When I met Ricky Tucker at Lambda Literary, we were both trying to find the right words to cement our legacy in the literary world. While we joked about starting a house related to the experience we had at our writing residency, there was something to be said about what we were both doing: work that highlighted the need to document the voices and experiences of Black and brown queer people. Fast forward five years or so, and Ricky is doing just that with their first book, And the Category Is…: Inside New York’s Vogue, House, and Ballroom Community.
Beyond a celebration of the ballroom scene, so much of this book is rooted in paying respects to the ancestors who came before us. It’s also a closer look into the subculture created in New York City by Black and Latinx queer communities that can provide freedom and liberation to those who often navigate marginalization, oppression, and violence. But more than that, And the Category Is… dives into the ways that ball legends like Willi Ninja and Crystal LaBeija helped the author rediscover himself—and what legacy he hopes to leave behind.
I had the wonderful opportunity to catch up with my friend and chop it up with him about what makes this book not only vital, but essential to those who are finding themselves through the art of voguing/ballroom. In addition, I wanted to know why he felt like this book was needed in a world where everything is touched by this art form and what that says about how we treat and view Black and Latinx queer people.
I hate to ask this cliché question, but it feels like a good starting point. What inspired you to write this book?
When I first went to The New School for my undergrad 10 years ago, the first class I took was a class called Vogueology. It was both theory and practice. We not only learned how to vogue, but we learned about ballroom from people who were house mothers and fathers [who] had been in the scene since Paris Is Burning. I’ve always been fascinated by ballroom. But, 10 years into this love affair with ballroom, it never occurred to me that I had a story to tell. I was working on a project called “400 Years of Inequality” and one of my colleagues was an agent who linked me with other activists. One of my committee members was my father from ballroom. My agent later saw an email exchange between me and Michael Garçon and was like, “Would you want to write a book about ballroom?” And I was like, “Duh!” Mind you, I was already working on a collection of essays about my life and queer art. But this opportunity arose and it felt so organic that I was like, this is obvious. This led me to get permission from the community to write about it. I wanted to make sure the community was included.
Why was it important for you to publish it out now?
I think I’m a great intermediary between the community and the outside world. You know, I am not ballroom, per se. I do not walk balls, but I know how to vogue. I’ve been taught by people from the community. More importantly, I’m a writer. What this is about being smack-dab in the middle of it. I don’t know if somebody in the ballroom community could have necessarily written this book. And I definitely know somebody outside of ballroom could not have written this book. So I think I’m in a good position to be critical of the community, but also in a loving way that supports them and doesn’t exploit them, like others have done in the past.
Mainstream media seems obsessed with profiting off of ball culture. What’s your take on that? How does the book add to that conversation while avoiding the pitfall of exploitation?
Well, we are in this capitalist machine, so unless somebody is going to smash it—I’m waiting for the day—we all need to eat, breathe, and live our best [lives]. First, I talked to Twiggy Pucci Garçon and asked her thoughts about it. She walks runway and is profiting off of ballroom because she is ballroom, if we want to keep it frank. She’s worked on Pose and is consulting on other [projects]. And that’s the thing: these opportunities weren’t always there. She had a dream to put ballroom on her resume and people laughed at her. Now we’ve arrived at that day. So honestly, getting some coins while uplifting the community is not a bad thing. But ownership is a question that always comes up in these conversations and when I talked to folks from the community, a lot of them, like me, believe that we need to be aware of what’s going on.
While writing, I looked into the work of the late great bell hooks and she had some ideas around this—the idea of being an enlightened witness. So that when you are shaking hands with the Ryan Murphys, you are aware of how much your story is worth, which is often more than we give ourselves credit for. Are you gaining more ownership and exposure? What are your responsibilities? Like, is there some sort of growth and are you bringing in folks from the community? There’s a lot of rules to it, but you just need to be aware and critical in your engagements with anybody, especially if it’s from ball culture. And if I may add, [Jennie] Livingston—you know, she [directed] Paris Is Burning and got a lot out of that, both good and bad. And a lot of folks in the community feel like Madonna did the same thing. Some folks were granted an opportunity and left so many people burned. I don’t know that everybody’s going to feel necessarily positive about this book, but I went in knowing that. I went in condemning the appropriation and the capitalist sort of side of the whole thing. So my intentions were very upfront in the beginning and I was aware going in. I think I did my due diligence. That being said, every chapter has somebody from ballroom talking about their experience and I followed them. They were my north star. I hope I did it right.
Let’s talk about the interviews with these ballroom legends. Please tell me how that happened and why you felt that this was crucial to include.
