Jaison Gardner describes ballroom shows as “akin to fashion shows, akin to a talent shows,” and says they started with LGBTQ people of color, mostly gay men and transgender women, in 1970s and 80s Harlem.
Gardner was one the founders of our local ballroom community—but if you haven’t heard of it, he’s not surprised. “The ballroom scene has historically been an underground scene,” he explains, “much like hip-hop was back in its early days.”
The silence runs both ways, since many performers and organizers don’t trust mainstream media to fairly represent them. “They tell our stories in ways that sensationalize us,” he says. Madonna’s Vogue video borrowed heavily from the ballroom scene, and he says she, like many white artists, “co-opt our lingo, our dance moves, make millions of dollars off our community, and then leave the stars of those videos broke, destitute.”
Jaison Gardner spoke with WFPL’s Phillip M. Bailey and Laura Ellis about the scene, whether traditional gay rights activism leaves out the daily struggles of LGBTQ people of color, and how much of our popular culture and lingo was born in the black gay community.
On Homophobia Among African Americans
“The first issue I take with the whole discussion about black folks being homophobic is that it implies that gay folks are not black! Whenever we have this discussion about us verses them, and, ‘it’s the black people who voted Prop 8 into existence,’ or, ‘it’s the black folks that are homophobic,’ it makes us all invisible. There are so many of us who are black and who are gay. And some of us who are religious. Are black people more homophobic than white people? No.
I didn’t grow up in a white family. I grew up in a black family that happened to accept me and love me for who I am. I think it’s a misconception that black folk are more homophobic, and I think that it certainly is a strategy or a tactic by the far right, by the homophobic, to divide and conquer. Because as long as the blacks and gays are fighting one another, neither of them are fighting the racists or the homophobes.”
On Growing Up With Religion
“I’m gay, I’m black, and I was born and raised Catholic. I can’t deny that. Much of my identity was rooted in going to Catholic grade school, was rooted in going to church on Easter, during Lent, and all the religious holidays. I am a Christian. And I’ve been lucky enough to never have to reconcile my Christianity with my sexuality. I never felt like God didn’t love me, or somehow I wasn’t going to heaven because of my sexuality.
Now I do recognize that I’m Catholic, and that although the Catholic church technically is opposed to what they deem ‘homosexuality,’ although I hate that word, I recognize that I’m not Protestant and a lot of black folks are Protestant and came up in Baptist and Evangelical and Apostolic churches, where the preachers there are much, much more anti-gay than I ever got from a priest in my Catholic church.”
On Self Awareness and Role Models
“I’ve known at least since I was six years old that I liked boys. I can vividly remember being in first grade and having a crush on a fellow classmate. Now, did I know that I was gay at the time? Did I have the language? No, certainly not, but I’ve always known from a very early age that I was different, that I was not like the other boys.
I didn’t know any gay people. I certainly am the first out gay person in my family. Never knew any gay folks, black or white. The only gay folks I saw were on television. And I just remember that I saw these drag queens on Jerry Springer Show who were tricking straight guys, and I remember seeing Blaine and Antoine on In Living Color, and they were flaming queens, with bright colors, and fedoras, and I just thought, ‘That’s not me. Is that what it means to be black and gay?’ So it took me a long time to understand that there’s more than one example of what it means to be black and to be gay.”
On Coming Out, Or Not
“This is an issue that I struggle with as someone who is an activist, as someone who has been out for probably half my life now. I struggle with the sense that someone has an obligation to better their community. That someone has an obligation to use their life to make the world better for someone else. On the opposite side of that spectrum, you have the right to live your life in the best way for you.
I know that it’s a very privileged perspective—as someone who is out of the closet and who knows that life is okay—for me to say to you, ‘How dare you not be out of the closet? How dare you be a black business owner, or a black politician, or a black clergyman, and not use your life as an example to inspire some black boy, so that he doesn’t become a sex worker? So that he doesn’t commit suicide from thinking that there’s no one who represents him in the mainstream society?’
It becomes a matter of, do you live the life that’s safest and most comfortable for you as an individual, or do you use your life to make it better for other people? I’ve chosen—at the risk of being misunderstood, at the risk of labelled something that I’m not—I’ve decided to use my life, and to take every chance I get, to make the world better for someone else. And I do wish that more folks, especially black gay folks in this community, would take that same responsibility.”