Sunday, February 25, 2007

Vogueing: Alive and Well

I frequently show Jennie Livingston's great documentary, Paris Is Burning, in my gender/sexuality classes, and this article does a great job of updating us on the voguing scene, which not only remains vital, but has spread far beyond New York City.

New York Times, May 22, 2005 Sunday (Style Section, Pg. 1)
"Still Striking A Pose," by Guy Trebay

SELVIN KOOL-AID GIVENCHY was stalking the runway, letting fly his hands and his wild invective. ''Work it, girls! Serve it like a legend!'' said Mr. Givenchy, who is something of an underground legend himself, what with his Moms Mabley mug, his colossally oversize sweatshirt and a mouth that would make that raunchy comedian's seem snowflake pure. ''Remember,'' Mr. Givenchy commanded the ladies, although ladies was not the word he employed. ''I am in charge of the girls!''

The girls were not girls, of course, and the boys not boys. The runway was a makeshift theater on which, over the course of a long evening, the girls and the boys would stomp and pose and parade and dance attired in zoot suits or chiffon dresses or else very little at all. The gathering was a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the New York-based House of Ultra-Omni, one of the last of the original drag queen houses whose balls proliferated in the 1980's, then faded from memory and, seemingly, disappeared.

Whatever vague awareness most Americans may have of this bygone scene probably comes from Madonna's ''Vogue,'' the influential 1990 hit that was either an act of homage to the underground that inspired it or one of creative larceny. A fuller introduction was provided by ''Paris Is Burning,'' Jennie Livingston's 1991 documentary, a remarkably clear-eyed appraisal of the epoch and the quirky ''legends'' who gave it birth.

No one can say for sure when or how voguing seemed to vanish, and with it the houses that brought it into the world. Those houses constituted groups of gay men organized and run by ''mothers'' and ''fathers,'' populated by ''children'' and named for fashion designers no one involved had ever met. Then and now, even people who were in on the scene might have been forgiven for assuming that its practitioners had moved on in the decade after ''Vogue'' and ''Paris Is Burning,'' or, as likely, were now dead.

The reality, it turns out, is astonishingly different. True, AIDS decimated the ball world, carrying away many of its founders. But far from fading out, the balls survived and are being revived by a new generation that has exported them from the urban centers where they first flourished to the Sun Belt and the Midwest.

Balls are now being staged almost every weekend in cities like St. Louis, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington and Detroit. The House of Ultra-Omni alone has branches in 10 states. A dozen or more Web sites are devoted to the scene, which also has its own magazine and newsletter and is the subject of a new documentary that brings things vividly up to date. "How Do I Look" was filmed over the past decade by the German filmmaker Wolfgang Busch; fresh from making the rounds of an academic circuit still eager for tales from the gender front, the film will be released on DVD next month.

''People thought it all ended with 'Paris Is Burning,''' said Wayne Tanks, the father of the Wisconsin chapter of the House of Ultra-Omni. Along with dozens of other children, Mr. Tanks had traveled to Los Angeles to celebrate his house's quarter-century mark. ''But we're still here.''

In Los Angeles this was made abundantly clear as members arrived to represent venerable houses like Ninja, Versace, Mugler, Cavalli, Moschino, Bizarre, Blahnik, Givenchy, Balenciaga and Prestige. Mothers and fathers and children from each of these clans descended on a Westin hotel near L.A.X., curiously resplendent beings whose existence gave proof to the survival of an implausible phenomenon conjured from the raw material of hard lives.

They came to commemorate, to celebrate, to dance and posture and do serious battle on a catwalk in an overlighted banquet room. They also came, if one may borrow back a phrase from Madonna, to strike a pose.

''When I first heard about the houses, I thought, this culture is so underground,'' said Brandon Harp, a member of the Atlanta House of Ultra-Omni. ''Then I found that, in places like Kentucky, where I had never been, people knew who I am and what my best category is.''

Mr. Harp arrived in Los Angeles prepared to walk in a category called Butch Queen Realness, a kind of extravagantly performed commentary on self-presentation, in which an out gay man impersonates an apparently straight or closeted gay man by wearing a costume that exaggeratedly telegraphs masculinity. Mordant social commentary has always been at the core of the voguing balls, and long before academia institutionalized the notion that gender is performance, the ball children were tartly making the same point at elaborate fetes where competing groups vied to outdo each other at caricaturing the masks of sex. Wealth and power, it should be mentioned, also tend to come in for some sharp appraisal at these gatherings, critiques the more pointed because ball children have historically possessed little of either.

