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Baltimore was one of the first cities to celebrate drag culture, largely supported by Black residents during Prohibition

It was the night of nights in 1931 Baltimore. Drinks were flowing and gowns of satin and velvet — some decked in rhinestones, others layered under fur throws — sashayed around the dance floor. Whispers of who would be named “best dressed” of the eighth annual ball at Monumental Elks’ Lodge swirled around the room while spectators stood outside, eager to catch a glimpse of the night’s attendees and the world behind the dance hall’s walls — a world of drag.

While modern Baltimore is known for its drag brunches and lively modern ballroom culture, boasting the likes of the House of Revlon and House of St. Laurent, the blossoming of Baltimore’s drag culture dates back to the Prohibition era and the “Pansy Craze,” when drag queens surged in popularity and Baltimore became one of the first cities in the country to host their elaborate balls.

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“They were probably the largest and most significant collective events of the queer culture of the time,” said Joseph Plaster, director of the Winston Tabb Special Collections Research Center at the Peabody Library. “The gay world saw itself, celebrated itself and affirmed itself in a hostile culture.”

The balls were interracial and modeled after the classic debutante and masquerade balls of the era, with the goal of “introducing” young gay people to older generations of gay society.

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“The term ‘coming out’ itself was a kind of play on the language of women’s culture,” Plaster said. “Young, queer, homosexual people were coming out into a gay world.”

That world was one of celebration.

“The lights were low and a spotlight of many colors was played on the moving dancers. When left in the dark, the sound of fervent kisses could be heard as the dancers held each other close as their bodies heaved with pent-up emotion. More frequently than not, two men would be seen dancing together with one of the duo gazing soulfully into the eyes of the other,” The Baltimore Afro-American reported on March 26, 1932.

On top of forming intergenerational bonds within gay society, costume performance was a must, and awards were given to the “best dressed,” an often stiff competition considering the quality and variety of dress.

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As one Baltimore Afro-American article notes of the costume at a 1935 ball, “a check disclosed that there were forty-seven fur coats, three fur capes, two Russian fur hats, seventy-two gowns, ten silk dresses, three gingham dresses, a Mae-West costume and a pair of silk pajamas.”

Although interracial drag balls date back to the 1890s, it wasn’t until Prohibition that gay clubs and drag performers drew attention from mainstream culture. Balls in cities like Baltimore began to take place at mainstream dance halls, attracting anywhere from hundreds to thousands of guests.

However, the support for and media coverage of drag balls largely came from the Black community. The main record of drag balls in Baltimore can be found in the Baltimore Afro-American, a local Black newspaper that started in the 1890s and remains one of only two from that era that exists in the country today.

Shaunda Leer dances during a drag show performance at the Sunday Pride Festival during Baltimore Pride 2014.
Shaunda Leer dances during a drag show performance at the Sunday Pride Festival during Baltimore Pride 2014. (Al Drago, Baltimore Sun photo)

“You’ll find very little about gay life in the 1920s and 1930s if you look in newspapers like The New York Times or other white middle-class publications,” Plaster said. “But if you look at Black newspapers and publications made for working class people, you’ll find quite a bit.”

The balls themselves also grew out of the Black community in Baltimore. Many drag queens were Black and the primary location for the balls was the Monumental Elks’ Home, owned by the West Baltimore chapter of the Black Elks.

The Black Elks formed as a national organization in the 1900s after the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, a white fraternal organization, denied entry to Black men. Known today as Monumental Elks Lodge No. 3., a historical site, the Black Elks’ location in Baltimore on Madison Avenue at McMechen Street became a hub for Black activists, and the drag balls of the 1930s.

“I would imagine that a shared sense of abandonment and stigma among people that we would now call queer made possible these kinds of connections across class and race,” Plaster said.

But racial tensions still plagued the community.

As early as the 1900s, many interracial drag balls became rife with racial conflict, according to Plaster, with people waiting to see whether a white or Black queen would be crowned the belle of the ball.

While Plaster said there are many origin stories for how the 1930s drag balls evolved into the modern ballroom culture of houses and vogueing, one is that racial tensions led to white and Black queens establishing their own houses and balls, which then took decades to reintegrate and evolve into the balls of today.

But when it comes to drag balls in Baltimore, they are anything but an ancient relic.

“It’s not just a thing of the past. There’s a thriving ballroom community in Baltimore today that has its roots in the balls that were organized in the 1920s and 1930s,” Plaster said. “People continue to develop these extended intergenerational kinship and family networks in Baltimore and they continue to create this public culture that sits on the value of queer and trans people of color.”

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