A Legendary Look at the 90s Gay Ballroom Scene

Isoul H. Harris


When NYU film student Jenny Livingston spotted a few young gay men posing with a curious panache in Washington Square Park in the mid-80s, she asked what were they doing. After they replied, “Voguing!” Livingston did what any Jewish girl from Beverly Hills with a healthy curiosity and a documentary assignment from NYU Film School would do: she befriended them, headed uptown to the underground gay balls in Harlem and began filming what would years later become Paris Is Burning. With its fearless, in-your-face tackling of sexual and gender identity, racism, homophobia, class, AIDS, poverty and the often-mythical American Dream, the 1991 film became one of the most critically acclaimed and popular documentaries in modern cinema. However, while the world was wrapped up in all things Burning, those living it weren’t just discussing their culture, and basking in the newfound fame, they continued to evolve it.

Enter Gerard Gaskin, a young, fledgling photographer in New York. In 1993, he was shooting the seedy wonders of the original Times Square and happened across several young, pretty black transgendered women hanging out at a popular bar. After gaining their trust (á la Livingston), he began photographing them and they led him to the balls, which he in turn documented from the early 90s through the new millennium.

His book, Legendary: Inside The House Ballroom Scene (Duke University Press) is a fun and insightful examination of the post-Paris scene, where the old guard gave way to a new crop of kids eager to make their marks and become legends. 

Here, Mr. Gaskin speaks candidly on pop stars borrowing from the ballrooms, why mainstream culture is obsessed with the scene and being a heterosexual man immersed in a queer world.

Why is there still a fascination with the house ballroom scene after four decades?

The scene creates so much around dance, fashion and music. There are so many overlaps with pop culture. If you watch Pop, R&B and Hip-Hop music and dance, it is heavily influenced by what the kids are doing at the ball. A lot of the artists’ stylists, makeup artists, choreographers and the artists themselves go to balls and participate in balls. Plus, the ideas of sexuality are still taboo.

Nowadays, it’s nearly impossible to turn on a television without noticing some reference to the ballroom scene, whether it’s an element of a Beyoncè or Lady Gaga performance, Aerosmith's Steven Tyler dressing in drag and calling himself “Pepper LaBeija” (a central character in Paris Is Burning) or Wendy Williams declaring “10s Across The Board!” on her popular talk show. Is this homage or theft?

People used to question that about Madonna with her song “Vogue.” It’s a tricky thing about who owns and owes what. Is it important for popular figures to acknowledge where it came from? Yes. But, in context, people take from all different spaces. As a photographer, I read, watch films and look at other photographer’s work and I use snippets from them. Do I always say who influences me? No, I don’t. It’s this very important scene. It was created by the gay and transgendered community for them to have a safe space to experiment and play with the ideas of gender and sexuality. They are demonstrating and mimicking how the real world looks at them and how they look at the real world. People need to see it as the scene that created this and that you may see your favorite stars copying, but I don’t think it’s that simple. We all sample.

You’ve seen the ballroom culture evolve over 25 years. Would the culture and its participants have benefited more with proper attention and credit?

To a certain extent, yes. But, the reason it’s an underground scene is the same reason it must remain like that. When it becomes an open thing and everyone goes, it dilutes the energy. The scene itself exposes it itself. Because it is then their voice and desires that determine how they are represented. That is more important than anything. The scene has benefited. It is now all over the globe. 15 years ago, Andre Mizrahi won Amateur Night on the late night NBC weekend show Showtime at the Apollo. Fast forward 15 years later to the dance troupe Vogue Evolution doing well on MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew. The scene is pushing that. They all go out into the world and teach people. It’s grassroots. They are controlling how it’s happening.

The book features an essay, “The Queer Undercommons,”by Frank Roberts, where he declares your collection of photos as a celebratory archive of the ballroom scene, as well as an obituary for those legends who have died and for the famous spaces that are now shuttered.

Yes, that is part of the magic of my book. It is a 20-year odyssey. I think of people like Eric Christian Bazaar, Darryl LaBeija and Danielle Revlon, who are no longer with us. And spaces like the Marc Ballroom and the YMCA in Brooklyn. It’s part of that history. Anyone who participated in the scene in the 90s will look at these photographs and it will remind them of amazing nights and early mornings. And for the kids coming up, now they have a new context of their history. Frank is an amazing scholar. I told him 13 years ago, “When I get a book deal I want you to write in my book.” He wrote about history in a very poetic way.

