About Face: How Louisville’s House Ball Scene has Turned Trials into Triumphs

How Louisville's House Ball Scene Has Turned Trials Into Triumphs

Picture this: Amori Garçon is tall and lean with a chiseled face, cappuccino-colored skin and a certain something in his walk. He’s strutting down the catwalk next to another man, but the other man doesn’t seem to matter, as all eyes are drawn to him – Garçon, whose real name is Koree Antonio. He’s the center of attention in a ballroom packed with spectators and other competitors. An emcee calls out instructions that Garçon and his competitor follow as they strut, show off, dip and vogue.

Garçon is dressed in all black, except for his gold Michael Kors watch. If his all-black getup initially conjures notions of traditional somber funeral attire, the thought will likely flit away amid the vibrant and lively spectacle of the night’s festivities.

The man is fierce, but just for a second, in the middle of his walk, he pauses and looks down. What’s happening? Is he losing it? He starts to cry. It’s an agonizing moment that seems to last forever.

Then Garçon, the surname being a credit to the House of Garçon, snaps back, and whatever shadow passed over him in that moment is gone. He owns the catwalk and goes on to win the Butch Queen Face category and take home $500 in prize money.

Into the Mainstream?

With season nine of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” starting in the spring, James Charles as CoverGirl’s first Cover Boy, and countless other examples throughout pop culture, drag queens, boys in makeup and other gender-benders are almost mainstream, at least in popular media.

But alongside the club culture that dominates the public image of gay nightlife, there is another culture, one that grew up in rented halls and temporary venues in Harlem and all around New York before spilling out into other East Coast cities and finally even into Louisville and the Midwest.

The word “ball” summons images of grand affairs with fabulous gowns. Maybe it even summons the ideas of fairytales and magic, a place so fabulous it feels removed from the real world. Drag balls attempt to encompass all that and more, and to keep it extra interesting, a competitive edge is added.

Dr. Kaila Story is an associate professor of women’s and gender studies and pan African studies at the University of Louisville and co-host of WFPL’s “Strange Fruit,” a public radio program that discusses the intersection of race and LGBTQ life. Story describes the origins of balls in New York City: “[They] originated in the Harlem Renaissance. A lot of it had to do with a direct response to the fact that black queens, when they went to participate in drag pageants that were at white-owned establishments, they wouldn’t win prizes.”

Black and Latinx queens began holding their own pageants, which came to outshine those held by the white community.

Balls flirted with the mainstream in the 1990s when Madonna’s hit song “Vogue” popularized the dance and catwalk technique that had grown out of the culture. The decade also saw the release of “Paris Is Burning,” a 1990 documentary about New York’s ball scene.

The film is now considered a classic, but in the early ’90s, it didn’t break through into the popular consciousness the way Madonna’s song did. The film has since gone on to inspire a new generation of ball walkers and organizers. When people in the scene try to talk to you about ball culture, they usually start by asking, “Well, have you seen ‘Paris Is Burning’?”

But the people who brought balls to Louisville in the early 2000s were more inspired by the balls they saw while traveling, or living in one of those bigger cities. So they decided to bring balls to Louisville, and for a while, the culture here flourished before tragedy took the wind out of the movement.

Founding Members

Jaison Gardner emcees a ball
Jaison Gardner emcees a ball

Jaison Gardner, known largely in Louisville for his social activism and as the other co-host of “Strange Fruit,” is one of the progenitors of the Louisville ball scene, part of a regional scene that began to flourish in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Within the ball scene, he goes by the moniker IQ Prestige.

Unlike one of the larger metropolises like New York, Louisville doesn’t have the population to support a self-contained ball culture. “What you do have is the O.K.I. region, as in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana,” Gardner relates. “Since we’re smaller, we have Cincinnati, Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville; the three states operate as a regional scene.”

But it’s not just the O.K.I. region. People travel for balls, heading up to New York or down to Atlanta.

“As a teenager, I moved to D.C.,” he says, explaining his introduction to the scene. Washington, D.C. has been a bastion of ball culture since the ’60s, and it’s where Gardner got his first taste.

Another early member of Louisville’s scene was Larry Chandler. He can recall seeing “Paris Is Burning,” but he wasn’t sold on the idea. “At first, I was like, ‘No no. I’m not doing that stuff … because it’s real feminine.”

Chandler traveled occasionally to clubs in other cities and met people on the scene directly involved with ball culture. Eventually, a ball walker known as Miss Amey convinced Chandler to walk as part of a ball’s grand house march. A house march isn’t a direct competition but more of a parade that is a show of force from a house. “[She was] like, ‘All you gotta do is come down, wear a backpack, walk down the runway and be seen,” says Chandler.

