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House of love: Inside Baltimore’s Ballroom culture | PHOTO ESSAY

It is well after midnight at Gatsby’s on Charles Street. While some are settling in for the night, this gathering is just getting started.

A group of young people, dressed in colorful attire trickle into the black-walled and windowless club in Station North. They have come for a ball, a dance competition where members of different houses, which are similar to chapters of a social club, compete for cash prizes. The participants perform a variety of dances, from voguing to runway, taking inspiration from fashion shows.

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Devine Bey, a dancer, dances at a ball at Gatsby’s Night Club in Baltimore, on June 25, 2022. With braids flying and her body moving effortlessly, Devine Bey steps to the center of the dance floor at Gatsby’s as she is cheered on by members of her own 'haus' and those from competing ones.. “Dance is just my overall passion, my coping skill, my outlet and what I want to do with my life and career,” said Bey. “It makes me happy. Dance is just something that is there for me.”

Devine Bey applies makeup in her bathroom at home before going to a ball. “To go out in public and truly express who you are, where some of us, we don't have to worry about that,” said Koli Tengella, former theater and performing arts instructor at Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts, who taught Bey when she attended high school there. “We just get dressed, walk out of a house, and the world accepts who we are. But for Devine, it's not the case. But for her to be courageous enough, brave enough, to step out the door. And not only express her gender identity, but to express it in the most fabulous way.”

Devine Bey rides the city bus to a ball. Iya Dammons, who is a transgender woman and the executive director and founder of Baltimore Safe Haven, has built a strong relationship with Bey, as her mentor. Dammons says she realized her real identity when she was young, decided to start transitioning at the age of 23 and fully transitioned at 28. “I’m a ‘lived experience’ executive director. I look just like my clients,” said Dammons. “So most things that they're dealing with, I’ve done too. I’ve walked those back streets. I've lived it. I've done it.

Starting in the 1980s in New York City, Ballroom caters to the LGBTQIA+ and transgender community, providing a safe space for their expression as dancers. After New York’s scene began, many East Coast cities followed suit, including Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.

“You come, you want to enjoy yourself. You want to break free. You want to be at peace. You want to just enjoy people of your kind,” said a man who goes by the name Legendary Father Mooke Ebony, who is a leader in the Haus (house) of Ebony.

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Each club is set up like a family, where someone like Mooke acts as a “father” or role model to many “daughters,” who are the dancers starting out in the house. Mooke sees the freedom and expression of the Ballroom as one of the most important aspects of the scene for those coming up.

“I just want all my kids and even the kids that are not mine, to be able to feel amazing,” said Mooke. “And come out here and do whatever they want to do, whenever they want to do it, meaning voguing-wise, runway-wise, no matter what they want to do. I don’t want an older person trying to hinder that.”

Devine Bey hugs a friend while hanging out prior to a ball at Gatsby’s Night Club. in Baltimore, Md. on June 24, 2022. The togetherness that comes from the community of the ballroom is essential at this time, as the freedom of expression of transgender people is at great risk. 2021 was the deadliest year for transgender homicides, with at least 50 in the United States. Deaths have been tracked since 2013 by the Human Rights Campaign. According to MIC, a New York-based media company focusing on identity and politics, which has an ongoing database on transgender homicides, 75% of those homicides were Black transgender women. Seven of those homicides occurred in Baltimore, tied with Detroit, for the highest in the country.

Devine Bey poses with her mother, Traci Mitchell, at Mitchell’s home in Baltimore, on July 8, 2022. “In the beginning, one of my biggest fears was that I would get a call that I would have to come identify her body due to her actions,” said Traci Mitchell. "And it still is one of my biggest fears, because you never know what the next person is thinking. When I hear of a trans[gender person] being killed, or anything in that area where she hangs out, I have to hold my breath.” Mitchell says that she knew from when Devine was a baby that she “was going to be special”. Mitchell kept an open mind about Bey’s transition. “I think it was more of a learning curve for both of us than just thinking everything's gonna be hunky-dory,” she said.

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