Crystal LaBeija: Legendary House Mother

Day 23 of the Pride 30 Project for Pride Month, 2018.

Crystal LaBeija (left) with Miss Fire Island. Image Credit: Film still from The Queen (1968).

When Flawless Sabrina, host of the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant, announced that Crystal LaBeija was the 3rd runner up, coming in fourth place overall, LaBeija was so incensed she broke pageant protocol, leaving the stage, head held regal and high, before the winner was announced. In a scene now immortalized in the 1968 documentary film The Queen, directed by Frank Simon, LaBeija, in a torrent of truth-telling, reads the pageant’s winner, the white queen from Philadelphia, Rachel Harlow. “Don’t bother her, it’s not Harlow’s fault,” she tells the other queens. “She can’t help it. Because you’re beautiful and young, you deserve to have the best in life, but you didn’t deserve… I didn’t say she’s not beautiful, but she wasn’t looking beautiful tonight. She doesn’t equal me — look at her makeup; it’s terrible!”

LaBeija was not being a sore loser; rather, she was responding to racial prejudice within the pageant system of the 1960s. With her dark hair piled high atop her head, rhinestone tiara, and pale pink lipstick, LaBeija called out Harlow’s makeup as inferior because, at the time, black queens could be flawless — sickening even — and still lose to their white counterparts. LaBeija accused Sabrina of rigging the competition in favor of her protégée Harlow, and because she knew the cameras were on her, proclaimed she did not want her image used to make money off the depiction of a racist pageant. While it is unclear whether Sabrina or the judges really did rig the competition, the racial bias of the pageant system of the time was undeniable.

Crystal LaBeija was no ordinary queen. She won the title of “Miss Manhattan” and “Queen of the Ball” at a white-organized pageant — a difficult feat for a queen of color to pull off. Her original name was Crystal LaAsia, but several Hispanic queens though she was so beautiful that they renamed her LaBeija. Black and Hispanic queens were pressured to lighten their complexions, to look like white women, and were derided for appearing too “ethnic.” When a judge told Pepper LaBeija, Crystal’s daughter, her features were too “negroid,” she responded by saying:

“That’s all right, I have white eyes.”

In 1977, Crystal’s friend Lottie asked her to help co-promote a ball for black queens. Crystal, who was well known in the ballroom scene, agreed on the condition she would be featured at the event. Lottie also proposed the idea of forming a group to host pageants called “The House of LaBeija,” in which Crystal would take the title of “Mother.” She agreed to this idea as well, thinking it would boost her star power. Their event was reportedly titled: “Crystal & Lottie LaBeija presents the first annual House of Labeija Ball at Up the Downstairs Case on West 115th Street & 5th Avenue in Harlem, NY.”

The idea was not entirely new, but it was influential. Multiracial balls had been held in Harlem since the 1920s, though balls became increasingly segregated amid the racial tensions of mid-twentieth-century America. The rise of black balls paralleled the Civil Rights Movement and the house system coincided with a new liberationist phase of the Gay Rights Movement following the Stonewall Inn Riots of 1969. “Drag queens,” after all, were on the front lines of the Stonewall rebellion. Soon queens were organizing themselves into houses as a way to combat the white-dominated drag establishment. The house concept was intended to mirror iconic fashion houses, such as Chanel, Dior, and St. Laurent, that queens aspired to emulate in both fashion and fabulousness. This was not simply wishful thinking, but an act of resistance in a world that told poor gender nonconforming people of color they were worth little, even by their own families.

The house system, born out of necessity from anti-black racism, took off. Queens formed other all-black houses and Angie Xtravaganza and Hector Crespo established the House of Xtravaganza, the first Latinx house, in the early 1980s. Houses functioned not only as a way for queens of color to organize their own balls, but as an alternative family structure. House “mothers” and “fathers” not only led their “children” in competitions, but provided homes and mentorship to those who did not have any, who were cast out and unloved. As the writer Michael Cunningham said of the kinship that formed within the house system:

“Everybody needs a mother. Some of us get one who loves us enough, who does more or less the right thing. Others of us decide to become the mother we didn’t have.”

Criteria for house membership also varied. While some houses required queens to win a trophy before enlisting, others simply needed the permission of the house mother. During the 1980s, the most prominent houses in the Harlem ball scene were Corey, DuPree, LaBeija, Pendavis, and Xtravaganza, and their house mothers were known as “The Terrible Five.” Jennie Livingston took the title of her 1991 documentary film, Paris is Burning, from an annual ball of the same name hosted by Paris DuPree, mother of the House of DuPree.

According to Cunningham, houses consisted of a mother, father, and children, all of whom occupied a range of identities and aesthetics: “drag queens, butch queens (gay men who dress like men), transsexuals, a few real girls* and one or two straight guys. The smattering of girls and straight guys notwithstanding, the houses are, essentially, cabals of young gay black and Hispanic men obsessed with being fashionable and fabulous.” Though much of the language used by Cunningham is dated, he accurately depicts the way the house system challenged heteronormative notions of kinship. Houses were less about winning trophies than they were about the creation of chosen family and engaging in community activism. During the 1980s, for example, many houses staged balls to benefits causes and organizations related to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Though little is known about her death, Crystal reportedly died of liver failure in 1982, perhaps from the unregulated use of estrogen (many queens took hormones and had silicone injections to alter their appearance). She was succeeded by her daughter, Pepper, who was featured in Paris is Burning. Pepper would serve as house mother for over thirty years. Livingston’s film helped to bring house ball culture to mainstream attention and, ironically, a structure created due to a racially oppressive pageant system was co-opted by white culture, for example, the art of voguing. The FX series Pose, co-created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals, talks back to this history of appropriation through its casting of transgender women of color in lead roles and the incorporation of trans women, such as Janet Mock and Our Lady J, as writers and producers.

The House of LaBeija exists to this day and is known internationally. Crystal was recently portrayed by the drag queen Aja on the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, and was sampled in two songs by rapper Frank Ocean. Yet, LaBeija’s story reminds us we often recognize the brilliance and celebrate the legacies of trans and gender nonconforming people of color only after their deaths, while ostracizing them in life. Consider the under-explored and unsolved murder of Venus Xtravaganza, a queen immortalized by Paris is Burning. Venus’ death, and the lack of response it received, is a haunting reminder that hangs beneath the sequin-lit veneer of the ballroom.

But at the heart of the house system and ball culture is the ability to resist with style, to make beauty from dust, to create form and substance from nothingness. And Crystal LaBeija did just that.

“I have a right to show my color, darling. I am beautiful, and I know I’m beautiful,” she said.

*Michael Cunningham’s use of the phrase “real girls” to refer to cisgender women in his essay on Angie Xtravaganza, “The Slap of Love,” written in the early 1990s, is outdated and invalidating to trans women. Today, such language is seen as transphobic and cissexist — an ideology that privileges those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth over those who do not. To refer to cisgender women as “real” implies trans women are “fake,” though both are equally valid forms of womanhood.