Kristyn Scorsone, Naomi Extra, and Keishla Rivera
* Fireball is a fast and furious DIY event. The structure of the ball is such that anyone can turn up announced and walk any category. The order rarely follows the program. As a result it is not possible to identify the participants featured in the photos below. We hope these images will speak for themselves. All walking photos are taken from the Fireball of October 2015.
Newark, New Jersey’s LGBTQ+ community does not receive the same focus as those in major cities such as NYC or San Francisco. Yet, our city has a dynamic queer scene with fascinating historic roots. In late October 2015, Rutgers-Newark hosted two panels on HIV/AIDS activism and the ballroom scene in Newark to highlight the significance of these movements and their shared connections both past and present. It was organized by James Credle, a retired dean of Rutgers-Newark, co-founder and board member of Newark Pride Alliance, and member of the Newark Commission on LGBTQ Concerns; Maren Greathouse, the Rutgers-Newark Director of the Office of Student Life LGBTQ Resource Program; and by the Queer Newark Oral History Project. The first panel featured young adults who are currently involved in the ballroom scene, while the second panel presented the older generation’s firsthand experience of the AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s. This event was followed by the annual Fireball competition at the end of the week. Fireball is a ballroom competition that Credle started in 1992 as a local effort to celebrate queer gender and sexuality and to raise money for HIV/AIDS education. Competitions like Fireball are part of a larger history of marginalized communities.
The ballroom scene first garnered national attention with Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary, Paris is Burning. That same year, Madonna released her video for “Vogue” and put its namesake dance style, originated by ballroom participants, on the mainstream’s radar. Yet, ballroom culture remains understudied by queer historians and their scholarship, with the notable exception of Marlon Bailey’s Butch Queens Up in Pumps: Gender, Performance, and Ballroom Culture in Detroit. For cities like Detroit and Newark, whose working-class, black-majority cultures are not always accounted for in queer histories that privilege white activist-led organizations, the ballroom scene plays a central role in LGBTQ community formation. In her article “Mimesis in the Face of Fear,” the late anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown writes, “the Balls are hyperbolic events, but it is important to realize that their context is always the quotidian experience of being gay in Newark.” She emphasized how ballroom houses are a vital support network for the LGBTQ community, especially LGBTQ youth and those who are homeless or in need of support after coming out to family and friends. The ballroom scene is not only central to daily survival, the competitions are also an important creative outlet where queer people of color can freely express themselves.
The Youth Panel
On an unusually warm afternoon in October, the youth portion of the “Historical Legacies: A Panel Discussion on the Ballroom Scene and Legendary Houses” took place in Ackerson Hall at Rutgers-Newark. Newark has a rich and vibrant queer history that includes the ballroom scene, HIV/AIDS activism, and club culture. This panel was particularly exciting to me because it brought the voices of young queer folks living in Newark today who are carrying on this history. There was a buzz in the air and a pulsating energy leading up to the panel, much like that which happens before a big event or outing. Many of the panelists would also be participating in the much-anticipated Fireball that weekend at the Robert Treat Hotel.
The panel was composed of four members of the ballroom community, who introduced themselves as: Scooda, Tornado, Mindy 007, and Tyra Ebony. Scooda, who generously provided context for the discussion, opened with an explanation of what the ballroom scene is: “a sub-community from the LGBTQ community. It’s a nightlife event that’s basically a competition between different genders, different categories. It’s almost like a mini mimic of Hollywood, almost like a mock of Hollywood, that’s how it was introduced to me.”
In ballroom competitions, a panel of judges bases its evaluations on a variety of criteria. There are several categories but some of the basics are “Butch Queen,” “Femme Queen,” and “Realness.” A “Butch Queen” is a self-identified gay male and a “Femme Queen” is a gay male at any stage of male to female gender transitioning. “Realism” or “Realness” is a category in which contestants are evaluated based on how authentically they are able to portray a specific identity or role.
Ballroom events generally have a uniting theme and categories of competition. The Fireball, for example, was constructed around the theme of global warming and natural disaster and included categories like “‘Disaster Preparedness’ Transman” and “‘This Just In’ Femme Queen.” Many of the participants are members of, or are seeking membership into a specific house. ‘Houses’ can be geographic spaces with a gay mother and/or father but their main purpose is to foster a supportive community and to garner boasting rights that come from winning competitions.
Scooda’s category, “Schoolboy Realism,” is based on “a young college boy going to school.” When we met him at an organizational meeting prior to the panels, Scooda told us that he is studying architecture at Pratt. He pointed to Naomi’s pink and purple agenda laid across the table and said something to the effect of “What you know about him?,” referring to Jonathan Adler, one of Scooda’s favorite designers. There are many different reasons why one might choose to compete in a specific category. Sometimes there is an overlap between the real life identity of the ballroom participant and the competition category, sometimes there is not.
