Strike a Pose: The Importance of Black Queer Spaces in the Late 20th Century, by John Vaccaro

August 20, 2021
ARCH 355
Professor Ipek Türeli

Harlem’s Imperial Lodge of Elks, commonly known as Elks Lodge, is located on 129th West Street in Central Harlem, New York City. It was constructed from 1922-24 and designed by African American architect Vertner Woodson Talley (1885-1949). Talley was an important Black figure in the Harlem community of NYC, co-founding the first African American fraternity in the United States in 1906 during his undergraduate studies. This fraternity, the Alpha Phi Alpha Society, helped bring up prominent Black scholars and political activists like Martin Luther King Jr.2 Furthermore, Talley became the first Black registered architect in the state of New York.

The Elks Lodge initially hosted fraternal functions and various community events. Today, the building still stands proudly having been converted in recent years into the Faith Mission Christian Fellowship Church. This paper, however, will not focus on the most distant or recent history of Elks Lodge, but rather somewhere in between. Specifically, around the time the lodge famously appeared in the classic, often criticized queer documentary Paris Is Burning (1990).

The film—directed and produced by Jennie Livingston—explores the lives of prominent Black and Latino/a queer figures in the New York City Ballroom scene. It particularly centers the balls held in the Elks Lodge and the Harlem Black queer landscape throughout the mid to late 1980s. Despite the many controversies following the release of the documentary, it provides a rare look into the Imperial Elks Lodge in Harlem and queer life at the time. Analysis of the film, in conjunction with adjacent queer texts, establishes the socio-spatial importance of the Ballroom to Black and Latino/a queer culture and the formation of identity within the context of late 20th century urban America. The typology of the Ballroom catalysed the creation of Black and Latino/a queer infrastructural networks, greatly benefiting the mental and physical health of the marginalized communities it served. Glimpses into these balls also allow for further dissection into the hierarchical relations of the Ballroom participants.

“I remember my dad, he said you have three strikes against you in this world. That every black man has two–that they’re just black and they’re a male–but you’re black and you’re a male and you’re gay. You’re gonna have a hard fucking time. But he said if you’re gonna do this you’re gonna have to be stronger than you ever imagined.”3

These first words spoken in the documentary essentially establish the thesis statement of the Ballroom. What follows is a scene capturing one of the most important and highly respected figures of the Harlem Ballroom scene in the 80s and 90s, Peper Labeija, Mother of the House of Labeija, entering a nondescript building (the Elks Lodge) past dusk. Peper, wearing an extravagant garment covered in glittering gold fabric, appears as a shining star in the vast dark universe of New York City at night. As they strut directly from the entrance and onto the floor—also referred to as the runway—members of the LGBTQ+ and Ballroom community surround and praise them. The Ball has officially begun.

Figure 1: Stills from Paris Is Burning (1990); (left) Peper Labeija entering the Elks Lodge Ballroom, featuring the Elks’ fraternity crest in the upper left corner. https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/imperial-lodge-of-elks/.4

Figure 2: Stills from Paris Is Burning (1990); Willi Ninja, Mother of the House of Ninja, vogueing on the Ballroom floor. https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/imperial-lodge-of-elks/.5

The Ballroom itself is an ephemeral space that seeks to affirm and celebrate Black queer and trans identities within a safe setting removed from the racism and homo/transphobia of the rest of the city. The onslaught of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s and 90s ravaged the LGBTQ+ community and stigmatized them in the eyes of heteronormative society. AIDS and gayness were linked in various ways. The use of slang terminology to describe the disease, such as gay-related immunodeficiency (GRID), and sensationalist headlines contributed to the idea that this was a queer problem, amplifying the overall apathy held by most government officials and cisgender straight Americans.6 On top of the general violence directed at the LGBTQ+ community, racism was (and still is) very much ingrained within the community itself, as well as within the general public’s tolerability of queerness. The more acceptable forms of queerness are directly linked to whiteness. The generally white gay districts of big cities that host popular gay bars, clubs, shows, etc., and gay representation in media all affirm gay identities without necessarily challenging the white supremacist foundations of the systems they function within.7 LGBTQ+ communities and spaces created in big cities often isolate queer people of colour (most of whom are Black) from their white counterparts.8 Black queer feminists and activists like Bell Hooks criticized Paris Is Burning and it’s queer—albeit, white—director. Hooks criticizes Livingston’s stale portrayal of whiteness as the aspirational standard. This basis forms much of the dialogue between figures in the film and is even visualized through collages of white models and TV stars on magazines, posters and advertising.9

All things considered, the creation of the Ballroom made space for Black and queer individuals in the city. Crystal Labeija, a Black drag contestant, vocalized frustrations with the evident bias in the judging of white queens versus queens of colour in drag pageants and began hosting her own pageants as a form of protest—the genesis of the Ballroom.10 These new pageants, or balls rather, became a place where queer people of colour could embrace their gender, race and sexuality among peers in ways their biological families and the queer community at large perhaps failed to.11 This authentic joy is evident in many of the events filmed in the Ballroom, as Livingston captures drag queens strutting across the floor and getting their life.12 One member of the primarily Latino/a House of Xtravaganza even goes on to compare entering the space as “crossing into the looking glass in Wonderland,”13, indicative of the transformative and otherworldly nature of the Ballroom.