Larry Chandler and Jaison Gardner
Larry Chandler and Jaison Gardner

For the grand march, Chandler was representing the category of School Boy Realness. Then, when Chandler saw the ball, it clicked. “They compete and they were jumping off tables and jumping off chairs, and I was like, ‘Wow.’ It was really interesting to see these people, and I was hooked from that moment on.” What seemed eccentric or off-putting on film was pure splendor in person.

He was invited to join House of Glory, and he began to compete for Glory at balls in other cities before he began teaming up with Gardner and a few other Louisvillians who wanted to bring a ball to Derby City, including Kenneth Leda. Throughout the research for this story, Leda – whose drag name was Issys St. James Escada – came up more times than I could count. Escada was so deeply embedded in the culture that I myself have come to suspect she was the heart of the Louisville scene.

Houses, Categories, Names and Lingo

Drag names? Houses? There’s a lot of lingo in ball culture. It’s not surprising; the history of the scene that started in Harlem in the ’20s has had plenty of time to grow and has been shaped not only by our culture’s homophobia but also segregation, the civil rights movement and the AIDS crisis. It can be tough to keep track of, but here’s a little primer.

A house is a group of people who compete together, are (usually) friends and may sometimes live together. It’s little bit like a club, a little bit like a frat or a sorority and even a little bit like an old school gang – back when immigrants and other social outcasts couldn’t depend on mainstream cultural structures to keep them safe.

But while some folks will mention all those similarities, the preeminent comparison you will hear from ball walkers is that a house is like a family. It’s embedded deeply in the language. Gardner talks about his “children,” Garçon talks about his “mother” Issys Escada, and Chandler talks about his “sister.” Each house has a “mother” and often a “father.”

A vintage ball flyer
A vintage ball flyer

After a ball walker joins a house, they’ll take the name of the house as their surname for competitions. Larry Chandler currently goes by “Larry Mizrahi,” and Amori Garçon takes his last name from the House of Garçon.

Like many longtime ball kids, Gardner has had a string of house affiliations. He started in D.C. as a member of the House of Lourdes. After establishing Lourdes in Louisville, Gardner left that house with some of his children to start his own house: the House of Imperial. He has since joined the House of Prestige, where he’s been a member for over 10 years.

Houses can be named after a variety of things, and those names can say a lot. Many houses are named after fashion brands: Mizrahi, Balenciaga, Dior or Chanel. House names can be aspirational: House of Latex sprang up during the AIDS crisis and was committed to promoting safe sex. They gave out condoms and promoted education at balls.

Garçon talks a little a bit about how you might go about joining the House of Garçon: “So let’s say I had a friend who was thinking about getting into the house. I would bring that friend to the Garçon meeting.”

A big part of ball culture is the categories. To use a weak metaphor, they’re kind of like different strokes in swimming. It’s tough to describe. They encompass so many ideas about gender and drag and creativity. Even somewhat simple categories like School Boy Realness require an explanation of several terms. School Boy hints at age or aesthetic; it’s a category for young or youthful-looking guys – guys who look like they go to high school or college. “Realness” indicates the ability to pass as heterosexual in everyday society. It’s all about looking stereotypically straight and masculine.

Jaison Gardner getting ready to emcee a ball
Jaison Gardner getting ready to emcee a ball

Layer in the idea that balls and ball culture also teach young LGBTQ people how to survive in a world that has been in many ways hostile to them, and “realness” isn’t just a category, it’s a survival skill.

Of course, other categories are the opposite. Butch Queen Face, Realness with a Twist, and Catboy Sex Siren all take normative genders and mix them up. Realness with a Twist is maybe the most literal representation of this. Chandler eventually graduated from School Boy Realness to Realness with a Twist: “It’s a two part category – twist part one and twist part two. Twist part one is the part where you come out looking like a masculine male.” Then comes the twist. “Part two is like your alter ego. They want you to vogue, like in a skirt or a vogue with a wig on. For instance, part one will be a jersey, part two will be a cheerleader.”

Realness with a Twist seems to speak to a deeper truth; you have to both live in the real world and find a way to let your pride flag fly – as if personal truth is just as necessary for survival.

Some categories are based on the dance moves that have grown up around ball culture. Those categories include Vogue Fem, Hand Performance, and Spins and Dips.

But categories aren’t always set; they can change or be influenced by the theme of the ball. Each ball has a name, a special theme and special categories. These categories are still competitive but can be deeply creative.

Along with big ideas like houses and categories, there are hundreds of other special words and concepts. “Ovah” means great. “Dragon” is another word for drag queen. If someone says you look “cunt,” it means your drag look is very naturally feminine.

People familiar with drag culture will know some of these terms. Indeed, many terms jump first from ball culture to drag culture before being appropriated by the mainstream. If you’ve hollered “Yassss!” or “Slay, queen!” anytime in the last couple of years, you were using slang from ball culture, even though the majority of America still doesn’t know what balls are or recognize that they are something unique within the larger patchwork of LGBTQ culture.

