Abstract

This short essay springs from the question, Why has trans studies sustained a silence around Black elders in general, and Black femme queens in particular? The author reflects on the interventions of current scholars in Black trans studies and their import to the historicization of the house/ball culture or house-structured ballroom scene. Through a Black feminist imperative, this essay calls on trans studies to refuse the necropolitical logics that assume all the progenitors of the ballroom scene have died. In revisiting the rich cultural archive of the house-structured ballroom scene, such as the 1982 film T.V. Transvestite, this article reminds the reader that Black trans studies remains an archeological project.

Ima read. Throwing shade. Spilling tea. These turns of phrase have now been appropriated by the American grammar. Still, if you listen closely, these words come alive, flowing through the language of the children who talk and live too fiercely; they improvise choreography, polyrhythmic beats, and elaborate outfits to cross the T-shape catwalks of ballroom floors. In Black and brown social worlds these linguistic escape hatches leave the terms of gender, sex, and sexuality as open referents, definitions still under construction. Under the shattering crashes of the latest “The Ha Dance” remix, performance outmaneuvers state-assigned sex. Houses chant for their members as they perform, insisting on their chosen kinship beyond the nuclear family. The histories of the house-structured ballroom scene vibrate in the condensation of sweat that perfumes the air, inviting participants to come and spectate within the circle—an act of remembering, an inheritance of all the pioneers who came before.

It all started in Harlem with femme queens, Black women assigned male at birth, who “gain[ed] the insurgent ground of gender” to embody femininity situationally or full-time (Spillers 1987: 81). Femme queens started the house-structured ballroom scene, most widely known for the Black social dance of vogue femme. The stewards of this culture—its houses—are kinship networks tracing their roots to Lottie and Crystal Labeija in 1972. These two Black femme queens, responding to the direct racism they experienced within drag pageants, founded the Pioneering House of Labeija. Though this narrative circulates widely in Black queer and trans communities, little academic research has attended to the memories of Black femme queens from this pioneering generation, many of whom are still alive and participate in balls and house kinship today.1 Despite the celebrated presence of the house-structured ballroom scene as an object of study, Why has trans studies sustained a silence around Black elders in general, and Black femme queens in particular?

First, the collective imagination has conditioned us to imagine Black trans elders as always already dead. C. Riley Snorton and Jin Haritaworn (2013: 74) call this phenomenon “trans necropolitics,” an ordering of life and death in which “poor and sexworking people of color . . . only in death . . . come to matter.” Trans necropolitics' productive political extraction of death disciplines us to expect that Black trans elders have not only passed but also left little behind that could be worthy of historical or scholar inquiry—a dangerous and false, but common, mythology.

Second, femme queen, a historically Black and brown subjectivity, both precedes and exceeds transgender womanhood in its current definition. In other words, femme queens fracture the racially homogenized category of transgender; femme queen is not simply a clunky past left behind but evidence of what Terrion L. Williamson (2016: 19) reworks as the “irreducible sociality of Black life.” In other words, femme queen emerges from a transatlantic Black lineage that has always sustained through communal self-making in the face of unimaginable terror. The pioneers of the ballroom scene forged new identities inseparable from their multiple dispossessed diasporic geographies. As gender visionaries in the 1970s and 1980s, femme queens ushered in new social worlds and horizons of how to be trans, not as an individuated becoming but oriented toward building Black deviant social worlds through communities and kinship, exemplified in the formation of the house-structured ballroom scene. Trans womanhood in its current formulation flattens these histories. Black feminists' pivotal interrogations of the explicitly racial limitations of the category womanhood instruct why trans studies has refused to reckon with the untranslatability of femme queen as a category of analysis.

Black feminisms theoretically reformulate the uniform construction of contemporary trans femininities, opening the horizon in which basic analytical categories are used and referenced in trans studies. Black trans studies depends on what Marshal Kai Green and Treva Ellison (2014: 224) term an “inter-inter disciplinary conversation,” because Black life, sexuality, and gender remain in what Hortense Spillers named the “interstices”—the in-between places, the locations where language falls apart. While Snorton has offered the transitive mood, Black life is “still awaiting our verb” (Spillers [1982] 2003: 153). It is my contention that only through engaged and dedicated study of the gender visionaries of the past can Black trans studies construct the necessary grammar to unlock these lexical possibilities.

