In their heyday—the 1920s and 1930s—the balls drew hundreds of participants, sometimes more than a thousand; beautiful drag queens in their gowns, their gay male escorts in tuxedos, and mannish women in their tuxedos with their dates. And they had literally thousands of straight onlookers, mostly black, who bought seats in the balcony or at tables to watch what was going on. Sometimes the queens would perform for the most prominent black women there. I have stories of people with huge headdresses who bowed down to prominent black singers and performers and society women.
After I published Gay New York I met a gentleman who grew up in Harlem whose parents would dress up to go to what they called the “faggots’ ball,” and come home and talk about how fine this one looked, and how wonderful it was. He said, "My mother was a very ladylike lady. She was a very prominent woman in Harlem society. This is just something you did." That just would not have happened in the mainstream of white society in the same way, and certainly never in those numbers.
In many ways, I think of those drag balls as analogous to the pride marches of today. They were the one moment every year when almost everyone came together. So much of gay life was constituted by discrete overlapping social networks, friendships circles, particular bars or other places where people went, and nowadays clubs, political organizations, choruses, softball teams, the whole works. But the balls in the 1920s and the marches today provide a moment when the community, as it were, stands up and represents itself to the world and to itself, and people see their numbers.