Race

It’s one thing to point to the past and acknowledge the racism within the gay community that led to the creation of house ball culture, but it can be tough to look at today and unpack the complicated interplay of race, gender and sexuality.

Gardner says racism is alive and well in gay culture and that it comes in several flavors. His blackness sometimes causes white people in gay spaces to read him as straight: “People read me as a straight dude in their spaces,” he attests. Gardner in fact sometimes gets hostility because of his presumed straightness. Among white gays, he says black men are sometimes exoticized and treated like racialized sex objects, subject to crude come-ons and remarks.

Gardner is an activist and is used to calling out problematic behavior when he sees it, as is Story. They are the best of friends and are frequently together whether on the air or off.

The two recounted a particular story of being harassed and threatened with dogs in a now-defunct Old Louisville gay bar called Woody’s. The duo took the incident to the press, and LEO Weekly and some other news sources picked up the story. This was back in 2008 when Obama was running for office the first time. Story and Gardner were out canvassing for him.

Gardner says the experience really illustrates a reality for LGBTQ people of color: “The gay club, even if you are gay, is not necessarily a safe space.”

Koree Antonio a.k.a. Amori Garçon
Koree Antonio a.k.a. Amori Garçon

Garçon however is somewhat hesitant as to whether he experiences racism and exoticism in predominantly white gay clubs. “[I’ve] never felt uncomfortable in a bad way,” he says. “I’ve been uncomfortable when I walked into a place and it’s been predominantly white, to where they look at me like a sex object, but never like a race thing. But I’ve walked in and felt uncomfortable in that type of way … at predominantly black clubs as well.”

Garçon goes on to say it’s just sort of how things are for him: “It comes along with the territory. Anybody with a specific look, if you’re attractive, people are going to notice you’re attractive. If you’re sexy, people are going to notice.”

Despite saying he’s never been uncomfortable, Garçon is still quick to clarify that he’s not quiet about it when he is uncomfortable. “Now, I don’t like the wrong kind of attention, and I’ll correct you if you come in a disrespectful manner or anything like that.”

Chandler meanwhile speaks to a different face of the racial implications of the culture. “The ball kids were mainly black, and if you got another race to join your house or participate in your ball, it was kind of a big thing because they were like the outside coming in and it made your popularity rise really fast.”

So even in a space created as a retreat from racism and whiteness, white skin can come to be valued more highly than black skin. It’s a reminder that the greatest trick oppressive structures pull is getting participation from those they oppress.

Houses are Homes

Part of the history of the scene is that the houses often started because they were refuges for homeless LGBTQ youth in big cities. These youths would run away from home or be kicked out because of their sexuality or gender identity.

Now, it’s getting a little better out there for some young LGBTQ individuals. Story discusses some of the growth in services: “Across the country, there are different initiatives, homeless shelters, for young people who are displaced from their families because of their LGBTQ identity.” Of course, that wasn’t the case historically, and while a lot of these kids have a little more access to resources now, Story says that isn’t always the case for LGBTQ youth of color. “Just like domestic abuse shelters, the people who have the most access to those spaces – where they are getting help or social services – typically tend to be white middle-class to working-class.”

There are several reasons this may be the case. “Because of the circumstances that surround black gay life, such as crafting, sex work, those types of things, they might not feel comfortable if they go into a YMCA Safe Place because they’ve got a record.”

More lingo: Crafting means stealing or running a con. It’s generally a sort of light, non-violent thieving.

Story adds, “Those facilities are going to do background checks. Let’s say [the youths] have a transgender identity, [the facilities] are going to want real names, their birth name. All those things create trouble.”

Instead of turning to traditional spaces for support, balls walkers turned to each other. Gardner recalls his own youth in D.C. “In D.C., the trans queens would go trick, they’d go do their sex work and go buy a hotel, and then them and the gay boys would stay there for the night, 11 a.m., we’d pack up our bags, go to the library or whatever,” he describes.

The next night, they’d do the same thing, never staying in one place long. When Gardner started to grow the scene in Louisville, he and his contemporaries opened their doors to people who didn’t have a place to stay. Gardner says the members weren’t always in the same ballroom house: “We all kind of lived together and stayed together. Instead of a figurative house, it was a literal house [that we had in common].”

Issys St. James Escada
Issys St. James Escada

Issys St. James Escada 

Issys St. James Escada
Issys St. James Escada

One of the questions I was trying to answer when I started writing this story was, if the ball scene was so cool and so great, what happened? Why isn’t there a ball next week or something?

Like everything else, balls were rocked by the digital revolution. “When we were on the scene, we were lucky if you could pay someone $20 and they’d mail you a VHS tape [of a performance], maybe a DVD, and they were very coveted things,” recounts Gardner. “Now, you can just go online and see it for free. It’s brilliant because it’s helped the scene expand – people in small-town Kentucky or Indiana can see – but it’s also detrimental because it begins to water it down. … The scene is not just about performance, about vogueing; it’s about family.”

