Baltimore LGBTQIA+ Histories and the Peabody Ballroom Oral History Interviews: Part Three
BHW 22: July 1, 2023
Baltimore ballroom success is built on respect and reputation. These are built by making history in ballroom and the sharing of these histories. As interviewee Icon Peanut Revlon asserted, “[O]ne thing about the [ballroom] scene, the scene’s gonna let everybody know what you did, ‘cause that’s what the commentator’s job is, to let everybody know people’s history, what they have done, you know what I mean, just so they’re gonna know their history of what’s going on in their scene.”  History is important to ballroom not just for understanding historical significance, but also as currency for its present and future. Participants are expected to know the histories of their own house and of ballroom more generally. This third group of interviews adds to group one’s emphasis on formative life experiences and “moments” along with group two’s focus on the Peabody Ball, ballroom titles, and Baltimore’s “underdog” identity. In group three, three monumental Baltimore ballroom figures all affiliated with the House of Revlon contrast with two young student interviewees enrolled in the inaugural Peabody dance Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) program. Taken together, these interviews illuminate the intergenerational impacts of Baltimore ballroom along with the importance of learning from difficult and complex ballroom histories.
It is no coincidence that the three ballroom veterans in this group all spent significant portions of their ballroom lives in the House of Revlon. These stories strengthen this house’s historical reputation as the driving force of Baltimore ballroom. Icon Lisa Revlon was part of the founding group of the House of Revlon. When asked if they were in the House of Revlon when they attended their first ball, Lisa pointed out, “The House of Revlon wasn’t even formulated then.”  However, Lisa suggests that the collective decision to form the house may have happened that very night, recalling, “and then I think Stewart, Danielle, and all them formulated – they made a decision to leave and formulate the house that night or whatever.”  Regardless of the actual founding date, the creation of the House of Revlon is arguably the most impactful event in the history of Baltimore ballroom. It is not an understatement to say that Revlon built Baltimore ballroom. When asked about the role of Revlon in Baltimore’s early ballroom history, Lisa responded, “[W]e was the only house here. We formulated the house. We walked through the streets.”  While the House of Revlon originated in New York City, its co-founder Tony Revlon ensured its Baltimore offshoot quickly took on an identity of its own.
One person stood at the center of the inception of the House of Revlon, and that was Tony Revlon himself. Interviewee Icon Peanut Revlon was in the House of Dior before later becoming a Revlon. Peanut emphasized that while their house mother was Sandy Dior’e, from our second group of interviews, the house’s father lived in New York and was largely absent. According to Peanut, “[F]or Baltimore City, the father of all fathers is Tony Revlon. I don’t know if you heard that name yet, but I’m quite sure you did, but he is the father of all fathers, over everybody.” Peanut believes that Tony’s role in Baltimore ballroom was so great that he was essentially father to all participants, regardless of house. The Revlon influence also went beyond Tony to foster a general desire to one day join the House of Revlon. As Peanut notes, “[T]hat was the name that was spread out and everybody always talked about.”  Lisa further emphasized early Revlon leadership in the Baltimore scene, asserting that “[E]veryone that’s in a father position, a mother, [in any house] came from the House of Revlon.”  While it is typical for ballroom participants to belong to numerous houses throughout their lives, as we have seen throughout this series Revlon stands out as a historic affiliation. To have spent significant time in this house means to hold a prominent place in Baltimore ballroom history.
While the narratives of inclusion throughout ballroom histories are inspiring, interviewee Icon Monique West draws important attention to a historical lack of inclusion. For a significant period, some in Baltimore ballroom treated transgender people as unwelcome. From all the histories recounted in these interviews, this example offers the largest potential for learning from the past to ensure a better future. Monique joined ballroom prior to her gender transition and was put into a category called “schoolboy realness.” As she explains, “That’s usually the category that most people walk when they first come into ballroom, because they’re probably fairly young and they’re fairly passable.”  Once she decided to self-identify as a woman, members of her house urged her to not change ballroom categories. They argued this would waste the reputation she had established as masculine. This is an example of a competitive mindset getting in the way of ballroom’s liberatory potential. Monique wanted to use ballroom to express her newfound comfort with her identity as a woman but was met with friction. This was also far from the end of Monique’s experience of identity exclusion in ballroom.
Monique emphasizes a structural exclusion of transgender people from ballroom that she says started around 2011.  This is even more unfortunate when considering ballroom’s deep historical roots in transgender communities. As Monique emphasized, “Ballroom started out before my time, in the ‘80s or maybe earlier than that, with transgender people. They weren’t as advanced as these people now of course, but it started out with transgender people.” She continued, “When transgender men and women walked balls, people would just really show them love and they could really celebrate who they were and so appreciate it.” But then around 2011, “People just acted like they weren’t interested in transgender people. It seemed like we had to fight for a space [ballroom] that was designed for us.”  Because of this turn, Monique left the House of Revlon and ballroom in general for eight months.  Then she came back determined to fix the transgender exclusion issue. Her main conclusion from studying and strategizing against the issue carries a strong lesson for anyone involved with inclusivity work. She recalled, “I simply found out that a lot of people that were working with ballroom, they just didn’t know. Nobody – they just really didn’t – because they’re coming in for information, so they just didn’t know that it was transgender people out there, the way that they were.”  A lack of knowledge about transgender experiences led to a lack of inclusion for transgender people. Knowledge is power and it seems a lot of the exclusion that was happening was due more to ignorance than prejudice. Ballroom must know not just its history, but also the realities of its present.
