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  • Oliver Whitney

How Today's Drag Culture Was Influenced So Much by Black Trans Women


Crystal LaBeija at the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest from the documentary, The Queen.

 

Drag culture, like much of mainstream queer history, has a tendency to sometimes sideline and in some cases erase the trans people inherent to its beginnings.


But trans women of color have long been pillars of drag with lasting legacies that reach into today’s pop culture.

While you probably know queens Kylie Sonique Love and Peppermint, who both broke ground as trans women on Ru Paul’s Drag Race, or about the ballroom scene thanks to Pose, the legacy of trans women of color in drag goes back much further.


The very first drag balls date back to the late 19th century in Harlem. Often dubbed the “Fairies Ball,” these events featured a racially diverse mix of performers and audiences. But due to homophobic and transphobic repression in the following years, balls were forced underground and eventually became largely white affairs where Black performers were expected to whiten their faces with make-up to improve their chances at the crown. Fast forward to the ‘60s when Black queer and trans folks started to reclaim drag spaces as their own.

It was a February evening in 1967 when the future of drag forever shifted.

A 1920s drag ball at Webster Hall in Greenwich Village.


Crystal LaBeija, a crown-holding Black queen and trans woman, let loose an epic tirade against Rachel Harlow, a less experienced white queen named winner of the ‘67 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest. In a visceral moment captured in Frank Simon’s documentary The Queen, LaBeija storms off stage after Harlow is crowned and calls out the panel of white judges, which included Andy Warhol, for their racial bias and rigged pageant. If you’ve never seen The Queen, you’ve likely encountered LaBeija before. Aja gave a spot-on impression of LaBeija’s blistering energy in her Ru Paul All Stars “Snatch Game,” Frank Ocean sampled her diatribe, and you can see her in pageant regalia across the opening credits of Transparent.


Aja pays tribute to Crystal LaBeija in Drag Race All Stars Season 3.


The real history-making moment is what followed.

"It was our goal then to look like white women,” Pepper LaBeija

A few years later, Crystal LaBeija, along with her friend Lottie, left the white-centric drag balls to host their own Black balls. The House of LaBeija was born, and from there more houses — safe refuges for Black and brown LGBTQ+ folks who were often houseless or without support from their biological families — sprung up. This led to the birth of the ballroom scene, a sacred space where drag was no longer about performing white femininity — "It was our goal then to look like white women,” Pepper LaBeija once said of the scene before the era of Black balls.


Instead, as Lester Fabian Brathwaite has written, the ballroom was a place where queer and trans folks of color could "live their best lives — that is, to figure out how to respond to a society that devalued their lives and attempted to erase their presence."



Octavia St. Laurent at a drag ball in 1988.


Yet history has an ugly way of repeating itself.

Just as the Black community took back drag balls, mainstream white and cisgender culture found ways to appropriate and capitalize off of it. Madonna’s “Vogue” is the most notable example of popularizing voguing while erasing its Black queer history. There’s also Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s influential 1990 documentary. The film remains a beloved and significant artifact of Black queer life and ballroom culture, and one that gave a spotlight to trans performers of color like Octavia St. Laurent, Angie Xtravaganza, and Pepper LaBeija.


But Livingston, a white filmmaker, was accused of never paying the film’s participants what she’d promised them. Time and again, drag and ball culture have been exploited across racial and class lines, and the Black and trans folks at the center continually forgotten or exploited.

That’s why learning and acknowledging trans history is so crucial. There’d be no Drag Race without Crystal LaBeija. There’d be no “Vogue,” no Pose or Beyoncé’s “Renaissance” without the many trans women and Black and brown queens who first walked the drag stages of the Harlem Renaissance.


The next drag performance you watch, let Crystal LaBeija’s searing read run through your head, and remember, drag isn’t merely an entertaining spectacle, but, at its core, has always been about the most marginalized of the LGBTQ+ community building a safe space to be their most expressive selves.





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