I must pause now to linger on the meeting ground of Black trans studies and Black feminisms as a way forward for trans studies. I am indebted to Ellison and colleagues' (2017) insistence on Black feminism as critical to the development of trans theory and want to reiterate their warning against the further instrumentalization of Black women's work and labor in and beyond the academy. We must prioritize their injunction to actualize “a Black future wherein Black transwomen's ideas and scholarship run at the front and center of Black academic thought” (166). This will require a commitment to a radical reorientation of the departments and the larger academy where current practitioners of trans studies labor. Here I remember the caution from foundational Black feminist theorist Ann DuCille's still relevant 1994 essay, “The Occult of True Black Womanhood: Critical Demeanor and Black Feminist Studies,” which expounds on the plantation-like politics of the academy that rewards the discovery and commodification of Black feminist theories alienated from Black woman progenitors. Black feminist study is all too often not treated as “a discipline with a history and a body of rigorous scholarship and distinguished scholars underpinning it, but like an anybody-can-play pick-up game performed on a wide-open, untrammeled field” (603). This phenomenon persists today and is mirrored in the ways Black trans women, femmes, and femme queens appear as mere metaphors in academic discourse.

DuCille remains vexed about the future of Black feminist study in an academy that pillages Black women's work through a primitivist impulse after traditionally trained theorists have grown tired of what passes as high theory. However, against essentialism and territorialization, DuCille argues that scholars who “take seriously” an approach to Black feminist study as a theoretically sophisticated and transformative body of thought can offer new and productive revelations for the field (603). Scholars who demonstrate taking Black feminist study seriously while performing critical field-forming labors include L. H. Stallings, Matt Richardson, C. Riley Snorton, Dora Silva Santana, Treva Ellison, Marshall Green, LaVelle Ridley, Abraham Weil, Che Gossett, Tourmaline, Marquis Bey, and other graduate students too numerous to name here, whose writings inspire and make possible the words I write.

By way of a conclusion, I share my work's beginning. I offer the rich potential of a submerged critical text from New York City's house-structured ballroom culture to demonstrate how Cathy Cohen's (2004) Black feminist theorization of deviance as an imperative to radical thought informs my scholarly intervention.

I spend a lot of time thinking about Simone di Bagno and Michele Capozzi's documentary T.V. Transvestite, shot in 1982 in the Harlem Bingo Hall on 125th Street. The film chronicles pioneering mothers Dorian Corey and Pepper Labeija's Harlem Fantasy Ball, a ball from the golden age of the house-structured ballroom culture that went on to have seven iterations. Foundational historians Marcel Christian and Kevin Ultra Omni, featured in the film, consider T.V. Transvestite the first full-length ball ever recorded on camera. Eventually, the film screened at New York City's legendary nightclub, the Paradise Garage. T.V. Transvestite, released seven years prior to the infamous Paris Is Burning, has been forgotten within US cultural memory. The film contains an untouched archive of the beautiful aesthetics of a Black social world full of gender transgression, queer kinship, and the foundations of the house-structured ballroom culture. During the ball, Pepper Labeija provides commentary on the mic, dozens of femme queens compete in a wide variety of categories, and hundreds of people pack the place to spectate and witness. Most notably, Crystal Labeija can be heard off camera telling Pepper Labeija that she has earned the title of “Queen” within the house of Labeija. Later in the ball, we even get a quick glimpse of Crystal walking the category, “Best Dressed Femme Queen.” The Harlem Fantasy Ball's taping is not just gorgeous; it enriches the view of the house-structured ballroom culture by showcasing the ingenuity and immense cultural labor of femme queens in the early 1980s. A majority of the evening's categories such as “Dream Girls,” “Body,” and “Punk Rock vs. New Wave” were dedicated to femme queen performance, style, and artistry. The girls' bodily inventiveness transfixes and energizes the ballroom filled with over 250 spectators.