Tornado, with his wide and inviting smile, described the ballroom scene as a “mostly friendly competition.” “We’re amongst friends,” he said. “We’re just battling amongst other houses.” Tornado walks the category “Butch Queen Vogue Femme,” which he described as “basically a flamboyant male who vogues.”
Keishla Rivera, moderating the event, asked the panel how they prepare for balls. Their responses varied greatly. Tornado, who has vogued internationally, sees ballroom as rooted in a spirit of fun. “I’m not doing this for the wins,” he told us. Mindy and Tyra Ebony shared different perspectives that seemed connected to winning the cash prize as well as the esteem that comes with winning a category at a ball. Mindy told us about his self-talk before competing: “This is your grand prize, this is your money. This is all you’re going there for, this is your win.” Tyra Ebony had a similar line of thinking: “I gotta have, you know, my little music on, let myself know I’m going out to win this cash. Because it is a competition at the end of the day and I want to win and there’s no shame.”
Mindy, who walks “Realness With a Twist,” (a twist can be any unexpected gesture or movement that stands in contrast to the role being portrayed with “realness”) also told us he can find the ballroom scene harsh. Mindy spoke about his involvement in the kiki scene which he described as a space for those, “not as popular on the [ballroom] scene” and for, “those that get discouraged from the main ballroom scene.” The kiki scene has been described as a youth-driven, pro-social space. Like the ballroom scene, it promotes safer sex practices and education.
Scooda encouraged the audience to ask questions throughout, and we did. One of the topics we were eager to hear the panelists speak on was the intersection between ballroom culture and online spaces. Mindy mentioned Vogue Evolution and credited them with “bridging a gap” and “opening up windows and doors” for ballroom dancing to travel overseas. “They have a ballroom scene in Paris…Japan. It’s worldwide now. It’s like you go on YouTube now and you can see like little kids. I saw these little girls battling and bending themselves better than I can.” Scooda concurred by noting increased access to voguing through platforms like Facebook and a YouTube channel called “Ballroom Throwbacks.” But the increased visibility of ballroom is bittersweet. Tornado noted the complex politics that sometimes foster exclusion. Scooda commented on the appropriation of ballroom: “You can easily go on YouTube and imitate, mimic the moves but you don’t understand the background as to why you’re doing it.” For Scooda, mainstream accessibility has caused ballroom to lose some of its aura and integrity, detaching it from its original community impetus. He also noted that, a quarter-century after Madonna’s “Vogue,” the commercial co-optation of ballroom moves continues today:
“We watch and witness, like, a lot of artists, they videos and things like that, they would imitate a lot of things that we’ve done. And it’s kind of discrediting us because it’s like some of the things that we do are—is just naturally is unique because it’s ours. Like, a lot of people can’t imitate the things that we do. Like, you’re known for something that you do. And that’s how you create your image in the scene. So when you look on, you watch videos like Beyonce videos or something and you see a certain head movement or or a certain dance like an eight count, you lookin’ like okay, I know this is something, I’m—I do. Yeah, it’s like we don’t really get too much credit for things like that. And that the thing that we kinda—we don’t really appreciate.”
One point worth noting: the panelists never described what they do as performance. Scooda referred to it as an effect. This term forces us to pay attention to the ways in which they are producing meaning through their role in the ballroom scene and also on the panel. About halfway into the session, Scooda provided us with a glossary of terms: Butch Queen, Femme Queen, shady, bangy. Bangy is a term that can be used to describe anyone whose appearance captures what one might consider a stereotypical black urban aesthetic. Depending on context and vocal inflection, the term shady can be used to describe someone who is rude, standoffish, or antagonistic. They explained these terms to us with tremendous grace and humor. But beyond the definition of terms, the panelists gave us a sense of the richness of difference among them and within the ballroom scene in Newark.
As an audience, we had gained valuable insight into the basic mechanics of a ball as well as the ways in which social media and YouTube have shaped the scene today. As a final exit, we had the pleasure of seeing what the panelists look like in action when they hit the ballroom stage. It was a fitting teaser for the grand finale to come: The Fireball.
The Pioneers Panel
The evening panel stressed how important it is for us to think of AIDS not just through medical history, but cultural history as well. It featured the aforementioned Credle as well as Peter Savastano, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Seton Hall, Gwen Davis, health educator from the Newark Health Department, Bernard McAllister, who was a house mother in the 80s and 90s, and Patrick Kelly, also a health educator. Each person described the anguish they felt as the AIDS crisis became increasingly dire in Newark in the 1980s and 90s. Savastano constantly feared for his life. He described how every minor ailment would elicit intense feelings of anxiety over whether he might be infected. Meanwhile, McAllister did his best to support his house family. He lost between seventy and eighty friends and recalled a week where he attended nine funerals. When political leadership was brought up, McAllister said without hesitation, “Reagan represents genocide to me. Koch represents genocide to me.” As each person spoke, the pain, anger, fear, sadness emanated from them with force.