Baltimore ballroom history is also currently directly informing futures by being taught as part of the Peabody dance BFA program. Interviewees Chase Fittin and Peter Pattengill are both part of the program’s inaugural class.  In addition to providing technical perspectives on ballroom as trained dance professionals, they also both reflect on their positionality in this historically Black and LGBTQIA+ space. Both Chase and Peter are white. Peter self-identified in the interview as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community and emphasized feeling empowered to express queer identity in the ballroom programming. They also recalled an incident at the inaugural Peabody Ball where, “I remember getting up on the stage and I was pointed out as the white rabbit and the token white girl.” They reflected on their positionality in this situation, stating, “I think it was important for them to recognize and myself to recognize that there’s a history of black queer vogue dancers and we need to recognize that and acknowledge that this wasn’t something that was created for me but it’s something that I can take a part in.”  This relates to Monique’s emphasis on ballroom having transgender origins but faltering on transgender inclusion. History is important, inclusion is important, and these are inextricably intertwined in ballroom.
Narratives of belonging are crucial to ballroom just as they are for other performing arts. Chase recalled gaining self-awareness of positionality through academic and professional involvement with hip-hop. After explaining, “[W]ith me doing hip-hop, I’ve always gotten stigma for that too because hip-hop is not known for white people to adventure down that path,” they emphasized the importance of inclusion. For Chase, “I honestly think that dance and music in general is just open to everyone and everyone has access to it, and anyone can interpret it or use it however they want. Because I feel like we all, as humans, have our own body, and we all share the same features, the same everything.”  But attention to history is still crucial to understanding the cultural territory one is entering regardless of art form. This is even more important given the noted fluidity of genre in performing arts. For example, Peter pointed out that he thought Chase held a competitive advantage at the ball due to having “a background in hip-hop.”  Surely there are overlaps between hip-hop and ballroom just as there are overlaps between ballroom and Peter’s specialized genres. Ultimately, respect of history and protection of inclusion requires being attentive to cultural context.
The Peabody dance students and Baltimore ballroom veterans in this group of interviews collectively highlight the importance of historical thinking and cross-cultural understanding to fostering inclusive spaces. Monique’s example of ballroom’s lapse in transgender inclusion and her fight to fix it demonstrates that even cultures that pride themselves on inclusion must remain cognizant. Open conversation with all ballroom participants and outreach in adjacent communities such as Baltimore’s LGBTQIA+ community provide the shared knowledge to combat exclusion. Early in Baltimore ballroom history the House of Revlon was the dominant group. The proliferation of other houses since then provides important diversity that helps protect against exclusion. As dance students Chase and Peter shared, it is also the responsibility of individuals to understand their own positionality. They are both white and both respectfully acknowledged that with ballroom they entered a historically and presently Black LGBTQIA+ space. This interview group’s age difference also shows the importance of intergenerational knowledge sharing. Lisa embodies this in arguing against Sandy Dior’e holding the title “blueprint of Baltimore [ballroom].” To support this claim, they cite commitment to future ballroom generations. In Lisa’s words, “I’m the blueprint of Baltimore. I’m the blueprint. I got more lasting kids.” 
 S. Pakhrin, “LGBT[QIA+] folks at the National Museum of African Art Voguing Masquerade Ball,” photograph (Washington, DC, October 15, 2016), Creative Commons, https://flic.kr/p/NfhoaE.
 Icon Peanut Revlon, “Oral History of Icon Peanut Revlon,” by Joseph Plaster, JHU Baltimore Queer Oral History Collection (hereafter BQOHC) (April 2, 2019), 20, https://jscholarship.library.jhu.edu/handle/1774.2/66951.
 Icon Lisa Revlon, “Oral History of Icon Lisa Revlon,” by Joseph Plaster, BQOHC (April 9, 2019), 16, https://jscholarship.library.jhu.edu/handle/1774.2/66950.
 Lisa Revlon, “Oral History of Icon Lisa Revlon,” BQOHC (hereafter BQOHC) (April 9, 2019), 18.
 Lisa Revlon, “Oral History of Icon Lisa Revlon,” BQOHC (April 9, 2019), 34.
 Peanut Revlon, “Oral History of Icon Peanut Revlon,” BQOHC, 10-11.
 Lisa Revlon, “Oral History of Icon Lisa Revlon,” BQOHC (April 9, 2019), 30.
 Icon Monique West, “Oral History of Icon Monique West: Interview One,” by Joseph Plaster, BQOHC (February 13, 2019), 6, https://jscholarship.library.jhu.edu/bitstream/handle/1774.2/66952/FINAL%20Monique%20edited.pdf.
 West, “Oral History of Icon Monique West: Interview One,” BQOHC (February 13, 2019), 20.
 West, “Oral History of Icon Monique West: Interview One,” BQOHC (February 13, 2019), 16-17.
 West, “Oral History of Icon Monique West: Interview One,” BQOHC (February 13, 2019), 15.
 West, “Oral History of Icon Monique West: Interview One,” BQOHC (February 13, 2019), 17.
 See Peter Pattengill, “Oral History of Peter Pattengill,” by Joseph Plaster, BQOHC (April 27, 2019), 2, https://jscholarship.library.jhu.edu/handle/1774.2/66954; Chase Fittin, “Oral History of Chase Fittin,” by Joseph Plaster, BQOHC (April 27, 2019), 2, https://jscholarship.library.jhu.edu/handle/1774.2/66955.
 Pattengill, “Oral History of Peter Pattengill,” BQOHC (April 27, 2019), 6-7.
 Fittin, “Oral History of Chase Fittin,” by Joseph Plaster, BQOHC (April 27, 2019), 8.
 Pattengill, “Oral History of Peter Pattengill,” BQOHC, 12.
 Lisa Revlon, “Oral History of Icon Lisa Revlon,” BQOHC (April 9, 2019), 38.