Elder transpeople remember such times, and yet some aspects appear diabolically new. Legislation protecting transpeople from discrimination remains a relatively new phenomenon in America, Minnesota being the first to do so in 1993. With the rash of anti-transgender legislation in 2016, and the threat of more such action to come in 2017 by those emboldened by the surprise success of the Right-wing Trump-Pence campaign, one might expect legal forces to eclipse the right of transpeople to exist. But with or without recognition of the natural rights of transpeople we will continue to do as we have typically done throughout history: live in defiance of a hostile social order. Doing so may reawaken those forms of association that have preserved us in past times of religio-political oppression and actual terrorism.
Make no mistake. Some influential people really do presume justification to murder us in the name of religion. They’re the same who have blacklisted us again and again, who have refused us employment, lodging, basic medical care(not counting transition), or any manner of safety that others take for granted. Though such call their actions service to a “God of love,” they prove to be the children of a hateful god, a form of idolatry recognizing an anthropomorphic image of their judgmental selves. Worse yet, the same decry any law that seeks to help our survival as examples of “religious oppression” of their religious “right” to harm others.
Survival, then, requires a relearning of those skills that we had used in the past. Consider this description of Marsha P. Johnsson, one of the leaders at the Stonewall Uprising:
“Bearing an odd resemblance to Flip Wilson, as often as not she was on roller skates and managed somehow to change outfits completely during a single ride from one end of the [Greenwich] Village to the other. To the naïve spectator she might have appeared to be just another of the ranks of “The Homeless Mentally Ill.” A passerby on the street might never have imagined that she was the founding member or STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), a self-styled political action group that tried, largely in vain and with literally no money to build housing and provide services for the growing numbers of young homeless gay, lesbian, and transgendered [sic] souls who began arriving in New York during the late sixties… By all accounts she was drawn to the street, and was happiest there, turning tricks, dressing up and, of course, taking care of others. She has been described alternately as nutty as a fruitcake and as sane as can be. For a while she was a member of the Hot Peaches, a drag theater troupe that continues to tour the nation and the world. She was apparently outspoken and generous to a fault, willing to give up her last cent if she thought it would do some good. All of these readily verified by anyone who claims to have known her (Ethyl Eichelberger called her Saint Marsha), but always now through a filter of anger and sadness as the circumstances of her death remain unresolved.”1
Saint Marsha was certainly not the first to live like this, nor will she be the last. Even today we see the work of the former prison inmate Michelle-Lael Norsworthy whose efforts to organize and build Joans House for the benefit of homeless transfolk promises to extend beyond San Francisco to other cities, all while inspiring others to act as directors and not accepting such a position for herself.2
But another phenomenon that persists to this day has its roots clear back to Prohibition or even, according to a few, to Reconstruction. But it most particularly found its voice in 60’s and 70’s Haarlem in reaction to White racism and dominance of the New York ball scene. Voguing, a dance genre associated with East Coast ballroom drag and named after the high fashion magazine Vogue, developed a unique and colorful culture that spread to other major cities in the United States and other countries.
The system did more than facilitate putting on the glitz within a society hostile to LGBT peoples, especially those “of color.” It provided a kind of communal system for mutual support with each unit called a “house”. The development of the house system reputedly begun in 1977 with Crystal LeBeija who as a PR gimmick announced a ball of hers being thrown by the “House of LaBeija.” Others followed with balls of their own, applying the names of houses from the organizers like Avis Pendavis referring to the “House of Pendavis.” Eventually the respective cliques took the names of popular designers like Mizrahi, St. Laurent, and Chanel.3
The close-knit nature of these cliques that formed the houses contributed much to the lives of abandoned LGBT youth who had been expelled from the circle of their birth families. House mothers mentored those they brought into their house and provided essential support. Some house children had found such closeness that they legally changed their names to the name of their respective houses.4
The best known of the houses began in 1982 when a Puerto Rican voguer, Hector Valle saw that he had no house and founded the all Latino “House of Xtravaganza”5 whose house raised many esteemed drag performers, most notably Venus Xtravaganza who appeared in the 1990 film Paris is Burning but found murdered before its release.6
It’s a demonstration of remarkable resilience. Most cross dressers denounce those who make life decisions on the basis of their cross dressing. But the drag houses took another approach. They recognized societal harshness toward their lifestyle but embraced it and those who were willing to commit to it and the house system facilitated a tightly knit adoptive kinship that dared to defy the world.
