Racial tension plagued the United States the 1960’s and the New York City ballroom scene was no exception. Drag balls were gatherings where competitors came together to strut, pose and vogue their way down runways while donning their most extravagant attire. While queens of color were allowed to participate in these balls, the competitions, which had existed since roughly 1869, were notoriously racist. Black drag queens were often criticized for their ethnic features and stood very little chance of actually winning against their white counterparts. Nevertheless, Crystal LaBeija, a name that would soon become legendary in ball culture, defied the odds making a name for herself winning titles such as “Miss Manhattan” and “Queen of the Ball.” In 1967, Labeija competed in the Miss All-America Camp beauty pageant placing as third runner up. Labeija was confident in her beauty and talent and became infuriated by her low placement in the competition. Enraged by perceived unfairness in the contest, Labeija stormed off stage calling out racism within the pageant system and accusing the competition of being fixed. She might not have won the ball that night, but she definitely stole the show in a now immortalized moment that was the beginning of a new ballroom era.
A few years later, Labeija was approached by a friend named Lottie, who had the idea to start her own primarily black group or “house” and to co-promote a ball that would empower black queens. The House of Labeija was created and the first annual “House of Labeija Ball” was born. The House of Labeija quickly became more than just a pageant system for queens who had been rejected by the white dominated ball community. Her “house” soon evolved into a surrogate family for those who rejected from their own. Television shows such as “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” HBO’s “Pose” and the 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning,” recently have drawn attention to this once underground culture, bringing it into the mainstream. Houses exist all over the world including Europe and the United Kingdom, and now Garland Gravely, president and co-founder of Fashionista Roanoke, is introducing the first Ballroom House to Southwest Virginia.
House of Expression is Roanoke’s Ballroom House. It was established in August by Gravely, house father, and house mother, Javual Burnett. Burnett was an active member of the New York “House of Karma,” and an obvious choice for helping to pioneer a house in Roanoke. A house mother and house father are individuals who take on a leadership role within every house family. The “house parents” serve as mentors, comrades and provide the foundation that helps the “family unit” stand strong.
“In African American families there are people who may not be biologically related to you but they’re your family,” says Gravely. “Someone in your family took that person in and they’re your cousin based off of that. The houses within the ball culture are much the same.” At 51, Gravely remembers what it was like growing up young, black and gay in Southwest Virginia.
“Unfortunately, in the black community, homosexuality is not accepted,” he says. “There are a lot of kids growing up feeling a sense of isolation and not really belonging, or that lack of acceptance that I experienced so at my age, at this time, I would like for us to be a beacon of light, particularly for youth of color, and let them know that we’re here for them.”
Many house members have great relationships with their biological families and are simply seeking an alternative community, while others have found themselves rejected and cast out in search of a place they can belong. Whatever the case, the House of Expression is there with open arms to uplift, encourage and support anyone who is searching for a “home.”
Currently, the House of Expression has about 14 members and is looking forward to continued growth. They have partnered with organizations such as Planned Parenthood, and The Drop in Center and their hope is to be more active in the general community as well as the LGBTQIA. House of expression aims to expand the community that already exists here and requires that every member be active in supporting that community, and one another. The House of Expression hopes to eventually host balls of its own. Right now, though, its primary mission is making our part of the world a brighter place while creating space for a sometimes invisible demographic and letting people know they exist.
LGBTQ people of color exist and there is a space where they will be welcomed into a family – a family created by choice.