- Werk the Margins
Marlon M. Bailey
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013. Triangulation Series. xiv + 279 pp.
Marlon Bailey’s reflexive study of the Ballroom scene in Detroit is a careful examination of the various kinds of labor ballroom members perform to create themselves, each other, and more inhabitable worlds. In Butch Queen Up in Pumps, which is the first book-length treatment of Ballroom cultures, Bailey cogently documents how his interlocutors make community and survive amid the difficult conditions in which black, mostly working-class, LGBT people live in Detroit and across North America. Bailey’s work on the Ballroom and black queer performance cultures, more generally, makes a significant contribution to scholarship on LGBT families, ethnographies of racialized gender and sexuality, and African diasporic expressive cultures and forms.
As a performance ethnography, the book casts performance both as the condition of possibility for the potentially transformative insights to be garnered from Ballroom cultures and as the critical lens Bailey brings to his materials. Throughout each chapter, Bailey attends to the sociopolitical and economic factors that shape ballroom members’ lives and the various performance practices that constitute an alternative social sphere for black LGBT people. The second chapter, for example, focuses on the complex gender system that undergirds Ballroom performance, which includes butch queens, femme queens, butches, men, and women. As Bailey and many of his interlocutors note, even as gender and sex are more fluid, Ballroom scenes are still shaped by phallocentrism, femmephobia, and transmisogyny, which manifests itself in the overrepresentation of butch queens (gay men) in the competitive categories at the ball and opportunities for leadership in the scene. This chapter also highlights, through its use of symptomatic expressions, the degree to which language—as an ideological formation—has yet to catch up with existent performances and articulations of gender and sexuality.
Chapters 3 and 4 discuss, respectively, how Ballroom members forge kinship [End Page 679] through the creation of “houses” and the ritualized aspects of performance that structure the ball competitions. As Bailey suggests, houses are social networks that function through members’ participation in familial labor for one another, and in their emphasis on labor and friendship over national(ist) ideology and blood relation, houses serve a pedagogical function for how kinship might be differently enacted and rethought. Chapter 4 extends this discussion to examine how gender and kinship inflect Ballroom performances themselves. Bailey’s emphasis on how power relations produce the spatial design of the Ballroom events as well as on the soundscapes and movements that situate Ballroom members within numerous African diasporic expressive traditions is elegantly written and argued.
At least two impulses are reflected in the book’s argumentation. On the one hand, Butch Queen Up in Pumps documents how black LGBT people survive and make community in the midst of dispossession and myriad discourses that would characterize them as disposable. For example, chapter 5 discusses how houses provide an architecture for more-nuanced approaches to address HIV/AIDS among Ballroom members. On the other hand, the book demonstrates the critical disjuncture between the resilient strategies of Ballroom members and revolutionary ideals. No place is this more evident than in the epilogue, which details the emergence of several “microscenes” in Ballroom culture that continue to reproduce the persistent issues, including misogyny and femmephobia in the mainstream Ball scene, which they were created to address. Bailey explains that the Kiki scene, which was developed to provide youth a more informal forum for performance and networking, “has become a carbon copy of the main scene by maintaining all of the harsh and ‘cutthroat’ forms of competition for which Ballroom is notorious” (226).1 In this instance and throughout, the text forgoes a romanticization of Ballroom culture, its members, and practices in favor of an analysis that highlights the Ballroom scene’s possibilities and limitations.
This is not to suggest that the book takes an unsympathetic view of the Ballroom scene, which Bailey both belongs to and advocates for in the realm of public health. Bailey’s defense of words like “cunt, cunty, and fishy,” often used to describe...