Gardner also admits that as prize money for competitions ballooned, so did ticket prices, making it harder for some people to attend.

But as I talked to Gardner and Chandler and Garçon, the same person kept popping up over and over again: Issys St. James Escada.

Gardner mentioned her first. This was in the first couple of minutes of our interview: “There were few of us in Louisville that threw balls. One of them was my daughter Issys. She died about four years ago.”

Issys St. James Escada
Issys St. James Escada

He talked about her more with a little prodding. “She was Legendary. Legendary is a person who has done it, has walked for a long time. She was Legendary for Runway. She was beloved. So when she passed away, that was a big hit to our local scene.” Gardner also mentions that Chandler moved to Atlanta for work, and that slowed the scene down.

Then, when I talked to Chandler, he brought up Escada as well. “The first ball that was held in Louisville was held by my best friend. Her name was Issys St. James Escada.” As he spoke, Chandler’s voice suggested a warm admiration. “He held the first mini-ball that we had in the city. It was called When Animals Attack. It was jungle-themed.” Chandler’s voice would almost break when he said things such as, “He was my best friend. We were like Frick and Frack. We did everything together.”

A week later, when I talked to Garçon, we were in the middle of talking about exfoliating and getting ready for a ball, and Escada came up again. Escada was Garçon’s drag mother.

Issys St. James Escada
Issys St. James Escada

“Issys was my mother,” he affirms. “Her energy and her drive when it comes to the ballroom is actually what inspired me, ballroom-wise. On a personal level, that was a person I could sit on the phone with for hours and share my whole story and not feel judged. My connection with Issys was beyond this world.”

I had several quotes about Escada from Gardner and Chandler, but listening to Garçon was the moment it clicked for me: Escada’s death is what happened to the scene. After she passed, Chandler moved to Atlanta, Gardner stopped throwing balls and walkers like Garçon had to go out of state to compete.

Escada’s death broke everyone’s heart.

Bringing It Back

Last spring, Gardner helped throw Vogue Knights, Louisville’s first ball in quite some time. It was co-sponsored by Volunteers of America Mid-States (VOA) as an HIV testing, education and prevention event in conjunction with Nation HIV Testing Day. With these grants and sponsorships, the ball was able to have all the prizes of a normal ball and offer the spectacle and the education to the community without charging an admission fee at the door.

Gardner says that the community still needs what ball culture and houses have to offer young people. “The things that you learn by way of the ball scene, you learn to cope with life.” But if there isn’t an active ball scene, “we can’t pass down those values, that institutional memory, that history of why the scene is important.”

Memory is important to the community, whether it’s the institutional memory that the scene stretches all the way back to the Harlem Renaissance or the more recent memory of those family members who helped shaped the scene.

Issys’ Last Ball

Kenneth Leda, who would become Issys St. James Escada
Kenneth Leda, who would become Issys St. James Escada

When Escada passed of meningitis, she was planning a ball with Chandler, a huge affair called Inferno. They had thrown Inferno balls before, and this one was going to be the biggest one yet. The theme was the astrological charts.

Chandler considered canceling Inferno. “I was like, ‘How am I going to do this without him?’” But he decided to move forward, to honor his best friend.

There was a dedication ceremony at Inferno. Escada’s mother came. It was at this ball that Garçon found himself crying in front of the judges mid-walk.

The $500 Garçon won wasn’t even the biggest prize on the line; there was a grand prize of $1,000 up for grabs.

Chandler talks about the competition with that same sense of awe and sadness. “They had to bring to life one of the zodiac signs. … It was something [Escada] talked about constantly. We’d been planning for this ball for almost a year in advance,” Chandler remembers. “I actually cried when they did the category. … It was like, this is what he would have loved to see, and it just hurt.”

Despite the heartbreak, the ball scene is stirring. Chandler, after settling into his life in Atlanta, is interested in jumping back into Louisville’s scene and planning to organize from afar. After all, he and Escada threw some out-of-town events before, with balls in Indianapolis and abroad being staged from Louisville. Why not use those same skills and reach back to his hometown, even if he hangs his hat in Atlanta?

Larry Chandler and Issys St. James Escada
Larry Chandler and Issys St. James Escada

And after the success of Vogue Knights, Gardner is looking to the future to keep this new momentum going and using his

connections in the nonprofit and activist community to bring the pageantry and sense of family to a new group of LGBTQ youth.

Nuclear families keep going after tragedy strikes, so why should the found families of Houses Prestige, Mizrahi or Garçon be any different? Hopefully, soon the cries of “Yasssss!” and “Slay, queen!” will ring out once more from a ball near you.