Nowadays, “realness” is a commodified catchphrase used by queers in Interior Illusions Lounges who’ve seen a season or two of RuPaul’s Drag Race. We use “realness” in a humorous way, to capture the fun and satire of a sickening look or situation. On "Drag Official," one of Chad Michaels' looks is hilariously described as “Cruella de Vil on Vacation in Aspen” realness, and it’s pretty apt.
However, the term did not start on television, but in the ballroom, a place where queer and trans people of color express themselves, create family and find community on the dance floor. Ballroom vogue balls, which entered the mainstream after the release of Paris Is Burning in the late '80s, are organized around a range of competitive categories with one reigning supreme: realness—because if you walk a realness category, the whole idea is that you need to be “real” or “believable” to get your tens, the highest score.
“You have butch queen up in drag realness, femme queen realness, school boy realness, thug realness, executive realness," said Lasseindra Ninja, Mother of the Paris Chapter of the House of Ninja, explaining some of the better known categories tied to realness. "Realness categories are about building confidence to the people who are walking this category. It’s the identity of ballroom. It’s also fun, playing."
But for all its creativity and expression, realness is also a complicated category because of the way it upholds a heteronormative gender binary. Mic Oala, a cultural producer based in Berlin, alongside Georgina Leo Melody, a brain behind Berlin Voguing Out, feel that realness categories leave little room for non-binary folks.
"Gender is seen as a spectrum,” Oala said, referring specifically to Berlin's queer community. “Ballroom is very often focused on the gender binary, so you always perform an extreme feminine or an extreme masculine gender. Ballroom doesn’t really offer space for non-binary kids."
For Oala, this is an issue because non-binary participants in ballroom culture are not only present, but taking part in significant numbers—meaning that balls may not be as welcoming to all as they are imagined when it comes to gender presentations.
“We have a lot of non-binary kids in Berlin and that means that for them, we don’t really have many categories to offer,” she continued. “If they enter realness categories, then it can even be that they are going to get chopped (a term used to describe being disqualified) because the judges cannot judge androgyny.”
The obsession with the gender binary, in and out of balls, is exactly what FKA Twigs collaborator Jamel Prodigy—real name Derek Auguste—had in mind when he recently posted to Facebook asking whether it’s time to officially "eliminate the most problematic category in Ball Room, Realness?"
"My only issue is with the term,” Prodigy told OUT. “Because if you don’t win that category, does it mean you don’t appear to be as masculine? Does that demasculinize you? Does that take away from your femininity or the fact that you’re living daily as a woman?”
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For many, losing a realness category can have a detrimental psychological effect, particularly as it implies you’re not passable on the streets—if passing is the aim.
“If you lose a category called ‘realness,’ does that mean you’re fake?" Prodigy said. "What does it mean to not be ‘real?' People think it’s just a ball, or it’s just extracurricular, or it’s just nightlife. But realistically, you take that in and the natural competitive instinct is going to make you want to do something to make you more real. You’d be surprised at some of the things people will commit to.”
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Ballroom is complicated because it definitely centers on confidence building, black queer space, creative expression and pumping through societal norms, but it also gets tricky with regards to gender.
During the Women’s Performance category at the 23rd Annual GMHC Latex Ball in New York in August 2013, Mariah Lopez Ebony was told on stage that she couldn’t walk that category because it was meant for cisgender women. As a trans woman, she was ineligible.
"That was so disrespectful for them to treat her like that,” said Leiomy, who's nicknamed the Wonder Woman of Vogue. “I feel like they ridiculed her and they just made fun of her. If she wanted to walk the category and she feels like she’s had her full surgery and she feels like a complete woman, why wouldn’t she be able to walk?”
Leiomy continued, saying, "A lot of guys in ballroom don’t really respect trans women. Vogue Femme started from trans women. There’s an iconic chant —‘butch queen voguing like a femme queen’—which is basically gay men emulating trans women while dancing. But they put trans women in the back now instead of having us in the forefront, she said.
Realness, however, can also serve as a survival strategy outside of ballroom.
"If you practice pretty boy realness, so you can walk home at night like a straight dude to at least avoid this part of the discrimination—though you can’t pass as white—realness can be a lifesaver,” Oala said. As a queer or trans person of color just walking down the street, minding your own business, is risky business.
So with all the social progress we’ve made surrounding gender, is now the time to eliminate “realness” from ballroom?
Vjuan Allure, producer and legendary ballroom DJ, who notably produced RuPaul’s album Butch Queen, thinks the category should not be eliminated, but re-imagined.
“We are not looking to mimic our straight counterparts or 'fit in' disguised as one of them,” Allure told OUT. “We are who we are and through the years, tears, fights, triumphs and hardships we remain better, stronger and even more unapologetic."
Allure offered a solution, suggesting the category should focus on style, but drop the "realness" because it can be confusing and misleading. "Executive Realness," he said, should just be "Executive" and drop any additional pressures to look real.
"Anyone can walk and be an executive, [whether you’re] dressed up, dressed down, gender oblivious," Allure said, recognizing that issues come up surrounding realness because everyone's interpretation is different.
No matter where you fall in a growing debate on realness, many believe the core values of vogue balls should be what’s focused on. As Leiomy put it, “Ballroom teaches us how to fight for what we believe in— to live proud," despite the struggles of everyday life.
And that’s real.