Drag ball was an extravagant debutante party for males who present themselves as glamorous women. Held in major cities in the eastern half of the United States during the 1920s and 1930s, drag balls were public manifestation of the pansy craze: a time when the urban American public flocked to clubs and bars that featured men and wwomen in drag along with openly-Gay entertainers. Drag balls mark the moment when urban LGBTQ festive expression went from hidden to public, at least for a few years.
Origins: Molly House, Masquerade Ball, and Debutante Ball
The earliest evidence of same-sex cross-dressing festive culture dates back to England in the early 1700s. Criminal records from that time describe molly houses (molly was a folk term for a prostitute or a homosexual man), places where men would gather to drink alcohol, dance together, and have sex. Molly houses would occasionally have events where members would dress in women’s clothing and have mock births. Although records on molly houses ended by the mid-1700s, the tradition of fancy dress balls for men dressed as women would continue in England and Western Europe.
Inheriting many of the same features as the molly house, the drag ball in America can be traced to two customs: masquerade balls and debutante balls. In many countries, there is a tradition of having a formal dance party for presenting beautifully dressed young women to society. This formal event is called a cotillion/debutante ball (English-speaking countries), bal de debutante (France), quinceañera (Spanish-speaking countries), cotillion/début (Phillipines), and baile de debutante/festa de quince anos (Brazil). In English, debutante comes from the French début or “beginning.” Making a debut (which signifies “first showing”) at a debutante ball is also called coming out. In the United States, the tradition of a coming-out party for young women came over from England. Since the seventeenth century, young upper-class women would be formally presented to the royal court so that eligible noblemen could consider them for marriage, a custom abolished by Queen Elizabeth II in 1958.
Drag balls copied the basic framework of the debutante ball (except for the marriage aspect) in the public presentation of biological males dressed in extravagant women’s clothing. When a male came out as a woman at a drag ball, it was a public declaration of implicit homosexuality in the form of grand spectacle. Drag balls were meant to impress and entertain the attendees with glamour, and to feature cross-dressing debutantes as worthy of admiration. Drag balls attracted upper-class audiences, not because the objects of attention were necessarily members of the upper class, but because they put on a good show.
The Rise of the Drag Ball
In large American urban centers during the 1920s, public visibility of homosexual people increased as cross-dressing became a popular form of entertainment called the pansy show (“pansy” was a folk term for an effeminate man). There was a shift away from identifying the cross-dressing male performer as masculine and Straight offstage, marking a rise of performances in which cross-dressers would present themselves as effeminate Gay men in drag, wearing provocative outfits and engage in hilarious speech and song lyrics.
Along with the pansy craze came the drag balls. What had started out in the late 1800s as dance parties that admitted men and women in drag and allowed same-sex dancing would become venues for spectacular display, particularly for men dressed in women’s clothing. The balls included a grand march (a parade in which attendees would formally walk in line, a custom dating back to Louis XIV of France and preserved somewhat in the African American community as the cake walk) and a contest for best outfit. The debutante tradition was reframed as a public coming-out ceremony for effeminate and homosexual men making their debut as other than heteronormal males. Women in masculine drag would also attend and dance with other women.
Churches and anti-vice organizations considered any public display of Gay people to be immoral. But the extravagance, glamour, and humor performed at drag balls drew in high society, including leaders of fashion, artists, and the rich, so authorities initially left the balls alone. Drag balls were especially popular in urban African American communities in New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and New Orleans, attracting European Americans to witness (and participate in) the music, dancing, and spectacle.
In Manhattan, balls would become so popular as to be recognized by city officials, given licenses by the police (who would also act as security), and held in prestigious venues such as Webster Hall and Madison Square Garden.
Hamilton Lodge and the Odd Fellows
The most famous drag ball event was the Masquerade and Civic Ball (also known as “Faggots Ball” or “Fairies Ball”) in Harlem, New York City. It was an annual event, sponsored by Hamilton Lodge Number 710 of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, and going back to 1869. Attendees were mostly African American, but included European Americans, both as spectators and as exhibitors.
The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows (GUOOF) was founded in 1843 as an African American branch of the Odd Fellows, a service fraternity started in Britain. American Odd Fellows did not accept African American members, so the GUOOF received its charter directly from Odd Fellows in Manchester, England and was thus independent of European American Odd Fellows for its legitimacy.
The first account of Gay people in large numbers at the Hamilton Lodge Ball was in 1926. Popularity increased in the late 1920s into the early 1930s, though not without controversy. The Odd Fellows, sponsors of the masque, were ridiculed as being “The Grand United Order of (Very) Odd Fellows” in reference to the large number of men in drag, effeminate men, masculine women, and women in drag attending the function.
Race-Mixing, Racial Stereotypes, and Restrictions
Although debutantes and competitors at the drag balls were primarily African American, there was often a noticeable European American presence. Drag balls were nevertheless places of limited social transgression, and it would be false to claim the parties were free from racism. Some Black participants complained that the Whites were given undue favor when judged in competitions.
In Manhattan, Black and White participants were labeled in terms of racialized neighborhoods: the Harlem (Black or “mose” population) balls had spectators and drag queens coming in from Greenwich Village (White or “ofay” population). Whiteness was often associated with glamour. With the rise of the film industry, some of the African American men in drag imitated European American movie icons such as Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, and Mae West.
Despite racial tensions, gender restrictions (men could only count on dancing together if at least one of them were in a dress), and barriers within the closed social order, drag balls were famous as venues for race-mixing (primarily referring to Blacks and Whites socializing together), along with same-sex flirting, dancing, and romance.
Backlash and Rebirth
Drag balls lost public favor with the repeal of Prohibition. When serving alcoholic beverages was forbidden by law, all of those who broke the law had common cause, and other forbidden things such as race-mixing and drag came together in the libertine environment of the underground club scene. When Prohibition was repealed, the old social order re-established itself, and pressure from law enforcement and liquor licensing would end the pansy craze, and drag balls as grand public spectacle.
The basic elements of the drag ball (same-sex dancing, extravagant outfits, contests) continued and spread throughout North America. With Stonewall and Gay Liberation, drag folklife and contests became worldwide phenomena, and drag balls as contests were re-imagined. The latest expression of the drag ball is Ballroom runway competitions beginning in the late 1970s, which, like the drag balls, are showcases for glamour, spectacle, and competition.
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