Throughout their history, ball children have strutted down improvised runways in categories like ''executive realness,'' ''femme attitude'' and ''sex-siren effect.'' The costumes they donned were most memorably of the feather boa sort. But, just as often their ''drag'' runs to ''executive'' suits and wingtips or else do-rags and Timberlands worn by Down Low types.

In the past the ball children battled in gay clubs and leased Elks halls. They took trophies and earned credibility and status on a circuit that was both intricately networked and, at the same time, so seemingly informal one would think the balls were arranged ad hoc. All that has changed, Mr. Tanks said. Thirty members of his house split their time between working up ensembles for catwalk competitions and creating outreach programs promoting ''awareness and prevention of H.I.V.'' and other forms of sexually transmitted disease.

Social service was a galaxy away from anyone's concerns at the Westin hotel on this spring evening, as the ball children tucked into a dinner of poached chicken and mesclun with slices of Brie. The meal was a marked departure from balls of the past, where the food, if there was any, tended to be chips or pretzels or anything useful at soaking up booze. If not an entirely sober occasion, the 25th anniversary of the House of Ultra-Omni was a Kiwanis picnic by contrast with the frenzied, and often drug-stoked, blowouts of earlier days.

Still, it was a serious ball, serious meaning frivolous to a nearly demented degree. As Mr. Givenchy repeated any number of times, ''The girls better serve it serious, they better work, and they better come out here punishing my runway with a nasty attitude and a sickening walk.'' Irony being mother's milk in the ball world, words like sick and nasty and over (or ''ovah'') are terms of the highest approbation: Webster's take note.

Of all the contributions the ball world has made to culture, dance is probably the most durable, athough that oddly seems to have escaped much scholarly notice. ''Voguing is truly an evolution of ancient African dance forms rehearsed and refined into a form of first-world party artistry,'' explained Muhammad Ultra-Omni, real name Salaudin Muhammad, before taking to the stage in a white linen suit and a white straw hat whose crown was cut out to allow for his fountain of dreadlocks.

Once onstage Mr. Muhammad put in play the stylized walks and poses and dips and spins and chest poppings and stupefying dead drops that have qualified him for legendary status on a scene where legend is a hard-won formal honorific.

''Break dancers get together and do stuff like this, and it's fully accepted,'' said Willi Ninja, surely the most celebrated dancer ever produced by the ballrooms, speaking in a mainstream sense. ''If Madonna does voguing, it's O.K.,'' he added. ''But when the ball children dance, even now, people say, 'Oh, it's a bunch of crazy queens throwing themselves on the floor.'''

Yet even the most skeptical observer would have trouble disputing that real artistry is involved when Muhammad or Ninja takes the floor. And not even a churl could keep from being charmed by the House of Cavalli, a posse of refrigerator-size men who swept into the Westin ballroom near midnight wearing demure French twists and dresses of diaphanous chiffon that had to have been cut from acre-sized bolts.

To the chanted (and entirely unprintable) exhortations of Mr. Givenchy, each performer took his thrashing, popping, stalking, prancing or whirling turn on the runway and posed and performed in a way that one contestant described as ''so nasty and ovah it's sick.''

The clear high point of the evening, for this observer at least, was reached when Warner McPherson, also known as Hershey Ultra-Omni, pranced onstage with his lean body oiled and naked but for a G-string kitted out with plastic Wal-Mart foliage. In a blur that lasted less than three minutes, Mr. McPherson miraculously managed to conjure the entire history of voguing in a performance so stylized and manic that inspired is hardly an adequate word. It was possessed.

''Work it, Miss Hershey! Bring it! Serve it! Show them girls how it's really done!'' The voice belonged to Kevin Burrus, or Kevin Ultra-Omni, who helped found the house of that name 25 years ago in New York. ''You know, seeing Hershey makes me emotional,'' explained Mr. Burrus, as his protege performed. ''After all that we have been through, with the AIDS and the drugs and the death and the homophobia, I see Hershey dancing and realize that the ball children are still strong and still out here, carrying on.''

