Longform

Belles of the Ball

"There can only be one cunty girl tonight," MC Angel Camacho taunts the Jingle Ball judges as they examine the five beautiful contestants in the category Femme Queen Everyday Realness. As the girls begin to strut, the throng of spectators huddles close to the edge of the dance floor at Fort Lauderdale's Club Coliseum. On the left side of the floor stand the Infinitis. Across the way are the Lords. In the back are a handful of Latex children. Each clique of gender-bending boys and girls chants the name of its respective house in support of its contestant. Two lanky boys who call themselves Naomi and Debra stand in the front row wearing ill-fitting cocktail dresses, heavy foundation, and wigs, studying the glamour girls who compete in front of them.

"Are they real? If they're walking down the street, can you tell?" Camacho teases as five girls walk the floor to where the judges sit. That august body has already presided over numerous competitions on this December night, in categories ranging from Butch Queen up in Pumps (males dancing dressed as men except for their shoes) to Femme Queen Performance Cat Fight (boys fighting like girls on the dance floor). In one category called Transformation, contestants swagger in their toughest street-thug wear and then appear an hour later dressed in micro miniskirts, wigs, and halter tops.

The Femme Queen Everyday Realness competition, in which transgenders, mostly men who live their lives as women, must prove to the judges beyond a reasonable doubt that they are women, is perhaps the most intriguing tilt of the evening.

All the contestants are members of South Florida's fledgling ballroom scene, an underground world that attracts gays and lesbians in their late teens and early twenties to cliques called "houses." Rather than fraternities or sororities, these houses are more like gay youth gangs for the fey and fabulous. Instead of proving their might in drive-by shootings and rumbles, these bandidos duel by walking in stilettos, throwing attitude with sunglasses and cigarettes, and voguing under a disco ball. At stake is not only a cheap metal statuette like the ones given out at Little League championships but the reputation of an entire house. Two groups, the House of Lords and the House of Infiniti, each with about 30 members, dominate the scene here, though several groups, such as the Legacies and Exxentrikas, are building strong followings. The House of Quest, sponsored by the South Beach AIDS Project, works to promote safe sex and AIDS awareness, as does the newly formed House of Latex, which is loosely affiliated with New York's well-known house of the same name.

The Lords, who can be seen at Club Coliseum most Friday nights, are the home team at Jingle Ball; the Lords' Champagne Bordeaux does her house proud, exposing her very real breasts to the judges. Liliana represents the Infinitis, flipping her hair and wearing a tight denim pantsuit. Chastity Latex, done up in a smart skirt and red off-the-shoulder knit blouse, stands attentively as if meeting her boyfriend's parents. Kayla Tucker radiates friendliness for Infiniti, offering a warm handshake and winning smile. The competition heats up as the girls begin to grab the judges' hands and make them examine their jaw lines for stubble. "Flawless -- just like a girl," Camacho narrates. "Who's the cunty one?" The aspirants wipe tissues on their cheekbones and foreheads to show the judges how little makeup they are wearing.

Tucker, the Doris Day of the evening, wins after the judges examine her dainty hands. "When I'm walking I'm going to give you exactly what I am: an everyday girl," she says. Instead of approaching the judges with ice-cold glares dripping with attitude, Tucker wins them over with her down-to-earth charm. She smiles and looks into their eyes when she shakes their hands. She walks the floor as if she's a coquettish Gwyneth Paltrow strolling in a park.

Twenty-one-year-old, raven-haired Tucker is one of those transsexuals whose appearance often makes people say, "You could never tell." Since she began taking female hormones in 1997, she says no one has questioned her gender. Now living in New York, Tucker works in a straight Manhattan biker bar and lives her life as a woman. She was vacationing in South Florida when she attended the Jingle Ball. "Ballroom is like Thanksgiving. It's like spending the holidays with your friends and family," Tucker explains after the competition. "It can be an ego boost, a place where you can show off. And it's a safe place for people to sneak out and have a good time. Some kids just can't come out at home."

Safe though it might be, ballroom culture is not always friendly.

"It can get pretty cutthroat. A ball is like a regular sporting event," explains Alexis Rodriguez, who recently retired after seven years as the father, or leader, of the House of Lords. "You have to stand out. You can't just be a part of the crowd. You have to prove yourself."

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Juan Carlos Rodriguez