Grit & Glitter 

To be young, black, gay, and glamorous in Chicago's ball scene

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DIXON'S CONTRASTING schoolboy/gay boy looks reflect the divided identities many competitors live with on a daily basis. In ballroom parlance, "realness" means creating a successful facade. Common realness walks include "executive," "thug," "trans man" (female-to-male transsexual), and "fem queen."

"Realness basically turns something negative in the real world into something positive in the ballroom scene," says LeRoy Kirk (nom de ball, LeRoy Avant Garde), who practices runway walking and vogueing with Dixon every week .

It can also provide practical behavioral tools for bridging the two worlds. "A person who walks realness would like you to think he's heterosexual," says Solomon Arnold, aka Legendary Solomon Infiniti, a 31-year-old, 12-year veteran of the ballroom who teaches both Dixon and Kirk. "If he's a convincing heterosexual, his church will accept him and employers are more likely to hire him."

At six-foot-three (without heels), Arnold is a towering figure and self-described chameleon. On the street, he keeps his long hair in a low ponytail and wears plain shirts and jeans. But ballroom photos show him wearing a mesh shirt tucked into a layered black skirt with a three-foot train. His hair is pinned so that it cascades over his forehead.

Arnold walks the "Runway" and "Bizarre, Bizarre" categories. In the latter competitors create outfits out of whatever comes to hand, and Arnold has appeared in a dress made from Popeye's chicken boxes. He's also competed against a fellow legend who climaxed her walk by revealing midgets she'd concealed beneath her full-length skirt.

"Walking a ball is about exception, acceptance, and fantasy," says Arnold. "You can walk like a woman even though you're a man. And you're accepted as such. In ballroom you're accepted as who you are—or who you want to be."

No ballroom category proves Arnold's point like "Rags to Riches," which requires competitors to start out looking poor and end up in a costume that bespeaks wealth and splendor. "'Rags to Riches' highlights the contrast between what you have the potential to be and what your reality is," Kirk says.

Although Kirk walks balls up to twice a month, his family is unaware of his involvement in the scene. "They'd think it's silly," he says. Twenty-one now, he left home and moved into his own apartment three years ago. Many ball scene participants lack the means to do the same, but feel compelled to get out on their own anyway.

According to data collected by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 2007, there are between 12,000 and 15,000 homeless youths in Chicago. Between 1,448 and 3,000 of them identify as LGBTQ, and a number of those look for a surrogate family and social network in the ballroom scene, which is uniquely situated to absorb them.

The ballroom community is structured around "houses" named, for the most part, after fashion labels. There's the House of Mischka, for example, the House of Herrera, the House of Kardashian (a newer one), and so on—nearly 30 of them in Chicago and about 300 nationwide. House members are called "children" and each house has a "housemother" who's almost always a man. "Housemothers mentor their children," says Arnold, who's been housemother for Chicago's House of Infiniti since 2002 (and is now the national housemother, overseeing Infiniti chapters in 13 big cities). "Housemothers help get their children in school, help get them a job, elevate their confidence, prepare them for the ball, and create a safe space for them."

"Within a house, we're all like family," says Kirk. "We have a sense of community with each other. Sometimes you don't have that from your original family."

Houses field competitors and take turns hosting balls. The Family Affair ball was thrown by Chicago's House of Mizrahi to celebrate its house family—hence the theme. Most houses require monthly or weekly meetings, charge dues, and have signature skills and interests. The House of Infiniti is considered a strong Runway house and campaigns against the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Not all houses are positive forces, though, and not everyone in a position of power is a good influence.

"Unfortunately, parent figures and [house children] sometimes get sexually involved," says Arnold. "It can be an entire house that experiences molestation or just individual children. It's sick but it happens." According to Arnold, House of Infiniti members are forbidden to have relationships with one another. "It just leads to unnecessary drama. We don't play that."

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