You identify as heterosexual. So, how did you make your way into this LGBTQIA+ subculture and capture it with such authenticity?

I befriended several individuals from the scene in Times Square when it was still Times Square. I was taking pictures. There was a nightclub on 43rd St. across from the old New York Times building called Sally’s II. A lot of the “femme queens” would hang out there. My earlier pictures were of the top femme queens of the time: Octavia St. Laurent (a star of Paris Is Burning), Tracy Africa, Onjenae Milan, Danielle Revlon, Tanay Pendarvis, Keisha Ebony and Jennifer Legend. They introduced me to the balls. I did not photograph the balls for the first year I started going, from 1993 to 1994. At that point, there were only 6 to 7 a year in New York City. Now, the bigger stars of the balls are more strategic about where they compete. They will appear and show their face at 20 balls to keep their presence known.

Were you nervous to begin shooting?

When I first started, I was only photographing the backs of heads. I was 19 years old, very nervous, and still learning photography and not knowing how to document or how to be a documentary photographer. Plus, I was not completely open with the scene and how I felt about it. When I started to open myself up, it was then that I created pictures that were worthy of being in the book.

You needed to become comfortable being around same-gender loving people.

Yes. I was getting hit on and I did not know how to deal with that. I was only three years into documenting the balls at the time and I was concerned that people seeing the pictures —without knowing me personally — would assume that I was gay. I had to deal with that idea and become comfortable in my own skin. When I became more open, the community became more open with me and allowed me in. Andre Mizrahi, Hector Extravaganza, RR Chanel and Derek Ebony all co-signed me. Then the real pictures started happening.

Jennie Livingston was accused of having established a film career on the lives of her subjects without any of them achieving the same level of success. She has said in interviews that it's not ethical as a journalist to pay your subjects for participation in a documentary and she did eventually provide a nominal sum for the group of the film’s principals to split. Did you face any of the effects of that backlash being that you were coming behind the movie, only a few years later?

There was a huge backlash. There were a lot of trust issues with Jenny Livingston at the time. Many of the stars of Paris Is Burning were asking, “Did we get enough money?” I was happy to tell the people that I was shooting how much I was getting for the book. I won the Honickman First Book Prize in Photography from Duke University. My book is the sixth one published and I am the first African-American to win the prize. I think the tangibility of what an image is and who owns it is very tricky. I tried to be honest very early on with everyone around that I wanted to pursue a book project. The people I studied under created books. I learned that is how you defined yourself as a photographer. For those in the book, it’s a beautiful product that they can be happy about. I can’t speak on how much money Livingston made, but I know that the fame she has gotten around the film is amazing. It’s considered one of the top documentaries of all time.

Do you think that the kids on the scene were more trusting and open to white photographers and filmmakers because being Caucasian automatically provided a sense of credibility?

That could be it. That is the norm unfortunately. So, when you saw me walking in the door, looking just like you, my legitimacy could be in question, right? Where are your credentials? It’s weird to say, but I am the first African-American photographer to come in and do work on the house ballroom scene. Prior to me they have all been white. I met Sylvia Plachy, she is Oscar winner Adrien Brody’s mother and a successful photographer. She has a book, Red Light: Inside the Sex Industry, and one of her photographs is from one of the balls. Hopefully, the younger photographers of color can see that it is possible from seeing me do this on, hopefully, a higher level.

Why do you think you are the first African-American photographer to delve into this world?

I think that other black photographers were afraid. One, I don’t think they knew it existed and, two, once they discovered it, they were fearful, naïve and unsure. Also, it’s a long process. You can’t just jump into this world and just start shooting pictures. Not if you want something meaningful. It takes time, patience and lots of work.

What is the biggest difference between the ballroom scene of the 90s and now?

The Internet has changed everything, especially YouTube and Facebook. Twenty years ago, people in the house ballroom community were not seen outside of their world for the most part. Everyone now takes and posts pictures and videos. There are at least 5000 videos of Pony Zion (of Vogue Evolution) out there. Pony is in a sense the same as Andre Mizrahi was back then. Andre did not have the benefit of widespread videos back then. Now, with YouTube channels such as Ballroom Throwbacks, they are all over the net. The kids now have house pages and 10 to 15 ballroom groups on FB. The cool thing is that they are putting it out and representing themselves. There is not some outside entity controlling their images and talent. It’s still their world.

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I explore culture through curiosity and compassion.

Atlanta, GA

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