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Same-Sex Public Displays of Affection

This article is about as good an account of "hetenormativity" and the un-marked and usually unnoticed limits it imposes upon everyday behavior as you can get. (As an aside, last year a female friend of mine was nuzzling with her girlfriend right behind a Dickson street eatery in downtown Fayetteville. A guy passing by in his truck, his girlfriend in tow, leapt out and punched my friend hard in the face, and then jumped back in the truck and drove off. Luckily my friend didn't get her nose broken, but she looked terrible from the assault. The matter was reported to the police but the perp has never been caught.) See Snickers ad here.

New York Times, February 18, 2007
A Kiss Too Far?
By Guy Trebay

The spot was only 30 seconds, almost a blur amid the action at the Super Bowl. Yet the hubbub after a recent commercial showing two auto mechanics accidentally falling into lip-lock while eating the same Snickers bar went a long way toward showing how powerfully charged a public kiss between two men remains.

Football is probably as good a place as any to look for the limits of social tolerance. And the Snickers commercial — amusing to some, appalling to others and ultimately withdrawn by the company that makes the candy — had the inadvertent effect of revealing how a simple display of affection grows in complexity as soon as one considers who gets to demonstrate it in public, and who, very often, does not.

The demarcation seemed particularly stark during the week of Valentine’s Day, when the aura of love cast its rosy Hallmark glow over card-store cash registers and anyone with a pulse. Where, one wondered, were all the same-sex lovers making out on street corners, or in comedy clubs, performance spaces, flower shops or restaurants?

“There’s really a kind of Potemkin village quality to the tolerance and acceptance” of gay people in America, said Clarence Patton, a spokesman for the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. “The idea of it is O.K., but the reality falls short.”

Provided gay people agree to “play a very tightly scripted and choreographed role in society, putting your wedding together or what have you, we’re not threatening,” Mr. Patton said. “But people are still verbally harassed and physically attacked daily for engaging in simple displays of affection in public. Everything changes the minute we kiss.”

The lugs in the Snickers commercial recoiled in shock at their smooch, resorting to “manly” behavior like tearing out their chest hair in clumps. Alternate endings to the commercial on a Snickers Web site showed the two clobbering each other, and related video clips featured players from the Super Bowl teams reacting, not unexpectedly, with squeamish distaste. The outrage voiced by gay rights groups similarly held little surprise.

“This type of jeering from professional sports figures at the sight of two men kissing fuels the kind of anti-gay bullying that haunts countless gay and lesbian schoolchildren on playgrounds across the country,” Joe Solmonese, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. A spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation condemned the advertisement as “inexcusable.” Masterfoods USA, a division of Mars and the maker of Snickers, withdrew the offending ads.

But for some the commercial left the lingering question of who owns the kiss? How is it that a simple affectionate gesture can be so loaded? Why is it that behavioral latitudes permit couples of one sort to indulge freely in public displays lusty enough to suggest short-term motel stays, while entire populations, albeit minority ones, live real-time versions of the early motion picture Hays Code: a peck on the cheek in public, one foot squarely planted on the floor?

The freedom to kiss in public is hardly the most compelling issue for most gay rights advocates, or perhaps even in the minds of many gay Americans. Yet the symbolic weight of simple gestures remains potent, a point easy to observe wherever on the sexual spectrum one falls. “Whose issue is it? Why is it only a gay issue?” said Robert Morea, a fitness consultant in New York.

Although Mr. Morea is heterosexual, his client list has long included a number of high-profile professionals, the majority of them gay women and men. “The issue is there because for so many years, people got beaten up, followed or yelled at,” he said. “Even for me as a straight man, it’s obvious how social conditioning makes it hard for people to take back the public space.”

After considering herself exclusively lesbian for decades, Sarah Van Arsdale, a novelist, not long ago found, to her surprise, that she had fallen in love with a man. At first, as she wrote last week in an e-mail message from a writer’s colony in Oaxaca, Mexico, “ Whenever we would hold hands in public, I felt a frisson of fear, waiting for the customary dirty looks or at least for the customary looking-away.”

In place of revulsion, Ms. Van Arsdale was startled to discover that, having adjusted her sexual identity, she was now greeted by strangers with approving smiles. “I felt suddenly acceptable and accepted and cute, as opposed to queer,” she said.

While few are likely to have shared Ms. Van Arsdale’s singular perspective, her experience is far from exceptional. “I’m a very openly gay man,” said Dane Clark, who manages rental properties and flies a rainbow flag from his house in Kansas City, Kan. “My partner and I don’t go kissing in public. I live in probably the most liberal part of the State of Kansas, but it’s not exactly liberal. If I was to go to a nice restaurant nearby and kiss my partner, I don’t think that would go over very well.”

