Elle magazine “paid 10 dollars to get in the ball” but failed to recognize the fierceness on display. Let me explain. Earlier this month, two photographers from the storied women’s fashion mag attended the legendary Latex Ball. Afterward, Elle published a comprehensive gallery. But that gallery failed to credit almost every featured performer. For those who competed in the Latex Ball, for those who love ball culture, and for black gay culture in general, the unaccredited photos were a letdown. But it’s nothing new.
Slay. Yasss kween. Werk. Fierce. All these words are now part of the pop culture lexicon and practically force the speaker to adopt a blaccent. Yet still, most people who use these words on a daily, if not hourly, basis probably think Beyoncé was the first person to use ‘slay’ in a context that didn’t involve killing dragons. No disrespect to Queen B BECAUSE I LOVE HER, but she wasn’t the first. Slay, in its almighty colloquial sense, is our word. Along with all those other overused, and now watered down, phrases.
Back when #gaymediasowhite was at its height, gay shade icon Michael Musto lamented about the straights stealing away gay culture. Note: The cultural critique was published in Out magazine, a publication with a majority-white staff that was literally the target of #gaymediasowhite. And critics were quick to point it out. Sure, we should be worried about the straights stealing from the gays and all that. But their cultural theft is secondhand.
“Slay. Yaas. Mama. Hunty. GURL. GO AWF. Come THRU. DRAG ITSELF. WHERE. DO. YOU. THINK. YOU. GOT IT. FROM?” tweeted Brandon Taylor. The University of Wisconsin grad student sounded off to Mic about the unrecognized history of white gays appropriating black gay culture.
And it isn’t just black Twitter speaking up. RuPaul chimed in too. But he was after all cultural theft, which he has witnessed for decades. During a 2016 talk with Vulture, he called Lip Sync Battle a “poor rip-off” of Drag Race. (Shade, but it’s warranted.) And he dug his heels into the issue. “Straight pop culture has liberally lifted things from gay culture as long as I can remember,” he said.
He’s right. Gay black culture has always been appropriated. Madonna’s “Vogue” video was a high-fashion, mainstream interpretation of ball culture. But do you think anyone beyond the ball scene knew that?
But to be fair, this isn’t even about cultural appropriation. I could write multiple long forms about defining appropriation, identifying it, and debating whether it’s right or wrong. However, I won’t because this is about credit.
We just want credit where credit is due. If you’re going to enter the ball, take photos, and write a story, attribute, attribute, attribute. Think of what this would have meant to the performers in those photos. To have their names displayed on elle.com, an internationally recognized and respected publication.
Instead, the photo gallery contains vague descriptions like “one half of a duo competing in the Team Sex Siren competition” and “sickening”. The only names we see throughout this damn gallery are those of the photographers. And funny enough, the gallery is titled Unleash Your Muse. No, boo, we are not your muse.
There’s a danger in bringing forth black, gay culture to the masses without accreditation. There’s a threat of losing the purity and potency that has simmered in the community for decades. It’s similar to what’s happening in Harlem, namely the battle over rebranding South Harlem as SoHa. (I cringe just writing that phase.) There’s more to a neighborhood than a name. With that rebranding comes increased property values, a slew of new bistros and coffee shops, and an erasure of the soul that has always lived there. If SoHa becomes a thing, the Harlem we’ve always known will be no more.
The same goes for black, gay culture. Taking phrases and using them in your work is fine. But when you fail to credit the source, the masses never hear about the originator. And thus, you reap the benefits while the true creator remains marginalized and invisible. This isn’t about lost profits or missed shots at fame. It’s about erasure. No one wants to be erased—from their neighborhood, their city, their phrases, or their own performances.
Don’t erase us. Take the time to credit us properly. We deserve it.