens in between are showstoppers in floor length gowns.”
The ballroom scene is considered underground because even though there may be a ball every weekend in Chicago, the only way that you will hear about it is word of mouth. This is for a variety of reasons which is practical for this community. Not everyone within the community who is competing or partaking the ball will is out to their friends and family, and therefore it may be harmful for them to be outed by the publicity that these events might bring. As one ball participant states, “You won’t find it on Facebook, because about 40 percent of kids at balls are not out.”
There is also the fact that most balls are put on by a house within the city or area. They then invite other houses or participants to partake in their ball, allowing for a sort of selection process to take place. As well as that most public events are much more expensive, whereas by controlling the people going, a house is also to control the cost to some extent.
This does not mean that if you are not a part of a house, then you will never be able to participate in a ball. There are three different types of balls: kikis, minis, and majors. “Kiki balls are informal events with no cash prizes and no judges -- usually just a gathering of friends. Mini balls are larger, with 100 to 150 participants and $200 to $500 cash purses. Major balls may attract as many as 500 competitors vying for up to $1,000. They’re judged by panels that generally consist of Legends.”
The goal is to one day become one of these Legends, but you have to work up from it. The chain of status is from Star to Statement to Legend to Icon. A Legend is is someone who is not just known in your city, but around the country. Legends are the people who have houses named after them. An Icon is even beyond that, someone who has fame just beyond the community and your country.
Competing in balls is not easy though, not only do you have to work through the ranks to get in a house and get acclaim. It also costs money: between $10 an $30 go to an entrance fee, and then countless dollars to outfits, makeup, travel and house dues. Mario Knowles, Chicago drag queen says, “You could spend up to $500 on a ball look. An you can never wear the same outfit twice because you’d get chopped.”
These costs, combined with kids not having this money onhand, leads to some unconventional means of fronting the bills that these balls cost. “There are plenty of people who steal stuff. They’ll prostitute themselves, sell drugs, create fake checks and credit cards” says Arnold Infiniti.
Why do it then? Arnold states, “Walking a ball is about exception, acceptance, and fantasy. You can walk like a woman even though you’re a man. And you’re accepted as such. In ballroom, you’re accepted as who you are -- or who you want to be.”
Mario Knowles says, “I use the ballroom scene as a place to express myself in ways that I can’t in real life. As a homosexual male it’s hard to walk down the street on the west or south side. You get treated differently. The ballroom scene is the only place I can freak out.”