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Balls have been a space of freedom for Black queer and trans youth for decades

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We have space to do all that you intend to.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The outrageous, fabulous world of ballroom culture first reached a wide audience with the documentary "Paris Is Burning." Queer and trans Black and brown people have competed in balls for a century, and this Black History Month, WBUR's Arielle Gray went to one in Boston.

ARIELLE GRAY, BYLINE: Shows like "Pose" introduced money to the extravagant world of ballroom culture. But for Boston artist Mercedes Loving-Manley, ballroom is more than a show. It's an important part of her life.

MERCEDES LOVING-MANLEY: Ballroom makes the child in me feel so seen because I'm honoring that child in me that never really could, like, be fully herself.

GRAY: Loving-Manley is preparing for a ball. She leads the Boston chapter of the House of Mulan, and it's her job to make sure her house performs well. Houses are national groups with local chapters that compete at balls. Being in a house is more than the onscreen glitz and glamour.

LOVING-MANLEY: It's not always fab. It's hard work. It's dedication, compromise. It has taught me a lot about compromise, like being involved in a house.

GRAY: House leaders are called mothers and fathers, and they often take that role literally. They help guide younger members through a world that is often unkind to LGBTQ+ people.

LOVING-MANLEY: Because that support isn't always at home, originally. And even when it is, the understanding isn't there. So the support can be there, but without understanding, it makes living really hard and makes existing hard, and it makes maneuvering through society very hard.

GRAY: Homophobia within the Black community can heighten these difficulties for LGBTQ+ youth. Loving-Manley says it's why highlighting queer and trans stories during Black History Month is so important.

LOVING-MANLEY: That is why we need to celebrate Black queer and trans people during Black History Month but also all year round because we're here, and our experiences are not going unseen. They're just going brushed over in conversations.

GRAY: Right now she's prepping two young house members, Henny and Lexxi Mulan, for an upcoming ball. Like many others in the scene, Henny and Lexxi have adopted their house name as their last name to use in everyday life. For them, ball culture is a place of freedom.

HENNY MULAN: When I'm voguing, I feel like I get into my femininity. I don't know. I feel like I'm a new person, like I'm a different person.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LEXXI MULAN: When I hear a beat and the beat is, like, loud...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

L MULAN: ...And I feel it, it's going to make me want to unleash that anger or whatever - that sadness or that pain or anything like that.

GRAY: It's the night of the ball. A resource center for LGBTQ+ youth has been transformed into a Valentine's-themed wonderland. Numerous Boston houses stream into the venue ready to compete.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRAY: The room is draped in red cellophane streamers, and under pink balloons, glittering lights outline a runway.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: But we can get some energy up in here. Everybody down with that? Can we do that? All right, I like that. Well, let's go.

GRAY: Competitors pirouette and slide to the beat. Others strut the runway, swan-like arms gracefully extended.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Chanting, unintelligible).

GRAY: Henny Mulan takes the stage. He's in a black body suit. The wooden beads in his hair clack together when he moves. He leaps and spins down the runway, fluid and confident.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Chanting, unintelligible).

GRAY: A century ago, Black and brown ballroom pioneers fought to build spaces like this one.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Chanting) One, one, one, one, one. Two, two, two, two, two.

GRAY: Loving-Manley says the world still needs to improve how it supports queer and trans people of color. Before the time she and others are at the ball, the only world that matters is on the runway.

For NPR news, I'm Arielle Gray in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARY JANE GIRLS SONG, "IN MY HOUSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.