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  • Emmanuel Mehr

Baltimore LGBTQIA+ Histories and the Peabody Ballroom Oral History Interviews: Part Two

BHW 21: June 24, 2023


A photograph of ballroom participants attending a ball. The pictured participants appear to be Black and wear colorful masks with dark outfits.
Figure 1. S. Pakhrin, “LGBT[QIA+] folks at the National Museum of African Art Voguing Masquerade Ball,” 2016, Creative Commons [1].

 

“Baltimore is one of the most talented… cities in ballroom history… Baltimore is a city, to me, with the most realest female figures, with the most talented voguers, with the most beautiful faces, and our runway realness with a twist is just off the chain.” This is how interviewee Sandy Dior’e responded to the question, “So can you paint a scene of the Baltimore ballroom community in the mid-90s, when you first moved here, and those next years when you were building your house?” Sandy responded by painting a scene of ballroom excellence, Baltimore as a centerpiece of late-twentieth century ballroom. [2] This is one of the four oral history interviews included in this piece, the second installment of our series “Baltimore LGBTQIA+ Histories and the Peabody Ballroom Oral History Interviews.” This second group adds to group one’s emphasis on coming of age experiences and “moments.” Group two emphasizes the Peabody Ball itself, the history of titles in Baltimore ballroom, and Baltimore’s historical status as a ballroom “underdog city.”


Interviewees in this group reflect greatly on the significance of the Peabody Library hosting a major ballroom event. The inaugural Peabody Ball occurred on April 16, 2019. Then, after the postponement of the 2020 and 2021 balls due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event resumed with balls in 2022 and 2023. [3] Legendary Father James Icon stresses the connection between the library’s role as a place of knowledge and history along with ballroom’s role in shaping Baltimore knowledge and history. As James stated, “[H]istory being the key factor, the Peabody is a library, a source of information, a source of history, right? So why not combine the two. Ballroom is a place of history. There’s history in ballroom. There’s knowledge in ballroom and stuff like that.” [4] Extending this line of thought, holding a historic event of a historic culture in a historic place, all with great relevance to Baltimore City past and present makes a lot of sense. For interviewee Grey Mizrahi, having a ball at the Peabody is not complicated since ballroom is an extremely venue flexible medium. The interviewer asked, “[H]ow do you have a ball in the Peabody and still stay true to what ballroom is?” Grey responded, “Oh, easy. You can have a ball anywhere. You can literally have a ball in a basketball court. Literally they have… [the power is in] the people, not the space.” [5] This adaptability has likely contributed to ballroom’s longevity as a powerful LGBTQIA+ cultural force.


The Peabody-hosted balls have an added level of excitement when the relative unpredictability of ballroom is considered. With such flexibility and variety in ballroom categories, events can be difficult to predict. Sandy addressed this directly when asked about how to ensure the success of the Peabody Ball. They asserted, “I don’t believe in – you cannot make sure everything goes off without a hitch; there’s going to be always something… that pops up, but, to avoid certain things, you have certain people in place to make sure that things run as smooth as possible.” [6] For example, Sandy stressed the importance of having a strong commentator, as this person keeps the event operating through their duties as master of ceremonies. This provides an added level of importance to the Peabody staff delegating most planning and decision making authority to Baltimore ballroom people themselves. Indeed, Grey stated, “[I]t’s very cool and it’s very refreshing that you give us… a kind of commentary on it… You’re not just coming in here trying to do a Peabody thing. You know what I’m saying? Like, you’re talking to us and stuff.” [7] In addition to this important deferral of authority to those with lived experience, having this experience at the helm also provides a measure of stability. Having seasoned ballroom leaders in key roles means lesser probability of unanticipated events derailing the evening’s programming.­


A point of tension in this group of interviews regards the histories and present realities of status titles in Baltimore ballroom. For example, Legendary Father James Icon from this group possesses titles of both Legendary and Icon. Sandy is the most vocal critic of the modern title appointment process. Sandy’s first critique is that those possessing such titles tend to retire from direct ballroom involvement to bask in their glory. As Sandy notes, “I’m one of the only ones that’s icon and pioneer, or whatever label that they put on us, – that’s still out here with the kids, that’s still there with them, that don’t look down to them like I’m better than them.” [8] For Sandy, there are responsibilities that come with prestigious ballroom titles. To live up to the excellence represented by such titles, holders must continue to demonstrate their commitment to the local ballroom community. Sandy’s second critique of the modern title system is, “How easy it is for people to get statuses. How easy it is for people to become legends and icons and things like that.” Indeed, Sandy sees respect as one of the most important aspects of status titles. [9] When titles are over-distributed, each one carries less cultural capital in terms of prestige and respect.


