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The Carletonian

Spotlight on Benedict Visiting Professor: Marlon Bailey

Dr. Marlon Bailey, the Benedict Distinguished Visiting Professor in Africana Studies, advances the slide on his PowerPoint. A picture of Bailey appears, but altered somewhat – he is wearing a crisp, yet drab suit and holding an oversized briefcase. His expression is turned downward in a full-faced frown. His stance seems to spread even through the air around him.

The photo is of Bailey performing Executive Realness, a category in the contemporary ballroom scene – a space where queer and trans people of color come together to compete in runway categories based around inhabiting a certain archetype – like that of the haughty business man in Baileys Executive Realness. Organized around a system of houses – close-knit communities of ball participants – ballroom culture encourages the adoption of a number of performative gender expressions, and “realness” is the metric by which it is often judged, asking how well the participant passes for the archetype they’re imitating.

In his talk “Is She Real? How the Realness Kids in Ballroom Culture do Gender for Survival,” given in the Athenaeum on Feb. 19, Bailey presented the results of his 7 years of ethnographic study researching and participating in the ballroom scene. Bailey argued that the notion of realness – the performative emulation of a dominant societal trope used as evaluation criteria in the ballroom scene – allows ballroom participants to survive in a queerphobic world by being conscious of the ways in which their bodies read as queer.

“Realness becomes a way to understand how members of the [ballroom] community see gender as a performance,” Bailey said in an interview. “Because they understand that, they are able to utilize gender performance as a way to survive homophobic and transphobic violence … balls are the rehearsal for real life.”

Bailey, who is also an Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Arizona State, said he was motivated to undertake this research because of his background as a theatre instructor.

“I was always interested in the relationship between black performance and cultural politics,” Bailey said, with his interest in ballroom culture specifically beginning after seeing the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning about the ballroom scene in New York. “Once I saw the film, I decided that I wanted to teach it, and by teaching it and examining the film, I became really intrigued and interested in identity formations that I didn’t know was still around.”

Bailey left his tenure-track position at the University of Michigan at Flint to get his PhD from University of California, Berkeley in African Diaspora Studies and began work on his book, Butch Queens Up in Pumps: Gender, Performance, and Ballroom Culture in Detroit, after graduation. He said he was motivated to come to Carleton because of a close friendship with Associate Professor of History Thabiti Willis, as well as past engagement with the Carleton Africana Studies program, particularly with Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Political Science Charisse Burden-Stelly, who graduated from the same PhD program as Bailey.

“[Burden-Stelly] thought it would be a good opportunity for me to come and contribute to the program, help to generate interest and curiosity about Africana studies throughout the campus, and I was also available because I’m on research leave because I’m working on another book project,” Bailey said. “I wanted to be in a space where I could be around my colleagues … to help me create the right environment for me to work on this next book.”

“[Bailey is] a very well-respected scholar,” Willis said. “[He] brings a knowledge and an insight, particularly to be an openly gay black man who centers that experience within thinking about blackness, thinking about African diaspora, thinking about race, class, Americanness. It’s just a tremendous level of insight that he’s able to bring, in part because he’s had so much training as well, and so much life experience. He’s bringing so many lenses and vantage points and perspectives and bodies of evidence to bear on questions that are most challenging us in the academy today.”

According to Willis, he and Bailey’s friendship goes back 20 years to when they first met in a Yoruba language class and bonded through the intensity of the six-week program, as well as through a mutual friend. Bailey later stayed in Willis’s Atlanta apartment while doing research, and the two went on to present together at conferences and give talks together.

“There’s a level of mentorship, in that he’s also a person who had an MFA prior and had been in a tenure-track position before he even went back to graduate school for his PhD. He’s a few years older than me, so all those things led me to also see him as kind of a mentor,” Willis said. “It’s a really deep, meaningful friendship, brotherhood.”

For his next project, Bailey said he is planning a book about the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on black male sex practices and sexuality, which emerged from a chapter of Butch Queen Up in Pumps.

In the spring, Bailey is teaching two courses – AFST 120 Gender and Sexuality in the African Diaspora and AFST 220 Intersectionality.

“I would just really encourage students to take his classes,” said Willis. “I know a lot of students on campus that are interested in issues around sexuality, gender, and race, and there are some who have been looking for a place where all those can meet and be engaged in a deep and meaningful way, and he brings that.”

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