There is a dangerous myth that queer life did not exist in a public way until the 1960’s – the assumption being that LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) identified people were “closeted” in isolation and invisibility. This could not be further from the truth. Historical scholarship has unearthed a world of saloons, cabarets, speakeasies, rent parties, and drag balls that existed since the late 1800’s as spaces where LGBTQ identities were not only visible, but openly celebrated. Some of the most influential residential enclaves for these communities were in New York, one of the most notable being Harlem.
Richard Bruce Nugent, Tom Wirth, Wikimedia Commons.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, a distinctly black LGBTQ culture took shape in Harlem. The Harlem Renaissance (1920-1935) was particularly influential to this process. The intellectual, cultural and artistic movement took the neighborhood by storm, bringing with it a flurry of literature, art, and music that centered black life. Many of the movement’s leaders were openly gay or identified as having nuanced sexualities including Angelina Weld Grimké, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Alain Locke, and Richard Bruce Nugent among others. The movement offered a new language that challenged social structures and demonstrated the ways that race, gender, sex and sexuality distinctions were actually intersecting, fluid and constantly evolving.
Over the years, Harlem continued to be a vibrant site of LGBTQ art, activism and culture. So it should come as no surprise that Harlem was the birthplace of “vogue”, a highly stylized form of dance created by black and Latino LGBTQ communities. Between the 1960’s and 80’s New York drag competitions known as “balls” transformed from elaborate pageantry to “vogue” battles. As part of this ballroom culture, black and Latino voguers would compete for trophies and the reputation of their “Houses” – groups that were part competitive affiliation, part surrogate family. Named after the famous fashion magazine, vogue took from the poses in high fashion and ancient Egyptian art, adding exaggerated hand gestures to tell a story and imitate various gender performances in categorized drag genres.
Through dance, drag queens showed how gender is a performance – they pretended to put on makeup or “beat face”, style their hair, and put on extravagant clothes. This creative performance through voguing was even used to peacefully settle disputes among rivals in an environment that assumed a degree of mutual respect and compassion. Using dance and pantomime, the voguers would “read” each other. Ultimately, the winner would be the person who “threw the best shade.”
With time, vogue changed from the “Old Way” (which emphasized hard angles and straight lines) to the “New Way” in the late 1980’s (which added elements like the catwalk, the duckwalk, spinning, bussey and enhanced hand performance). Today, New Way is characterized by more rigid movements and “clicks” or joint contortions. Vogue Fem uses similar “New Way” elements but focuses on speed, flow and stunts. Regardless of the style, voguing shows the courage of black and Latino LGBTQ communities to make an art form that goes beyond creative expression. Vogue offers a sense of identity, belonging and dignity in a world that does not fully value their lives.
The documentary Paris is Burning captures a snapshot of the history of vogue in the mid-late 1980’s. This iconic film by Jennie Livingston was a portrait of some of the most prominent voguers in New York’s ballroom scene and the challenges they faced along the lines of race, gender, class and sexuality. Although it is widely celebrated as an invaluable piece of documentary history on LGBTQ communities of color, the film remains controversial. The voguers in the film were working-class, poor and/or sex working. Some were even battling homelessness and HIV/AIDS. Yet they had to sue to be paid next to nothing for their participation in the film.
Feminists like bell hooks believe that Livingston was not critical of her position as a white filmmaker. hooks goes on to argue that without references to any subversive process that might be taking place, voguers seem to imitate the very structures that marginalize them. Other scholars maintain that the imitation used in vogue creates a black imaginative space where aesthetics and LGBTQ life can be explored in all its complexity.
These complicated issues of race, representation and appropriation in relation to vogue continue today. They are important to address in order to keep traditions that are at once black, brown and LGBTQ and debunk the myth that LGBTQ lives of color were never publicly lived.
Explore our Cultural Expressions exhibition to learn more about social dance and gestures!
Tsione Wolde-Michael is the Writer/Editor for the Office of Curatorial Affairs, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.