In Los Angeles, the houses have been noted as being in decline as a result of jealousies similar to those noted elsewhere in the Los Angeles trans community since 2000 as well as personal loss of that essential faith in one’s self the house system had succeeded in instilling in its children over previous decades. The Los Angeles Times reported:
“Now the scene is full of people seeking fame, even if only on a local level. Rather than push their careers further outside the safe world of ballroom,” Milan Garcon says. “They settle for the modest celebrity that they can achieve within the community. Ballroom is often used as an excuse for minor success for those who do not believe they can be any more successful than society is telling them they can be,” he says. “It’s easier to go to a ball and be famous than say, ‘I have talent and I’m going to be this great choreographer.”7
Vogue houses offer a lesson for us who may be trans but may not identify as drag queens or kings. For us, transgenderism isn’t a lifestyle. It’s who we are. While we most often try to dissuade new acquaintances from transitioning precisely because we understand too well how harsh society could be toward us, too often we fail to embrace those who show that determination to live as a transperson. Too often the inclination has emerged to put down an individual who faces hardship, isolating and stigmatizing that person. You’d think we would know better.
The house system thrives amid oppression but declines amid internal rivalry. In the years to come we simply cannot afford to allow those rivalries override those virtues that the houses had so long instilled: love, instructiveness faith in one another and ones’ selves, and hope in the same.
So why stop with ball-centered culture? Could the same apply to other pursuits like scholarship, public service, philosophy, science, and other arts? This writer can find no reason why this cannot happen apart from the socializing spirit that made dance balls happen in the first place, a spirit that speaks directly to other schools and careers saying, “Come on and loosen up, people. You can’t just live in a cubicle all your life.” When you think about it, seeking that balance and the good in one another can be taken as a moral imperative, especially as the world becomes more and more threatening.
There’s another aspect to this as well in the continuing movement of globalization. While globalization has united people all over the world, there does come a point in which the super-rich so dominate while human activities become increasingly subverted to automation, the social engines driving it threaten to collapse. We may well see a return from globalization to neo-localization of economies, social interaction, and support structures. The impact of the Internet has its limits and those limits become most defined in human greed that drives the exclusion the pecking orders of the rich provide like successive castle walls beyond which only the elite may freely pass. Too often the rich do so falsely in the garb of religiosity, thereby deceiving the already religious.
For that matter not many of us can be sure we will not find ourselves homeless in the next decade or otherwise isolated or abandoned. This writer knows from experience what one must do if one does fall homeless: keep looking for other people to help. People like Marsha P. Johnsson and Michelle-Lael Norsworthy have done this. So did those who began their respective houses of voguing.
It’s the kind of thing that offers a gift that only personal love and support can possibly offer: that faith that makes a great heart. Is a whole culture worth this, even for one? The saints and godparents believed it in the worst of times. Let’s believe it for ourselves that we may defy those forces against us in 2017 and the years following.
- Fleisher, Julian. The Drag Queens of New York (1996) Riverhead Books, The Berkeley Publishing Group. ISBN; 1-57322-352-5, p. 60
- This according to the writer’s personal knowledge from conversations with Ms. Norsworthy. Joan’s House can be found on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HelpAtJoansHouse/ . Retrieved December 29, 2016
- Cunningham, Michael. The Slap of Love (1995) Magazine, Open City.
- Oladele, Michael. A History of Vogue Dance (2014) Web: My Street Beats: http://www.mystreetbeats.com/vogue-history . Retrieved December 27, 2016.
- Valenti, Chi Chi. A House Is A Home (1989) Program: The Love Ball, Design Industry Foundation for AIDS.
- Butler, J. Gender is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion (1999) In Thornham, S.Feminist Film Theory, a Reader, Edinburgh University Press.
- Trevell, Anderson. Inside the underground world of ballroom at downtown L.A.’s Banjee Ball (May 10, 2015) Web: Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-ca-vogue-20150510-story.html . Retrieved December 27, 2016.