Beyond Paris Is Burning and Madonna’s “Vogue,” most of my experience of ballroom was [learning from] legends and icons and leaders. So I have people to answer to. That’s really the bottom line. It’s like, I can’t show up at the next event having pirated everybody. Like, I have parents in this community—gay parents in this community—that expect me to be radical and unapologetically Black, which is no problem with me. That was sort of the beginning. Being a student at The New School and vogueology being my favorite class and the teachers being my parents, I would go to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis organization and fill out surveys for them just to get some free pizza. I would go to Harvey Milk High School and hang out and I was fascinated, you know? I’ve been nurtured by these folks and I’ve been touched by them. And so the connections were already sorted there. I just had to connect the dots.
If you could have spoken with Peppa, Willi, Dorian or Angie, what do you think they would have added to the conversation?
There is a lot about the culture of ballroom that I would have loved for them to add. A lot that you can’t squeeze into a show like Pose or Legendary. That was one of the reasons why I wrote the book, frankly. That said, I hope they would be touched because a lot of their children are in the book. There are several people who are either a part of the story or referenced in the book that know the history of these legends and still work with their legacy in mind. Many of them have helped me become who I am and for that I am truly thankful. I really hope they’d be proud to see their children thriving.
Jonovia Chase noted that voguing is not just about the art, but about how it lives in you and how it makes you feel. It’s about the lineage, how voguing helps the collective recovery of the body.
Obviously, you cover so many topics. Which conversation really spoke to you during the process? Anything that you really want to highlight?
There is something to be said about the academics of ballroom, specifically from the minds of Pony Zion and Benji Hart. It’s about asking, “How do you marginalize us then want us to vogue at your next event? How do you disrespect us and not love us walking down the street, but then want us to perform for you?” It’s really about cognitive dissonance. More than anything, it’s the whole enlightened witness thing [from] bell hooks. People on both ends need to be fully aware in all parts of the process and in these exchanges. It’s about knowing your worth and also knowing what these contracts say. It’s about understanding what is going to happen in perpetuity. It’s also about knowing and understanding who gets to own your story—specifically thinking about those Ryan Murphys and Jennie Livingstons. What are you offering folks? How do you fully get to own your voice and your story in a capitalist society? I mean, I get into that in one of the chapters of the book, specifically “Body.” I talked to Jonovia Chase—one of the founders of “House Lives Matter”—who noted that voguing is not just about the art, but about how it lives in you and how it makes you feel. It’s about the lineage, how voguing helps the collective recovery of the body. Like, you can feel racism in your body. You can feel sexism in your body. It’s about making sure that you have full ownership of not only what you put out in the world, but what type of ownership you have of that as well.
I know the book covers some real (and heavy) topics about survival and the need to “remember who we are and remember where we came from.” Can you elaborate more on that?
Well, Black folks and a lot of brown folks and definitely queer folks—our histories aren’t documented. In addition, a lot of the trauma we carry is just passed down, but nothing about the resilience and fortitude of who we are. We deserve tradition. You know, hieroglyphics from Egypt, those lines, we’ve seen them before. I talk a little bit about it in the book or at least refer to it in relation to our ancestry. Ball culture goes back centuries and we don’t know why because our stories [haven’t been preserved]. So part of the book, specifically in the second chapter, I talk about how flyers and information about the balls from the past might one day go away. This book, in a way, is a living and breathing archive.
What was the hardest part of your writing process? Now that you have finished, what have you learned and how has it changed you as a writer?
I have been trying to write this book for the last 15 years in so many different iterations. I have been training to write this book. But, honestly, it wasn’t that hard. From beginning to end it only took me two years, with much thanks to COVID and the pandemic. I basically quit my job and told myself that this was going to be [my] focus because I knew I needed to get it done. I want this book to be viewed as an act of service. I want my writing to be seen as that. [For] my next book, I am looking at the ways that queer people find themselves through the lens of television. Like, I am always thinking about how we are represented. It’s important for me to write from that place because I want queer folks to always feel like they have a place where they can be seen. Especially in a world where I always haven’t.
What does the future of ball culture look like and what message do you have for those who continue to try to monetize/appropriate it?
Specifically for white folks and folks who are not a part of the community: please respect the space. When you go in, back up and be thoughtful. You don’t just get a pass because you’re Black and gay. Also, if you say yes to a paycheck related to ballroom/ball culture, make sure that you are getting paid what you deserve. Make sure you have leverage and that your brothers and sisters are fully involved. I am a realist. I know we all need money, but at the same time, remember to not let you or the history be exploited. It’s a family affair and we all play a crucial role in maintaining the legacy.