Black deviant social worlds have long deserved rigorous historical treatment and academic attention, and to address these historical exclusions scholars must remember that Black trans studies remains an archeological project. Here I am riffing off historian Imani Perry (2020) who, speaking candidly on Twitter to Black studies scholars, writes, “Don't assume the archives don't exist simply because they haven't been collected.” Perry calls for nascent scholars to actively work toward making archives rather than uncritically accepting that they do not exist, are hidden, or are lost.

The dangerous assumption that Black social worlds lack diachronic historical records leaves rich cultural artifacts like T.V. Transvestite uncommented on and forgotten for forty years. Black trans knowledge production must utilize the frameworks created in emergent conversations about Black trans studies (Ellison et al. 2017; Silva Santana 2019; Snorton 2017) to excavate the everyday lived realities of Black deviant people and their myriad implications for the study of gender. Empowered by these Black trans frameworks, gestures, and ideologies, it's time to reanimate our study with a scholarly ethic that builds archives alongside communities and creates opportunity for critical political transformation. Let Black queer scholar Cathy Cohen's (2004) call to center deviant subjects, a shift away from the traditional and narrow hallmarks of radical politics that dominate the study of Black life, reshape trans studies around the recognition that powers' reorganization is heavily inflected by those with the most marginal relationship to power. Their choices and everyday mundane acts provide understudied roadmaps of possibility. It is here that we must begin not to extract but to recast the ways we approach intellectual production.

T.V. Transvestite begins with Pepper Labeija's iconic voice: in her signature cadence we hear her say, “Can you give me a little respect so we can hear the people's names and know why they're on the judges panel? Excuse me one and all.” I have argued here that trans studies must remember her voice and heed this wisdom. Trans studies has not read the proverbial ball's flyer and therefore simply does not know how to “bring it” for the “judges” that matter. In other words, the field is not “walking” the category correctly. But it does not have to be a total “chop” or loss. Centering Crystal Labeija's life as text reveals a genealogy that remake the priorities of trans studies. Trans studies in its next decade must revisit the 1970s and 1980s as a time of immense upheaval around the symbolic meanings attached to what we now call gender. But instead of just privileging that era's theories of French feminism or deconstruction, it must also give at least the same credence and close attention to the rich history of Harlem's house-structured balls. An archeological approach to Black trans life must refuse necropolitical logics by insisting researchers remain in a principled relationship with our elders and actively foster community-controlled archives. Surely, this will remain an impossible task until Black trans femme scholars, other so-called deviants, and the ballroom children are encouraged to write and publish in trans studies. Black feminism and Black trans studies remain epistemically critical to cultivate the scholarly ethics necessary to listen to and implement Pepper Labeija's call for respect; only then can we learn the names and engage the legacies necessary for trans studies' future.

Acknowledgments

This piece would not be possible without the generosity and love of Kevin Ultra Omni Burrus and Duchess Wong for sharing their knowledge, photographs, and creation of ballroom history. My sincere thanks to all the pioneers of the house-structured ballroom scene.

Note

1.

Crystal Labeija is often cited for her appearance in Frank Simon's 1968 documentary The Queen where she competes in the 1967 Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant alongside other pioneers of the ballroom scene such as Pepper Labeija and Dorian Corey. In the film, she verbally challenges the results of the drag pageant, accusing the documentary's white subject Sabrina of rigging the competition in favor of her protégé Harlow, and rightly diagnosing the pageant circuit's Eurocentric biases and prejudice against Black queens. When the pageant organizers attempt to stifle Labeija's protest, telling her she is “showing her color,” Labeija retorts with the now legendary quote, “I have a right to show my color, darling. I am beautiful and I know I'm beautiful.” This self-affirmation of Black beauty and iconic read is now sampled widely and has traveled throughout queer-of-color critique and pop culture. However, what this piece argues is that Crystal Labeija's legacy extends far beyond this momentary filmic capture.

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