Ball Culture

Ball culture, the house system, the ballroom community and similar terms describe an underground LGBT subculture in the United States in which people “walk” (i.e., compete) for trophies and prizes at events known as balls. Some who walk also dance; others compete in drag genres, trying to pass as a gender and social class. Most participants in ball culture belong to groups known as “houses”.

Houses, also called “families”, are LGBTQ groups which band together under a “house mother” (sometimes a drag queen or transgender person) or “house father”.

A member chooses to identify with a certain category based on their walk (performance). This system includes six categories: Butch Queens, Femme Queens, Butch Queens up in Drag, Butches, Women, Men and house parents. Those in the women category are primarily straight, feminine lesbians or queer. Overall, the gender system does not completely break from the hegemonic norms of sex, gender and sexuality, but it offers more gender and sexual identities from which to choose.The gender system specially serves to define what role members play in the house.

Houses are kinship structures that are configured socially rather than biologically. The purpose is to provide a home or gathering place for members. In these houses, such members serve as ‘mothers’ or ‘fathers,’ in other words, house parents. The purpose of house parents is to provide guidance for their ‘children’ of various ages, race, and ethnic background. For example, house mothers perform some of the same ‘motherly qualities’ such as cooking, cleaning, and being nurturing. On the other hand, house fathers typically serve as the mentors of their ‘children.’ They provide guidance, uphold the house reputation, and serve as authority figures. For the most part, the division of labor for house parents is very much alike to heteronormative gender roles.

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In addition to providing a support system for their members, the houses “walk” (compete) against one another in “balls” judged on dance skills, costumes, appearance and attitude. Participants dress according to category in which they are competing, and are expected to display appropriate “realness”.

The largest balls last as long as ten hours, with dozens of categories in a single evening. With fewer spectators, nearly everyone comes to compete; some trophies are 12 feet (3.7 m) tall, and a grand-prize winner can earn $1,000 or more.