Through The Looking Glass: The House of LaBeija

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Pepper Lebeija from the documentary Paris is Burning.

The House of LaBeija “walked” onto the scene in 1960, when black drag queens started holding their own events in Harlem, where they would mix fashion and dance dubbing it “walking.”Ball culture, as this phenomenon soon became known, provided the underground LGBT community a place to gather, and find protection from a disapproving society; a place to truly let there hair down, and let the makeup fly.

Many of the members of this culture belonged to houses, also called families, which were banded together under a respected “house mother,” in many cases a drag queen, transgendered individual, or even a house father. The House of LaBeija, one of the more notable houses, was run by the ever eccentric Pepper LaBeija. Pepper, born William Jackson, was an American drag queen and fashion designer. While there is little history on him, he was featured in documentary film maker Jennie Livingston’s iconic documentary Paris is Burning. The film explores the elaborate underground competitions, with most of the footage alternating between the balls and interviews with members of the houses. While much of the ball culture still exists today, our society has popularized the term voguing to better describe it.

Pepper LaBeija died on 2003 of heart failure.

by Bryan A Counts, Nonprofit Management degree candidate at the New School for Public Engagement

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6 Comments

  1. Oluwatoni A.

     /  April 12, 2014

    I recently watched the documentary “Paris is Burning” for the first time about a month ago. It made me very aware of how much of this culture was (and still very much is) appropriated while the individuals of this culture struggled to be accepted by society. “Voguing” and “throwing shade” are terms that people are still very familiar with, however most are unaware that these terms originate from the black LGBT community.

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  2. Korbin Miles

     /  April 16, 2014

    I actually watch Paris is Burning for the first time this weekend. After hearing that several of my friends had watched it and then seeing this post, I really wanted to know more about the culture. I found the documentary to be very poetic, it speaks to the truths of youths who endure so much hate and backlash for expressing themselves. The most beautiful thing I pulled from watching the documentary is that when members of the culture were ostracized from their families they created their own families and a reality for themselves that was free of hate. I also love that voguing is an art form used to “throw shade”. After watching this film I began to think of the gentrification of language and how words like “slay”, “mop” “shade” etc. are now being used by everyday society. I would like to know how it makes the people who were a part of this community when these expressions began to be used feel about this. It has gone from being popular language in the urban gay culture, to black culture and now it is mainstream. I think that is a problem, some people who chose to use this language are still very conservative when it comes to the rights of gay people. This language was created for bonding, kinship, community and to form a safe space of acceptance. For things like this to lose value over the years, in basic terms, sucks. Its as if a community can never have something for themselves before it is taken away and exploited.—Damn shame

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  3. but the house was founded by Crystal Labeija ……as seen on the original drag documentary…”The Queen”

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  4. Pascal

     /  April 21, 2014

    Very interesting post. I didn’t know that the LGBT community was living that way in the 1960s. I am wondering how it would be if these houses would still be more prominent in the community.

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  5. Victoria B

     /  April 25, 2014

    This was an excellent film that really highlighted the underground culture of Harlem Balls. What I found to be particularly inspiring was the participants rebellion against their prescribed roles and the sense of belonging they experienced as vogueing participants.

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  1. ***Guest Post***Through The Looking Glass: The House of LaBeija | The Life and Times of Ms. Lanai

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