Though this community was immortalized in the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, the drag community seen in McCraney’s production are not a work of fiction. It is a thriving populace present in Chicago today that has a history as far back as the infamous story with a midnight deadline.
In the earliest iterations of the ball, “female impersonators” were extremely popular forms of entertainment at what was perceived by the general public to be masquerade balls. Often held in impoverished neighborhoods, these gatherings had be to held on Halloween and New Years’ Eve as they were the only times when it was socially acceptable for a person to dress up as the opposite gender.
One of the first balls of this kind was the First Ward Balls which started in the 1800s by the Alderman team, “Bathhouse” John Coughlin and Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna. They were held at the Chicago Coliseum and were meant as a way to extract money from brothel owners in Chicago. Each one began with a Grand March all through town featuring the “unsavory” characters, pickpockets, pimps, prostitutes, and drag queens, and ended with a riot. These events were eventually stopped by the mayor in 1909.
These balls were so popular that in the 1930s, African-American business owners around Chicago began to hold an increasing amount of these events, gaining them even more of a following. These were described for the general public as costume parties in an effort to avoid suspicion and arrest. However, they were still commonly known as the “Faggot Balls”, as they were known to be frequented by gays and lesbians.
The most famous of these was run by Alfred Finnie, a gay Black man who began holding his own balls in the basement of a Chicago nightclub in 1935. These balls cost 25 cents to attend and became one of the most popular Halloween events of the South Side with an attendance of up to 1,000 people. Even after Finnie’s death in 1943, these balls continued to be held annually until the 60’s. During the ‘30s and ‘40s, the stars of these balls would be featured on magazine covers like Jet or Ebony. It seemed that the community was proud of these stars. That is, until the civil rights movement divided them. Many in the Black community felt that they could not also fight for gay rights because it would slow their progression down. People had to choose an allegiance between their race or their sexual orientation. This eventually led to the ball scene taking a sort of hiatus until its reemergence around the same time as Paris is Burning.
Tommy Sampson, ball participant and house member, attributes the modern ball scene emergence to 1986, with the beginning of the House of Avant Garde. This was the first house in the Midwest. Sampson says, “Back then, our ball scene was very limited because the Midwest was just gaining knowledge in it, and we were the only house that was here”. The House of Avant Garde didn’t throw a ball until 1991, after they met Willy Ninja who showed them a couple of tricks on how to start a wider scene.
It is reported that one of the differences that distinguished the New York scene from the Chicago scene, was that old school New York balls were an “upper class affair” while those who participated in Chicago’s balls were from the working class. New York balls also had the ability to have more lavish setting for their balls while Chicago had to use what was onhand to create the perfect atmosphere for their ball.
Unfortunately, the Chicago Ball community is still recovering from a hiccup a couple of years ago where a ball was held at a YMCA. Since balls generally go all night, the participants of this ball were just ending their night when a variety of children’s classes were beginning. Parents who were dropping of their children protested loudly that their children had seen these drag queens. This caused the scene to go even further underground for a couple of years with it gaining popularity recently. Today, the cash prized exceed $1,000 for the grand prize of best performance
For many in the Chicago area, this community has become a refuge where they are free to express themselves in any manner they choose, even after the clock has struck midnight.