These Underground Events Helped Unite The LGBT Community

Aug 31, 2017

Unidentified males in gowns model before a cheering crowd at a gay ball fashion show competition at a club called Sally’s, Dec. 3, 1991, New York.
Credit AP Images/Andrew Savulich

A house ball or Harlem ball is where drag queens, transgender, and gender nonconforming people dress up and dance or walk the floor. It's named after the Harlem neighborhood in New York.

On Saturday, Western Michigan University’s LBGT Student Services will host its own ball during its Fall Fab Fest from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Trimpe Hall.. Director Natalie Nguyen says in the 60s, 70s, and 80s these Harlem balls helped to unite the LGBT community. They created a safe space for transgender and gender nonconforming people of color:

“This is during the time of civil unrest. You had Civil Rights going on, you have anti-war protests and so on and so forth. That was when the LGBT community was really starting to take off - it was mostly lesbian and gay. And what they noticed is...these communities noticed is that in the LGBT clubs, the gay clubs they were often discriminated against in as far as being drag pageants or performances or anything like that. They were not chosen as winners so they started their own house ball community so that way they could have their own competitions.”

Nguyen (When) says some house ball attendees actually lived in the house venues because they were ostracized from their families or local landlords wouldn't rent out to them. Few would hire people who were trans also, so some were forced into prostitution to survive. Though money was tight, people in Harlem balls would cobble together elaborate costumes. 

Harlem balls actually date back to the late 1860s and started becoming popular in the 1920s. Nguyen says for a long time, they were targets for police.

“They were shutting down the balls as well as the gay bars. And a lot of these gay bars back in the day also may not have had all of the required certifications and licenses in order to operate as a gay bar as well," he says. "So I think it was probably easier for police to shut down the gay bars than it was for a house ball."

Nguyen says the LGBT community had ways of avoiding the police.

“Whether it be a light switch that would turn on a specific light and everybody would like switch up partners in the gay clubs to being very underground and advertising very discreetly that there was a house ball event coming up,” he says.

Nguyen says the United States still has a long way to go toward accepting transgender and gender nonconforming people. He says many of us know someone who’s gay, lesbian, or bisexual - but people are less aware of what it means to be trans. 

“As human beings, we like things very binary. You’re either this or you’re that and when we’re somewhere in between that’s when some folks feel uncomfortable. So that’s when you see things as House Bill 2 in North Carolina or Texas trying to approve some sort of bill or law against trans folks,” says Nguyen. 

Nguyen says that’s why we still need safe spaces like Harlem balls today.

Western’s LBGT Student Services will host a ball on Saturday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Trimpe Hall. The event will include a historical look at Harlem balls, drag performers, workshops, LGBT resource info, and an open mic.