Although it has changed producers and venues over the years, the history of Miss Fannie’s Ball helps us to see the centrality of Black people and institutions to the maintenance and shaping of LGBTQ culture in St. Louis.
Prince Hall, circa 1980 (Image courtesy State Historical Society of Missouri)
’Miss Fannie’s Artists Ball’ was organized by the Jolly Jesters Social Group, which raised funds for charitable institutions in the Black community. They began with a Halloween party and beauty contest in 1956; within two years, the addition of “female impersonators” (people who would today be more commonly called drag performers) drew a growing audience and made it into a Halloween extravaganza.
Ties with The Argus St. Louis newspaper:
“Halloween Fun! The Jolly Jesters club sponsored a combination hula hoop contest and mock fashion show at Masonic Temple, Halloween Night.” from The Argus, 1958
Miss Fannie’s Ball is a local example of the longstanding tradition of drag balls in African American communities across the United States. It allowed Black gay men and transgender women to express themselves in public and receive praise for doing it.
For example, Tracie Jada O’Brien , an African American trans woman, recalls attending Miss Fannie’s in 1968 as a teenager. During most of her childhood in St. Louis she faced hateful slurs and even violence for her gender non-conforming appearance. She recalled, “At 17, I went to my first drag ball [Miss Fannie’s] and that’s how I met some other girls that were in drag that were engaging in cross-gender apparel––dressing up in female clothes.” One of these girls, just returned from California, told Tracie, “it was beautiful out in San Francisco––you could be yourself, you could make money and stuff like that.” Two years later Tracie moved to San Francisco where she transitioned to living fully as a woman.
A popular party
From its start, Miss Fannie’s was a popular event among Black St. Louisans—both heterosexual and LGBTQ—and soon attracted white contestants and even some white spectators. It provided inspiration for balls in the white gay community, including the Mandrake Ball in the early 1970s.
The significance of this annual event is discussed by Sherie White, herself a multiple winner at Miss Fannie’s Ball.
In this 12 minute video, Sherie recounts stories from her days attending and performing at the ball: from early recollections of Vincent Hope winning in 1962, to her first entry in 1966 at age 19, to her own wins in the 1970s. The experience at Miss Fannie’s Ball lead to a job performing with the local “Powder Puff Review” and later an international career as a singer and performer.
In 1971 the St. Louis American published this image of “Miss Sherrel” crowned the winner of Miss Fannie’s Ball. The photo was captioned in part: “Boy, there wuz a lot of switchin’ goin’ on at that shindig and several ‘real’ women had to whack their dates across the head with their purses to jerk the cats’ glued eyes off the ‘babes.’”
The tone of the American (a mainstream African American newspaper) reveals both the extent of gender policing in St. Louis and how events such as Miss Fannie’s Ball challenged gender and sexual norms. The quotation marks setting off ’real’ women from ‘babes’ gave a very mixed message: both reinforcing and questioning the connection between biology and womanhood and casting in doubt the naturalness of heterosexuality.
After all, the “cats” in attendance knew that the “babes” were contestants in a drag ball.
In this story, and in others in the African American press, we see how drag balls have reworked understandings of “realness,” a theme even today in media portrayals of ball culture such as the Netflix series Pose and the 1991 film Paris is Burning. The complexities of “realness” made Miss Fannie’s a fascinating—and maybe discomforting—event for some attendees.
Into the late 1980s the ball was always held on October 31 because “masquerading,” the act of “appearing in a dress not belonging to their sex,” was outlawed in the city in 1843. Police enforced the law except on Halloween night before midnight.
Sherie White remembered that officers would stand outside the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge on Olive, and arrest participants who emerged in drag after midnight.
Similar arrests of Halloween revelers leaving an Olive Street bar in 1969 led to the first known organized protest against police harassment of gay and trans people in St. Louis.
Not until 1986 was the law overturned in court, after many brave people challenged it through their persistence in claiming public space for people no matter what they wore.
The tradition continues
Miss Fannie’s Ball, as Sherie points out, has been part of St. Louis’s LGBTQ history for over 60 years. Organizers have changed over the years and the ball has moved locations as well. Some years multiple balls were held under the name — such as the Metro East Miss Fannies Ball organized in the 1970s. The Jolly Jesters disbanded in 1981, but the tradition, spirit and creativity of the ball lives on.