Although faced with a grim situation, each of the panelists worked tirelessly to help people in Newark. Davis became an HIV/AIDS counselor and taught safe sex workshops in her free time. Kelly’s main focus was to go out and get infected people who were refused transport by ambulances. He emphasized how, “Ambulances would pick people up and find out they had HIV and they would literally drop them on the ground and leave them. Actually leave them there.” Likewise, not all hospitals would treat patients with HIV/AIDS, which left Kelly with limited options as to where he could bring these patients once he picked them up. In Newark, he had two choices, Saint Michael’s or University Hospital, run by The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). Working within UMDNJ, Savastano and his coworkers formed the AIDS Friendship Group to visit with hospitalized AIDS patients. He also helped Credle run an underground group, the Newark Revolutionary Pharmacy, which communally shared medication with those who could not afford the high cost of drug treatment. In 1992, Credle received a grant to do a project called, “Hot, Horny, Healthy, Wet, Wild, Well,” a sex education program for men and women. Under a new name—Project Fire—his organization wrote a handbook and hosted numerous workshops on safe sex.
In that same year, Credle held the first Fireball event as a ballroom competition with a safe sex message. To illustrate the kind of much-needed work that had begun in the early 90s, he even brought his collection of vintage sex toys, which were used for such safer-sex pedagogical games like condom-rolling contests.
All the panelists emphasized that the AIDS crisis is not over, despite progress in treatment, a conclusion that becomes painfully obvious with statistical support. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1.2 million people are currently living with AIDS in the U.S., and more than 36.9 million people are infected worldwide. Newark in particular, with its continued disproportionate rate of HIV transmission, remains a city that highlights how poverty itself has been an—if not the—underlying factor in the ongoing crisis. If we ignore the present state of the AIDS epidemic, we risk not only limiting future progress, but also erasing the tremendous work of the prior generation.
Fireball 2015: Global Warming
A few days later on Saturday, October 25, 2015, the ballroom community in New Jersey gathered at the Robert Treat Hotel in downtown Newark in order to celebrate their talent, their children, their culture, and their pride. In addition, the ticket sales created scholarships for students in the ballroom scene.
This year’s ball was titled “Fireball 2015: Global Warming” after the theme of using nature’s elements for inspiration. Therefore, participants had to create outfits per category that incorporated or invoked a natural element, whether that be fire or a phoenix. In addition participants in the Grand Prize category were required to promote a safe sex message and this requirement further promotes safe sex education to raise awareness for, and combat, HIV/AIDS. This disease still haunts the citizens of Newark, queer as well as straight, but Fireball offers education and resistance through celebration and style.
The halls were crowded with a myriad of people of various backgrounds—every spectrum of race and sexual orientation attended. The queens really ‘brought it’ in their sequined gowns, shiny shoes, and dramatic make-up. The crowd witnessed Bernie’s coronation of various members of the ballroom scene, including Scooda, to Legend status. Legend status is right under the highest recognition, Icon, which Bernie currently holds through his community activism and previous status as house mother. A Legend is perceived to be a leader in the ballroom community, has made efforts towards bettering the community, and has been victorious at the balls. Everyone cheered and screamed with encouragement and excitement when their friends walked the runway. ‘Walking,’ the critical aspect to runway, demonstrates how real a contestant is or can be, dependent on the category. During the category “Schoolboy Realness,” men who are perceived to be straight in society must embody their femininity and walk the runway as real as they can. The ball was a space where masculinity and femininity were fluid but also being expressed at the same time. The balls were a night of celebration, liberation, and acceptance for queer citizens of Newark.
The annual Fireball event is important because people are organizing and acting within their marginalized spaces to combat the war with HIV/AIDS and provide resources – physical or metaphysical – for youth. The LGBTQ community and the ballroom scene have and continue to save and protect lives. For that, we must recognize the founders, James Credle and Bernie McAlister. As we sat in our seats, we were amazed by those grandiose outfits and dances. As we rose from our seats ready to head home, we realized we were witness to an underground culture. The biggest surprise was that this experience was a short trip from our homes.
Kristyn Scorsone is a master’s degree student at Rutgers-Newark in the history program with a concentration in Women’s and Gender Studies. When she’s not assisting with the Queer Newark Oral History Project, she can be found working in the archives of the Newark Public Library, performing improv comedy, or binging on Netflix with her wife, dog and cats.
Naomi Extra is a freelance writer, poet, and doctoral student in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark. Both her creative and scholarly work explore the themes of sexual agency and pleasure in the lives of black women and girls. Naomi is also a contributing writer to the feminist publication, Weird Sister. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Feminist Wire, Day One, Bitch, Racialicious, Apogee Journal, The Paterson Literary Review, and elsewhere.
Keishla Rivera-Lopez is a doctoral student in the American Studies Program at Rutgers Newark where she focuses on identity formation, narratives, issues of race, culture, diaspora, and Latino Studies. She also enjoys writing poetry and short stories, reading, and traveling during her free time.
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