A private world, viewed by an outsider

Jan. 16, 2014 @ 11:32 AM

“Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene,” Center for Documentary Studies,
1317 W. Pettigrew St., at Duke University, through Feb. 22. Gallery hours
are Monday-Thursday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m, Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and
Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information, call 919-660-3663.

Whether America can be described as a melting pot or a salad bowl, the fact remains there are many subcultures just below the surface of our national identity. The standard version is the United States was founded by white, middle-class Christian men who had wives and children, and while that was the textbook picture of our citizenry in 1775, there were large pockets of Americans, like women and blacks, who had no public face. 
Today America looks and is different: Christianity, for one, comes in many variations and other religions, like Judaism and Islam, now have public acknowledgement and state protection. Women have moved into the political sector and are governors, senators and have served as secretaries of state. Even our food has changed; steak, potatoes and apple pie are no longer the typical American meal. Think croissant and quiche, quesadilla and tacos, egg rolls and sushi, pizza and bagels. People of color, first generation Americans and those with alternative lifestyles have made a difference on our political stage. We have an African-American president, an immediate past female governor of North Carolina, a first generation Latino senator from Florida and a gay mayor in Chapel Hill. 
There are also many social groups within the greater society; the country club set, the bridge players, the horse aficionados, the bikers, the gays and myriad others. They all have their in-jokes and in-worlds and when an outsider is allowed to record some of these private worlds, the result can be revelatory. Gerard H. Gaskin has accomplished just this with his 20-year photographic series on the culture of house balls, the current subject of the exhibition at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and part of his 2013 Honickman First Book Prize in Photography.
Gaskin’s photographs, taken mostly in New York, reveal extravaganzas that merge images of Mardi Gras, Gay Pride parades and the Miss America pageant; guests mingle in lavish dress, gorgeous make-up and outlandish style. The participants have thrown caution to the wind and the audience is having the time of their lives. For example, Kelli challenges the camera with a cigarette dangling from pouted lips and a neckline plunging deep toward the belly button. Tez dares us to criticize his body glowing blue, his hair poofed into several colors and his see-through cloak nestling around his neck like giant butterflies.
Jim pouts at the mirror while he applies eye liner. Jennifer wears red sequins, pulls her hair back and sweeps it up and RR prances across the runway. Then there is the audience; RR now sits with Pargen; Joseph and Charles move through the crowd in their straw hats and jackets made for the tropics; and Sinia wrapped in white fur and satin poses with scantily clad Ayana. 
Gaskin entered the ballroom scene 20 years ago as an outsider photographer and has continued ever since, attending the balls and taking pictures. The house ballroom is much more than an event; it is a fabulous way to show off in a protected atmosphere safe from the judgmental scrutiny of the majority. Born in Harlem, the idea of these balls aimed to create a space for African-American and Latino gays to express themselves. The balls are underground happenings where gay and transgender men and women come together at high-spirited late-night pageants to compete for trophies. 
The participants are members of “houses” and the categories for competition are based on costume, attitude, dance moves and “realness.” The houses offer a structured and protective lifestyle for these populations of people of color who are also gay and poor. For many, the houses have come to replace their biological homes. While their main function is to “walk” or compete against one another at “balls,” for many it also serves as a community, in some cases the only place where they feel a sense of belonging. 
Although this scene has been going on in New York since the 1920s it came out of the shadows in the late 1980s with Madonna’s single “Vogue” and Jennie Livingston’s film “Paris is Burning.” It is dominated by contemporary hip-hop fashion and music; the competitions are held in places as divergent as bars, school basketball courts or Masonic halls. The goal is to accentuate the male’s masculinity or a female’s femininity and to give the impression that the walker is a heterosexual. 
Courtney Reid-Eaton, exhibitions director at the CDS, said she believes Gaskin’s prize this year will be particularly important because the history of this subculture is breaking out.
A native of Trinidad and Tobago, Gaskin earned a liberal arts degree from Hunter College where, as a class project, he began photographing the house ballroom scene. His work is in many museum collections but this is his first book. The prize includes $3,000, a published book of photography, a solo exhibition and a permanent place in the archives at Duke University Library. 
Gaskin writes he went to balls for a year with his cameras hanging around him, but did not take one picture; he wanted the people who were there to trust that he meant to photograph them in a respectful manner. Over the years he attended hundreds of balls moving outside New York to Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Richmond, Va., and Charlotte. There are houses and balls in many states; most, however, are on the East Coast, in the Midwest and the South.
These joyous photographs hide a deep sadness while revealing the cause of that sadness: the unwillingness of the majority to embrace our country’s abundant diversity. America is changing; it cannot come fast enough.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.