Other interviewees discuss the past and present of the title system in a more gently critical light. Icon Sebastian Escada asserts that one of the biggest differences between ballroom titles then and now is that in the past there was a lot less bureaucracy involved. Sebastian explains the modern council system for title distribution, emphasizing, “You have different councils in different states, different regions. There’s a council in the Midwest. There’s a council in New York.” They add that that there is an exception to this council requirement, “Or, sometimes you can bypass a council and if you have three icons that say they want to make a legend, you can do that.” [10] Either way, there is a formal, systematic process in place. Sebastian says this process increased the number of people attempting to acquire statuses by making them seem more in reach. Indeed, in the past it was not even possible for someone to nominate or request status, these duties were left to the most respected and established members of the community. [11]


Another strong point of emphasis in this group of interviews is Baltimore’s historical status as an underdog in the American ballroom scene. In Sebastian’s words, “The Baltimore ballroom scene was really like an underdog city. A lot of people didn’t want to come to Baltimore because New York was so close by. DC was there. So, Baltimore really got the bad end of the stick for years.” [12] But Sebastian also emphasizes that Baltimore has always had premium ballroom talent. James focuses more on this positive aspect in reflecting on Baltimore’s ballroom reputation. They note, “Well, we used to say back in the day that Baltimore had the realest girls, meaning that the Fem, the trans women here looked the most like cis gendered women than anywhere else that we would go.” [13] Taking these two interviewee perspectives together, perhaps part of Baltimore being a ballroom underdog relates to its greatest successes requiring significant subjective lived experiences of Baltimore balls. Regardless of category, to wholeheartedly assert that Baltimore had the best of anything in ballroom required people from different regions seeing this for themselves.


Baltimore ballroom’s underdog status also goes beyond its proximity to other major cities and relates directly to an underdog status historically given to Baltimore in general. When Sandy says, “We’ve always been considered the underdogs, but we always rose to the occasion,” this connects to a broader Baltimorean historical identity. [14] On the national scale, Baltimore reached its peak influence during a roughly three-decade stint as the second-largest city in the United States. According to census data, Baltimore beat out Philadelphia for the second spot by the slim margin of 158 residents in 1830. [15] In 1840, Baltimore held off New Orleans by the even slimmer margin of 120 residents to maintain second place. [16] Then in 1850, Baltimore held a more substantial lead of 32,173 residents over third-place Boston. [17] By 1860, Philadelphia and Brooklyn sped past and Baltimore fell to fourth, before continuing to fall annually thereafter. [18] Even just looking at census numbers there is a clear underdog narrative here. For roughly two decades, Baltimore appeared at risk of losing its number-two spot as an American metropolis but held on by the narrowest of margins. Ultimately, the city’s ability to maintain such demographic prominence in the decades leading up to the U.S. Civil War had to do with it being home to the largest free Black urban population in the antebellum United States. [19] For national prominence to be fuelled by Black people, on the enslavement and oppression of whom the United States was built, makes the underdog narrative even more inspiring. Into the twenty-first century, this underdog narrative persists through the idea that Baltimore will someday return to national prominence. [20]


