The roof is the part of a house that gives shelter to its inhabitants. It offers them a warm, dry and protected place in which to rest. The House system in Ballroom gives shelter to the community, both metaphorically and literally. Houselessness is a prevelant issue amongst trans Black community and the Houses have literally put a roof over many a member’s head in times of need. They are also enclaves of safety, friendship, and support for Black queer community.
“Social relations in Houses are non-biologically-tied and cross-generational. Whether they are conceived of as peer groups or families, Houses are built on processes of care and critique between members who have gained status within the culture.
They are therefore designated as surrogate mothers, fathers, and even grandparents, to other, usually younger members who are surrogate siblings (brothers and sisters) or, as members say, “Children".
"Rather than infantilized persons with lesser intelligence or skill, the term Children in the Ballroom Scene refers to those with the least experience in the culture. The oldest leading members are called Icons. Current leading members are called Legends. Those pursuing rank are called Up-In-Coming-Children, Stars or, rarer stilt Children-Making-Statements.”- The Social World of Voguing, Johnathon David Jackson
The original 1970’s Houses were formed out of friendship and necessity. Houses were places for children who had been rejected by their own biological families to call home, and for Black and Latino queer community who had been rejected from mainstream Drag culture to take ownership of. The people in the house were their chosen family; queer kinship structures that stand in for the heteronormative nuclear family structure that has failed most of the Ballroom community. Kids who may have been kicked out of their own homes because of homophobia/transphobia have been known to join houses as young as 14. It’s the Mother of the house’s job to keep her children on the right track, to teach them and caution them about some of the more difficult aspects of gay life, and life in general; housing, funds, gender transition, safe sex, romance etc etc.
“It’s a new meaning of family… a group of human beings in a mutual bond” - Paris Is Burning
Everyone in the house takes the name of the house as their new surname; for example, everyone in the house of Xtravaganza takes the surname Xtravaganza e.g. Hector Xtravaganza. There are house Mothers and house Fathers, and at this stage there are house Grandmothers and Grandfathers too. Alongside their other more parental roles, the House Mother’s and Father’s are also in charge of making sure that the Ballroom culture is kept alive, understood and honoured by everyone in the household. In this way the houses and family structures help to keep the legacy of Ballroom alive, preserved and respected.
“A house is a gay street gang… a gay house street fights at a ball. And you street fight at a ball by walking in the category”
- Paris Is Burning
The houses operate sort of like teams and compete together against other houses in the Ballroom. This gives the chosen family / house a common goal. Everyone has their own strength and competes in the corresponding category with the support of their House. In many ways the house is like a mentoring system. Sometimes it takes time to find your category and/or your place in the world and your house members are there to offer their advice and guidance along the way.
“Kids have lost their family values” - Hector Xtravaganza
Originally were no cash prizes available to win at the balls, but now there are significant prizes for winning a ball. This has had an effect on the House system because nowadays children are often recruited for houses because of their potential to win balls. Many legends of Ballroom say that the loyalty element of Ballroom is becoming less central. Children used to be loyal to their House whereas now children tend to jump between houses a lot more often. Hector Xtravaganza says that the fault here lies with the parents...
“Parents not nurturing enough. If you don’t feel at home in a house then it’s not a house it’s a club.”- Hector Xtravaganza
This comment really gives us a sense of what the essence of the Ballroom Houses are really about. They’re about kinship, safety, care and mutual aid.