“The house, the house, let’s see if we can put it down sharply. They’re families. You can say that they’re families, for a lot of children who don’t have families. But this is the new meaning of family.”14

Dorian Corey, founder and Mother of the House of Corey

The Ballroom also fostered familial groups known as houses. These houses, comprising almost exclusively of Black and Latino/a queer and trans folks, were intrinsic not only to the success of Ballroom events but to the survival of the urban youth who participate in them. The houses were run by house mothers and fathers tasked with ensuring the comfort and safety of their house members and providing them guidance as would traditional biological parents.15 Peper Labeija, the Mother of the House of Labeija at the time of filming, speaks about their personal experience with these familial relationships as they sit on the couch with two of their children16 nearby. They explain how many of the kids who perform in the balls have been kicked out by their biological parents for being gay and have next to nothing. The network of houses connected to the Ballroom makes up for what these children have lost, at least in part, by providing some money for food and other necessities and a place to stay.

Figure 3: Stills from a deleted scene in Paris Is Burning (1990); Peper Labeija in their home with two of their house members, or children (Paris is Burning – Deleted Scenes Outtakes, 2020). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J55aX7MTA2I&ab_channel=Antoniach.17

Figure 4: Stills from a deleted scene in Paris Is Burning (1990); Peper Labeija in their home with two of their house members, or children (Paris is Burning – Deleted Scenes Outtakes, 2020). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J55aX7MTA2I&ab_channel=Antoniach.18

Angie Extravaganza, Mother of the House of Extravaganza, mentions the socio-spatial relations of their house to the Ballroom. Many house mothers and fathers will host parties in preparation for a ball the night of, full of singing, dancing, doing each others’ makeup, etc.19 In essence, the Ballroom facilitated the grouping of deserted individuals and created new families that protected each other. The variety of houses, many of which are still active in the Ballroom scene to this day, provide Black and Latino/a queer and trans youth with a network of safe spaces they can rely on, acting as both the metaphorical and literal definition of home that they otherwise have been robbed of.20

Throughout Paris Is Burning, Livingston collages scenes of the Ballroom events in the Elks Lodge in and between these interviews demonstrating the spatial order of the culture and subsequent social implications. The layout of the Ballroom can generally be divided into four spaces: the observing space, the floor/runway, the commentator’s podium, and the judges’ panel.21

Figure 5: Still from Paris Is Burning (1990); Venus Extravaganza, center, walking the runway at a ball, with spectators to the left and right and the commentator’s podium and judge’s panel positioned in the back. https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/imperial-lodge-of-elks/.22

At the ground level, the seating (observing space) flanks the floor/runway (performing space) and together they make up the largest portion of the Ballroom. The borders between the observing and performing areas are often blurred as performers emerge from the seats directly onto the floor/runway to perform. Alternatively, depending on the category of event, those not currently performing will surround those performing in celebratory praise. The commentator’s podium is located at the back of the floor/runway and in front of the panel of judges. The commentator announces the categories and special events of the night, providing lighthearted shade and generally keeping the show moving forward. At the very back of the Ballroom is the judges’ panel, where the judges score the performances on the floor and award prizes. Both the commentator’s podium and judges’ panel are elevated above the rest of the Ballroom on a stage, providing them with a better view of the entire floor and performances. In a strikingly similar fashion to that of a church altar, positioning the commentator and judges on the stage demarcates their authority over the competitions. The ritualistic nature of the Ballroom performances can also be compared to the liturgy of church.23 In a sense, the Ballroom is a church in service to Black and Latino/a queer folks.

“In real life, you can’t get a job as an executive unless you have the educational background and the opportunity. Now, the fact that you are not an executive is merely because of the social standing of life. That is just pure thing. Black people have a hard time getting anywhere. And those that do are usually straight.”24

Dorian Corey, founder and Mother of the House of Corey

It is interesting to chart the evolution of the Imperial Lodge of Elks since its opening in 1924 to today; it has, in some way, provided safe spaces to the different subgroups and cultures within the large Harlem Black community. Elks Lodge can be understood as an architecture of survival, affirmation, and celebration, uplifting the communities who inhabit its walls.