This second group of ballroom oral history interviews illuminates narratives of Baltimore’s underdog reputation, complex histories of Baltimore ballroom titles, and the significance of the Peabody Ball. A crucial undercurrent in all these stories is the centrality of Black Baltimorean LGBTQIA+ lived experiences. As Grey Mizrahi articulates, “Black gay culture is ballroom.” In Baltimore at least, this claim has strong historical backing. Grey adds that this deep connection is part of why the mainstreaming of ballroom culture causes pain to those personally involved with Baltimore ballroom histories. Mainstream fashion and reality television appropriation prioritizes consumer allure over historical authenticity. Ballroom loses its foundational connections with Black Baltimorean LGBTQIA+ communities when it becomes a part of mainstream American culture. [21] This further heightens the importance of the Peabody Ball continuing to spotlight and amplify Black Baltimorean LGBTQIA+ voices at all stages of its programming. So long as it continues to do so, the Peabody Ball will remain a largely positive influence on the historical authenticity and public memory of Baltimore ballroom.

 

[1] 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/MsU68E.

[2] Sandy Dior’e, “Oral History of Sandy Dior’e,” by Joseph Plaster, JHU Baltimore Queer Oral History Collection (hereafter BQOHC) (January 29, 2019), 14-15, https://jscholarship.library.jhu.edu/handle/1774.2/66979.

[3] See “Ball Competitions,” Peabody Ballroom Experience, November 11, 2022, https://peabodyballroom.library.jhu.edu/home/ball-competitions/; Cara Ober, “The Library Is Open: Baltimore Ballroom at Peabody,” BmoreArt, April 21, 2023, https://bmoreart.com/2023/04/the-library-is-open-baltimore-ballroom-at-peabody.html.

[4] Legendary Father James Icon, “Oral History of Legendary Father James Icon,” by Joseph Plaster, BQOHC (May 9, 2019), 36, https://jscholarship.library.jhu.edu/handle/1774.2/66963.

[5] Grey Mizrahi, “Oral History of Grey Mizrahi,” by Joseph Plaster, BQOHC (January 17, 2019), 29-30, https://jscholarship.library.jhu.edu/handle/1774.2/66956.

[6] Dior’e, “Oral History of Sandy Dior’e,” BQOHC (January 29, 2019), 27.

[7] Mizrahi, “Oral History of Grey Mizrahi,” BQOHC (January 17, 2019), 29.

[8] Dior’e, “Oral History of Sandy Dior’e,” BQOHC (January 29, 2019), 15-16.

[9] Dior’e, “Oral History of Sandy Dior’e,” BQOHC (January 29, 2019), 23-24.

[10] Icon Sebastian Escada, “Oral History of Icon Sebastian Escada,” by Joseph Plaster, BQOHC (February 18, 2019), 27, https://jscholarship.library.jhu.edu/handle/1774.2/66960.

[11] Escada, “Oral History of Icon Sebastian Escada,” BQOHC (February 18, 2019), 26.

[12] Escada, “Oral History of Icon Sebastian Escada,” BQOHC (February 18, 2019), 31.

[13] James Icon, “Oral History of Legendary Father James Icon,” BQOHC (May 9, 2019), 33.

[14] Dior’e, “Oral History of Sandy Dior’e,” BQOHC (January 29, 2019), 14-15.

[15] U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Table 6. Population of the 90 Urban Places: 1830,” internet release date June 15, 1998, https://www2.census.gov/library/working-papers/1998/demo/pop-twps0027/tab06.txt.

[16] U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Table 7. Population of the 100 Largest Urban Places: 1840,” internet release date June 15, 1998, https://www2.census.gov/library/working-papers/1998/demo/pop-twps0027/tab07.txt.

[17] U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Table 8. Population of the 100 Largest Urban Places: 1850,” internet release date June 15, 1998, https://www2.census.gov/library/working-papers/1998/demo/pop-twps0027/tab08.txt.

[18] U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Table 9. Population of the 100 Largest Urban Places: 1860,” internet release date June 15, 1998, https://www2.census.gov/library/working-papers/1998/demo/pop-twps0027/tab09.txt.

[19] Adam Malka, The Men of Mobtown: Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 10, Kindle edition.

[20] See for example the Inner Harbor redevelopment projects of the 1990s, discussed extensively in: Mary Rizzo, Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and the Wire (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020).

[21] Mizrahi, “Oral History of Grey Mizrahi,” BQOHC (January 17, 2019), 28-29.

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