The story of J. M.'s youth reads like a script from "The Wonder Years."
Sensitive kid grows up in Baltimore County, the only son of a well-to-do lawyer. He attends private schools, excels in football, takes his high school sweetheart to the prom.
Friends tell him he has it all; inside, however, he knows something is missing.
But it wasn't until J. M. came out as a bisexual, moved to New York -- and began attending dance-filled fashion shows in Harlem, called balls -- that he discovered what it was. He joined a "house," a fraternity of ball-goers, and as a "child" of the House of Xtravaganza, he received something he says his family never gave him:
"It's like people were saying, 'You're not a dumb faggot.We think you're fabulous,'" says J. M. Xtravaganza, 29, who recently moved back to Baltimore. (He, like several others in this article, declined to give their real names.)
"The whole reason the balls were created was because society looked at these kids as being the dregs, so they made their own system of judging themselves and their peers," he says.
Their system and the inner workings of their subculture -- a world many know little about and may find shocking -- are the focus of the much-lauded documentary, "Paris is Burning," opening today the Charles.
Filmmaker Jennie Livingston spent two years attending Harlem balls, showing how the predominantly black and Latino gay participants were creating their own social scene -- complete with their own dance, "voguing," which Madonna has since made popular.
In the last year, a small ball and house circuit has taken shape in Baltimore as well. In predominantly black clubs, including Odell's and the newly formed Paradox, nearly 100 people -- mostly young gay men -- dress up every few weeks for a ball.
Walking down a makeshift runway, they compete in categories such as schoolboy, drag queen and photographic face. Regardless of the costume, the aim is the same: "realness." The more the judges are convinced that you are who you're pretending to be, the higher your score.
"It makes you feel fab," explains Jemal Rev-lon, 22, whose white lace outfit -- including a single glass slipper -- have helped him win several trophies. "It's like being the star you've always wanted to be."
For many "house kids," as these teens and 20-somethings call themselves, walking in their first ball is a rite of passage. While the prize maybe a trophy, it's clear there's often much more at stake.
"I'm always comparing it to the story of Cinderella," says Beulah Lamont, Baltimore's well-known female impersonator. "Cinderella was poor. She had nothing, but through the wonders of `f imagination and creativity and of course a fairy godmother, she was able to attend a ball and fulfill her dreams."
Although the ball circuit is relatively new in Baltimore, gay men -- both white and black -- have been competing in beauty and beefcake contests for years. Mainly sponsored by bars, these events are more akin to Miss America pageants than the Paris runway shows the balls emulate.
But in both cases, they are a celebration of being gay, in whatever form that may take. "You feel like you're in 'Dynasty,' " says Alexander St. John, the society columnist for the Baltimore Gay Paper, who has judged several pageants. "It's not like normal, boring, day-to-day life."
The competition does indeed get fierce. "Years ago people would set people's wigs on fire," he says. During one recent show, two drag queens got into a fight that ended only when one threw a pork sausage, of all things, at the other, he says.
While fights have broken out during New York balls, local participants and club owners say their balls have not been marred by violence.
Instead, the best way to "punish" a competitor is by looking good.
"Say you have some animosity toward someone," says Montage Rev-lon, a 24-year-old fashion designer from Mount Vernon. "You take it out on the runway."
Michael J. Hurd, a psychotherapist in Columbia who works extensively with gays and lesbians, says balls function as a support system in a world that's often unsupportive of gay men.
"In our culture, there is a lot of pressure on men to follow a lot of rules. When you're talking about gay men in particular, there aren't really any role models," says Dr. Hurd. "These [balls] may provide a lot of bonding and a sense of support."
The camaraderie develops as house kids prepare for an event. Not to be outdone, they often spend lots of time and money searching for the right ensemble -- perhaps a gold lame number for a drag queen, or a European-tailored suit for a competitor in the business executive category.
Some spectators, however, see a bittersweet quality to these competitions. "A lot of these kids don't have families. To them this is like family entertainment," says Carlous Palmer, 27, a Baltimore fashion designer, who has created gowns for balls.
He says he'd never seriously consider competing in one of these events. "I don't need a ball to make me feel secure," he says.