Figure 6: Elks Lodge as it stands today after being converted into a Church recently (NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2017). https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/imperial-lodge-of-elks/.25

Furthermore, the Ballrooms of big cities in North America like New York City were and continue to be an integral part of the Black and Latino/a queer community, serving as not only a fantastical place of gathering but a space that protects marginalized folks from the dangerous public urban realm. These safe spaces allow for an exploration of gender, sexuality, identity, family, and community that at times succumbs to and at other times challenges notions of white heteronormativity in the United States. Despite the golden age of the Ballroom having passed, many of the houses featured in Paris Is Burning still exist today under new house mothers and fathers and remain active in the Ballroom scene. Additionally, several new houses have emerged in different cities that go even further to provide sexual education and awareness to protect the health of the Black queer community at large.26 There might never be another Ballroom like the Elk’s Lodge in Harlem, but its impact in the Black and Latino/a queer community is undeniable and will resonate for decades to come.

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John Vaccaro is an undergraduate student at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University. This essay was written for ARCH 355.

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Lakeisha Harding, “Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity,” April 12, 2009, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/alpha-phi-alpha-fraternity-inc/.

Ibid.

The Black Experience Archive, “Paris Is Burning 1990 Documentary,” YouTube video, January 20, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LUH8sRwzBs&ab_channel=TheBlackExperienceArchive.

Livingston, Jennie. Paris Is Burning. Film. New York City: Off-White Productions Prestige Pictures, 1990. NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project. https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/imperial-lodge-of-elks/ (accessed March 21, 2021).

5 Ibid.

Lawrence K. Altman, “New Homosexual Disorder Worries Health Officials,” New York Times, May 11, 1982, https://www.nytimes.com/1982/05/11/science/new-homosexual-disorder-worries-health-officials.html.; Andrew Anthony, “‘We were so scared’: Four people who faced the horrors of Aids in the 80s,” The Guardian, January 31, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/jan/31/we-were-so-scared-four-people-who-faced-the-horror-of-aids-in-the-80s; Antonia ch, “Paris Is Burning – Deleted Scenes Outtakes,” YouTube video, April 23,2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J55aX7MTA2I&ab_channel=Antoniach.

Bell Hooks, “Is Paris Burning?” In Black Looks: Race and Representation, (Boston: South End Press, 1992) 145-155.

Marlon M. Bailey, “Engendering space: Ballroom culture and the spatial practice of possibility in Detroit,” Gender, Place & Culture 21, no. 4 (May 2013): 490.

Hooks, “Is Paris Burning?” 145-155.

10 Kinolorber, “Crystal Labeija’s epic read from The Queen (1968) – ‘I have a right to show my colour, darling!’” YouTube video, June 16, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYCQEl8TPeM&ab_channel=kinolorber.

11 Emily A. Arnold and Marlon M. Bailey, “Constructing Home and Family: How the Ballroom Community Supports African American GLBTQ Youth in the Face of HIV/AIDS,” Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services 21, no. 2-3 (April 2009): 178.

12 Gay slang for “having a great time.”

13  The Black Experience Archive, “Paris Is Burning 1990 Documentary.”

14 Ibid.

15 Arnold and Bailey, “Constructing Home and Family,” 179.

16 Members of the Ballroom community brought into a house.

17 Ibid.

18 Livingston, Jennie. Paris Is Burning – Deleted Scenes Outtakes. 35mm film. New York City: Off-White Productions Prestige Pictures, 1990. Antonia ch, Personal collection. YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J55aX7MTA2I&ab_channel=Antoniach (accessed March 20, 2021).

19 Ibid.

20 Arnold and Bailey, “Constructing Home and Family,” 174.

21 Bailey, Marlon M. “Engendering space: Ballroom culture and the spatial practice of possibility in Detroit.” Gender, Place & Culture 21, no. 4 (May 2013): 489-507.

22 Livingston, Paris Is Burning., 1990.

23 Bailey, “Engendering space: Ballroom culture and the spatial practice of possibility in Detroit,” 500.

24 The Black Experience Archive, “Paris Is Burning 1990 Documentary.”

25 Washington, Eric K. Photograph. New York City. NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/imperial-lodge-of-elks/ (accessed March 21, 2021).

26 Matt Baume, “Learning from the Ballroom History: Older Generations vs. Today,” YouTube, July 28, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjfzvo-zRPo&ab_channel=MattBaume; Emily A. Arnold and Marlon M. Bailey, “Constructing Home and Family: How the Ballroom Community Supports African American GLBTQ Youth in the Face of HIV/AIDS.”

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