A 2015 report by the National Center for Transgender Equality revealed that unemployment rates for trans people were three times higher than the rest of the country — many trans people live in fear of being fired or being denied a job application because of their gender identity. Trans students face bullying in school, which can lead to dropping out and landing in a high-risk, precarious line of work.
I have walked “Realness” in balls before (“Transman Realness: School Boy”). After spending years as a tomboy who was maligned for my masculinity as a woman, receiving praise for my masculinity at a ball was incredibly gratifying. It was a way to celebrate my authenticity as a transgender man. For other binary trans people — those interested in passing — it might also affirm our ability to overcome the many obstacles to transitioning, which include discrimination from family, friends, doctors and others in our lives.
But the push to rethink “Realness” also has its merits, and offers the ballroom scene a chance to evolve and adapt to the times. It would be powerful if the category began to place less emphasis on aesthetics and more on character. For instance, my former house father Rucka Revlon told me about a time he once walked “Butchqueen Executive Realness,” and the category called for a Clark Kent look. His creation: A costume that included custom-made Daily Planet business cards, a business suit and trench coat with a Superman outfit underneath, and other matching accessories. In this case, the category was as much about passing as straight as it was about passing as Clark Kent.
We are at a critical juncture, where a large number of L.G.B.T.Q. people don’t have to hide who they are from the rest of the world. At the same time, living authentically as ourselves and daring to join others in the public sphere can still have real, life-or-death consequences. But I am not worried about the loss to ballroom history if “Realness” as it was originally conceived is abandoned — categories come and go in the ballroom scene. Some, like “Nostalgia” or “Leather vs. Suede,” fall out of favor and are no longer used.
As the general public evolves in its understanding of gender identity and sexual orientation, and as the need to “pass” (either as a measure of acceptable gender aesthetics or as a mode of survival) becomes less pressing, the ballroom scene can alter its views on the category of “Realness.” This shift will make life a little easier for members of the community and open up new areas of artistic and creative opportunity within ballroom’s future.
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