What “mother” means to LGBTQ ballroom culture – Lifotravel

Mother LeeLee James, with the House of LaBeija, poses at a YMCA in Denver on March 22, 2023. (Rachel Woolf)


As he scrolled through social media, Vipin Pratap was proud to come across a video of his “mother” performing onstage. His so-called mother didn’t give birth to him or raise him — at least not in the traditional sense. But Pratap argues that pop singer Taylor Swift is an inspiration and a provider, just like all mothers should be.

“When women like Taylor use their platform and art to express themselves in a way very few people can, that is empowering and encouraging and commendable,” Pratap wrote in an email. “All the qualities that the term ‘mother’ is associated with.”

In the past year, Swifties and other fans — or stans, as obsessed fans are called — say they have noticed an uptick in the use of “mother” to praise icons such as Madonna, Beyoncé and Swift for their power and resilience. These social media posts, which usually include photos or short videos of the celebrity, are often captioned “MOTHER,” “she’s so mother” or “mother is mothering.” Tied to the term’s rise in popularity, comparable posts have called “The Last of Us” actor Pedro Pascal an internet “daddy” and have gushed that singer Demi Lovato is “giving parent.”

The term has its origins in LGBTQ ballroom culture and plays an important part in Black transgender women’s history. As it enters the mainstream, some in the ballroom community contend that stans don’t recognize its history and significance. In a ballroom context, those who hold the title “mother” take on real-life responsibilities for leading their groups — called houses — to victory in ball competitions as well as in daily life. People who partake in the culture want those who use “mother” and other ballroom terms, such as the compliments “sickening” and “serving face,” to give them their due credit.

“A lot of people see the celebratory part,” said LeeLee James, mother for the Colorado chapter of the Royal House of LaBeija, a ballroom group based in Denver. “But there’s a lot of pain and trauma that is behind a lot of what people are glamorizing, and it is a disservice to just pick and choose the parts of ballroom culture that people find beautiful while ignoring the histories of pain that have led to that culture being the beautiful thing that it is.

Ballroom for queer Black and Latin Americans began as an underground subculture in the 1960s, after Crystal LaBeija and other Black drag queens created their own collective in response to the discrimination they faced in New York’s predominantly White drag pageant scene. The format of early balls closely mirrored that of drag beauty pageants, but the balls gradually evolved into their own art form, with specific competition categories that emphasized “realness,” or the ability to “pass” as a specific gender, and new forms of dance, such as voguing.

In 1972, LaBeija founded the first ballroom house, the House of LaBeija. Other still-active houses, such as the House of Xtravaganza, which also started in New York City, formed throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Because of the stigma associated with being LGBTQ, houses often functioned as families of choice: Trans women took in young people who had been kicked out by their biological parents and provided them with food, shelter, love and the support they needed to succeed in life.

“Ballroom houses were more than just a commodity in this way,” James said. They were “the epitome of safety … of being taken in when no one else wants you, when no one else sees you, and being held in a space long enough to heal and continue your own journey to accomplishing your goals.”

For James, that means working alongside her “children” — or the younger members she invited into her ballroom house — to have costumes, hair and makeup prepared for balls, but it also means teaching them skills to balance work and school, and be confident leaders in their community.

Since their inception, houses have spread across the world, increasing in ethnic diversity and cultural influence. Families typically don’t live together anymore, but ballroom’s commitment to helping at-risk gay, trans and gender-nonconforming youth has stayed the same.

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“A lot of people don’t understand how ballroom saves people’s lives. It saved mine,” said Shannon Balenciaga, overall mother for the House of Balenciaga, who lives in Atlanta and appeared with her children on Season 2 of the HBO Max ballroom competition show “Legendary.”

Balenciaga was introduced to ballroom while in federal prison in her 20s, she said, when a woman who became her mother urged her to walk in the face category. The art form gave her a positive outlet for the passion for fashion and beauty that landed her behind bars (she’d become engaged in a fraud scheme in part to finance her clothes shopping addiction). Now she visits prisons and tries to steer young people away from similarly troubled paths.

Over the 18 years that Balenciaga has spent in ballroom, she’s watched elements of it slip into pop culture consciousness. Celebrities with backgrounds in ballroom rose to fame, such as “RuPaul’s Drag Race” judge Michelle Visage and the late actor Michael K. Williams, while other famous figures, such as late fashion journalist André Leon Talley and supermodel Naomi Campbell, paid homage to ball culture in their work. But she believes more should be done to ensure that those who have invested time and money in the art of ballroom benefit when other people use it as inspiration.

“It’s so many terms that they’ve taken, and they have ran with it. I think it’s a great thing — with credit and respect to ballroom … from advertising, paid performances, to award shows and music videos,” she said. Balenciaga added that asking ballroom members for help would result in a more authentic product: “It’s important that you bring the people into the space, and you highlight them.”

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Jon “Ambush” Ninja met his ballroom mother, Akayla Ninja, while attending voguing classes hosted by the Dallas-based nonprofit United Black Ellument, which supports Black gay and bisexual young men. Over time, the duo grew closer, and Akayla invited Jon to join her better-known house, a Gulf Coast chapter of the House of Ninja in Dallas, as well as her kiki — smaller and less competitive — house, Nike.

“She has encouraged me to walk categories I was not confident in, and would have never walked without her encouragement,” he said. “She has given me comfort emotionally, especially outside of ballroom when I’m going through rough times.”

Like many people in the ballroom community, Ninja wants people to be educated about the weight that terms like mother hold. “For me, seeing the word ‘mother’ being misused by K-pop stans to describe their favorite idol, who is probably younger than them and does not fit what a mother does, shows people are just taking vernacular without really thinking about its origins and don’t really care,” he said.

Instead of appropriating, James says, allies can pay to attend a ball or other ballroom event, sponsor a category by donating toward a competition’s prize money or pay someone in ballroom to teach them about aspects of the culture.

“One of my [ballroom] grandkids yesterday told me, ‘I just realized how lucky I feel to have fallen under your umbrella of love,’ and that sent me fully,” James said. “There’s so much responsibility with making sure people feel safe and seen and heard. But that also means that I get to celebrate and take full responsibility of when they’re thriving.”

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