The Ballroom Community in Latino/a CultureJonathan Mathias Lassiter I LGBTQ Rights I Analysis I May 15th, 2013
Many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youths experience marginalization because of their sexual orientation and gender expression. This is especially true in Latino/a communities, where rigid gender roles are highly valued. Many LGBTQ youth are harassed and berated by their loved ones and community. This rejection leads to vulnerable adolescents being disconnected from their families and communities at a time when these structures are crucial in their development. Ballroom culture was birthed from this need for family. The Ballroom community provides a sociological family for youths whose biological families have yet to fully accept them.
Ballroom culture began during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s in New York City and has expanded to other major cities over time.  "Houses" and "balls" are the primary components within the ballroom community.  "Houses" are largely comprised of Latino/a and African American LGBTQ individuals, and are familial structures that can operate on local and national levels. They can be composed of members that reside locally within a city or can have several chapters with members in multiple cities. "Housemothers" and "fathers" determine membership to a particular house.
Balls are celebratory and competitive events that occur regularly within the ballroom community.  They are hosted by specific houses and are usually themed. There is a seating area for an audience, a runway for performers, and a judging table for judges. A disc jockey is also present to provide music for performers when they "walk" and "vogue." The ball begins with a grand march referred to as "Legend, Statements, and Stars" to introduce the hosting house members, judges, and other special guests.  The competition then begins with members from one house competing against rival house members in a variety of categories (e.g. face, realness, and vogue performance). The ball is culminated with an awards ceremony for victorious competitors; some receive cash prizes.
House members compete in myriad categories, either as individuals or as groups. The basic categories are face, body, realness, runway/model effect, bizarre, and vogue performance.  Contestants in the "face" and "body" categories are judged on the physical beauty and structure of their faces and bodies respectably. The "realness" category requires its contestants to role-play as a male or female. The "bizarre" category allows for outlandish creativity and encourages its contestants to use costumes, makeup, and dramatic lighting. Contestants in the "runway/model effect" must walk the runway like a model in a fashion show. Voguers in the "vogue" category perform flamboyant dances with an emphasis on hands, the duck walk, spins, face, and death drops.
Gender roles within houses are based on an egalitarian gender and sexual identity role system that permits a spectrum of gender and sexual roles to be expressed.  This is usually not the case for many Latinos/as in their families of origin, where gender and sexual roles are usually rigid and dichotomous. In his essay entitled, "Performance as Intravention: Ballroom Culture and the Politics of HIV/AIDS in Detroit," Marlon M. Bailey reports there are three sexes within ballroom culture: woman, man, and intersex.  Gender and sexual identities are divided into six categories. These include: "butch queens" (biologically born males who identify as gay or bisexual and are and can be masculine, hypermasculine, or effeminate), "femme queens" (male to female transgender people or people at various stages of gender reassignment), "butch queens up in drags" (gay males that perform drag but do not take hormones and who do not live as women), "butches" (female to male transgender people or people at various stages of gender reassignment, masculine lesbians, or a female appearing as male regardless of sexual orientation), "women" (biologically born females who are lesbian or straight identified), and "men" (biologically born males who live as men and are straight identified).  Frequently, housemothers identify as either "butch queens," "femme queens," or "women" while housefathers identify as either "butch queens," "butches," or "men."
Houses are structured like a literal household, with housemothers, fathers and "children." Housemothers and fathers are responsible for providing nurturance and guidance to their children. Children are the house members that are under the care and tutelage of the houses' mothers and fathers. Housemothers and fathers provide advice about topics such as romantic relationships, sex, gender and sexual identities, health, hormonal therapy, and body presentation.  Often, many house members are not able to discuss these issues with their biological families and find an opportunity to engage in discourse about these topics with their housemothers and fathers. House members find support from their "siblings" as well, and report a sense of unity and cohesion from these in-house relationships and interactions. 
The gender roles within houses are unconventionally flexible and fluid. However, the responsibilities of housemothers and fathers are often divided along heteronormative gender lines, even though both the mother and father may be biological males or transgender individuals. Housemothers are often responsible for providing nurturance and emotional support for their children, and are often the person to whom house-children confide in, especially in times of crisis.  They also care for their children's basic needs, such as nutrition, housing, and general health. Housefathers primarily serve as mentors and disciplinarians to house-children, and are essentially models of appropriate behavior for the children. 
Ballroom culture provides a valuable familial structure for many youths that have been displaced from their homes of origin because of their sexuality and gender expression. Houses model healthy relationships, provide support systems for emotionally and sexually vulnerable youth, and facilitate HIV prevention and mental health services for Latino/a LGBT people.
 Cannick, J. (2006). Love is the message, how do I look and more information on the ballroom scene [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://jasmynecannick. typepad.com/jasmynecannickcom/2006/03/love_is_the_mes.html
 Bailey, Marlon M. (2009). Performance as Intravention: Ballroom Culture and the Politics of HIV/AIDS in Detroit. Souls, 11, 253-274. doi: 10.1080/10999940903088226
 Arnold, E., & Bailey, M. (2009). Constructing home and family: How the ballroom community supports African American GLBTQ youth in the face of HIV/AIDS. Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services, 21, 171-188.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2009). HIV/AIDS and young men who have sex with men. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/healthyYouth/sexualbehaviors