The Fight for Freedom in the Face of Catastrophe

Michael Roberson did not attend seminary to be a pastor.

For him, seminary was a crossroads: where his professional work in public health advocacy and his love of house ballroom could meet. Ballroom in the LGBTQ+ community, after all, is a congregation of sorts; a community of people adopted into “houses” who perform in ball culture competitions.

When describing these crossroads, Roberson places emphasis on the word “expansion”: theology as an expansion of public health, ballroom as an expansive space of freedom, and the continued expansion of his Ballroom Has Something to Say: An Ode to Black / Gay Queer Men program, an intergenerational history of the Black LGBTQ+ house ballroom community, which will be presented at Bethany Arts Community in Ossining on June 21 – one of many Pride events taking place throughout the county.

House ballroom performers “walk,” or perform, in categories that range from “Butch” to “Bizarre”. In these performances, these participants represent what is referred to as “realness,” a state of physically embodying a particular category.

Roberson, an adjunct professor at the New School and Union Theological Seminary in New York City, says he was guided to move to New York after visiting Harvey Milk High School (HMHS), one of the only publicly sanctioned LGBTQ-friendly high schools at that time: “I heard a voice so softly in [my] ear say[ing] to move to New York City, ‘Do the work you want to do with LGBT young folk of color and I got your back.’”

His work in public health advocacy focused on the material expansion of resources for those living with and at risk of contracting HIV. He ended up working at HMHS and also helped co-create the National Black Man’s Advocacy Coalition, additionally helping to create resources with the CDC for HIV prevention amongst Black gay/queer men called “Many Men, Many Voices.”

Roberson explains: “I went to [Union Theological Seminary (UTS)] to expand the way we did public health.” Rather than focus on becoming a figure within the church, he focused on pushing back against what he calls the “theology of abomination.” This is a belief that, according to Roberson, is often imposed on gay and queer persons, making them believe that they are “an abomination to the universe”.

“My desire is always to push beyond that. Not to deconstruct, but to construct.” He explains that house balls are often held on Sundays, and have become, for many, a place to congregate after being pushed away by friends, family and the church.

“Ballroom Has Something to Say,” which is co-presented by ArtsWestchester, Bethany Arts Community, The LOFT LGBTQ+ Community Center and the Ossining Juneteenth Committee, features performances from the Legendary Khaos Lanvin and Icon Pony Zion, among others. The program is expansive in both scope and genre, incorporating oratory and dance performances, as well as lecture and discussion. Roberson shares that the curated performances mostly operate as a lecture during which he “just lets people perform.”

Roberson hopes that the program will allow viewers to bear witness to the experiences of Black and Latinx trans and queer life. He says: “[What] that title really say[s] is ‘ballroom has something to say; to teach the world about what it means to be human in the fight for freedom in the face of catastrophe.”

His hope for the future of the program is to take the performance on the road, performing and lecturing in different venues, and with more participants. He hopes to expand the program’s scope, while staying true to his intentions for the program to advocate and teach, and to invite others to a shared space of freedom. On balls and ball culture being embraced in countries outside of the United States, Roberson explains: “[Ballroom] speaks to the world. It is the world in many ways.”

Similar Posts