As many gay men have before him, Mr. Clark chose to live in a city rather than the sort of small town where he was raised in the hope that Kansas City would provide a greater margin of tolerance and also of safety. Even in nearby Independence, Mo., he said, “if you kiss your partner in a restaurant, you could find somebody waiting for you outside when you went to the car.”

But haven’t things changed radically from the days when lesbians and gay men were considered pariahs, before gay marriage initiatives became ballot issues, before Ellen DeGeneres was picked to host the Oscars, and cable TV staples like “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” made a competitive sport of group hugs?

In some senses and in certain places, apparently, they have. The landscape of acceptance, as the Snickers commercial inadvertently illustrated, is constantly shifting — broadening in one place and contracting somewhere else. The country in which anti-gay advocates like the Rev. Fred Phelps once drew headlines for picketing Matthew Shepard’s funeral and preaching what was called “a Day-Glo vision of hatred” can seem very far away at times from the laissez-faire place in which an estimated 70 percent of Americans say they know someone who is gay.

“We don’t administrate public displays of affection,” said Andrew Shields, World Church Secretary of the Community of Christ, a Christian evangelical church with headquarters in Independence. “Homosexuality is still in discussion in our church. But our denominational point of view is that we uphold the worth of all persons, and there is no controversy on whether people have a right to express themselves.”

The tectonics of attitude are shifting in subtle ways that are geographic, psychic and also generational, suggested Katherine M. Franke, a lesbian who teaches law and is a director of the Center for the Study of Law and Culture at Columbia University. “I’ve been attacked on the street and called all sorts of names” for kissing a female partner in public, Professor Franke said. “The reception our affection used to generate was violence and hatred,” she added. “What I’ve found in the last five years is that my girlfriend and I get smiles from straight couples, especially younger people. Now there’s almost this aggressive sense of ‘Let me tell you how terrific we think that is.’ ”

Yet gay-bashing still occurs routinely, Mr. Patton of the Anti-Violence Project said, even in neighborhoods like Chelsea in Manhattan, where the sight of two men kissing on the street can hardly be considered a frighten-the-horses proposition. “In January some men were leaving a bar in Chelsea,” saying goodbye with a kiss, Mr. Patton said. “One friend got into a taxi and then a car behind the taxi stopped and some guys jumped out and beat up the other two.” One victim of the attack, which is under investigation by the police department’s Hate Crimes Task Force, was bruised and shaken. The second had a broken jaw.

“The last time I was called a faggot was on Eighth Avenue,” said Joe Windish, a longtime New Yorker who now lives in Milledgeville, Ga., with his partner of many years. “I don’t have that here, and I’m an out gay man,” said Mr. Windish, whose neighbors in what he termed “the reddest of the red states” may be fundamentalist Christians who oppose gay marriages and even civil unions, but “who all like me personally.”

Tolerance has its limits, though, as Mr. Windish found when he and his partner took a vacation on a sleepy island off the coast of Georgia. “I became aware that if I held my partner’s hand, or kissed him in public, the friendliness would stop,” he said.

What Mr. Windish calls a level of peril is possibly always in play, and this no doubt has something to do with the easily observed reality that a public kiss between two people of the same sex remains an unusual occurrence, and probably not because most are holding out for the chance to lock lips over a hunk of milk chocolate, roasted peanuts and caramel.

“We forget here, because New York has been relatively safe for a while, that hate is a problem,” said Roger Padilha, an owner of MAO public relations in New York. The reminders surface in everyday settings, he said, and in ordinary ways.

“My boyfriend and I always hold hands and, when we feel like it, we kiss,” Mr. Padilha said. Yet some weeks back, at a late movie in a Times Square theater, as Mr. Padilha went to rest his hand on his partner’s leg — a gesture it would seem that movie theaters were invented to facilitate — he recoiled as sharply as had one of the Snickers ad guys.

“He was like: ‘Don’t do that. It’s too dangerous,’ ” Mr. Padilha said. “And afterward I thought, you know, my dad isn’t super into P.D.A.’s, but nobody’s ever going to beat him up because he’s kissing my mom at a movie. I kept thinking: What if my boyfriend got hit by a car tomorrow? When I had the chance to kiss him, why didn’t I?”