“I remember my dad used to say: You have three strikes against you in this world. Every black man has two; that they’re black and they’re a male. But you’re black, and you’re a male, and you’re gay. If you’re gonna do this, you’re gonna have to be stronger than you’ve ever imagined.”
These opening words resound in Paris is Burning, an LGBTQ+ documentary that captures New York’s ballroom scene in the 1980s. The film explores disparities in class, race, and gender in the reality of the United States of America. Words like “shade” and “voguing” commonly used in the community today found their birth in “House” culture and nurtured by drag queens. Director Jennie Livingston not only gives space for audience education on the culture of “Houses” but reels us into intimate conversations with notable members of the LGBTQ+ community in the era. And it is a conversation everyone in and out of the community needs to hear.
The documentary begins its journey in House LaBeija, directed at the time by Pepper LaBeija. The self-titled “mother” gives an introduction to the world of ballroom and drag, describing its function as a crucial escape from the reality of a homophobic and racist America. Those seeking the fantasy of reaching fame and wealth that many aspired to but otherwise could not see due to their circumstances were known as the children. Each “House” had a mother and each mother had their children; members of the LGBTQ+ community from all over seeking out somewhere to belong, to find acceptance. After all, we are humans. Rejection from a family nucleus drives us to what can be known as “found” families. LaBeija narrates how the evolution of ballroom competitions brought about an expansion of categories that served to further inclusion for anyone that wanted to “walk the ballroom”.
Those brave enough to participate in the fierce competition normally would do so presenting a certain “House”, be it prestigious House LaBeija, House Xtravanganza, or House Ninja, amongst others. These houses find their origins decades beforehand by the “original” drag queen performers, from the times of Stonewall and the revolutionary Marsha P. Johnson. As Dorian Corey, one of the drag queens from that previous era, narrates, the aesthetic queens of the time aspire to is that of big, Vegas showgirls. Specifically, classic Hollywood starlets like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor as muses. However, big feathers and glitter took more of a backseat in the 80s when an endless number of categories were added to the competitions. They ranged drastically from “Businessman in the 80s” to “Military” even all the way to “Going to School”. Why all these categories, even as basic as executive attire? This is where realness is served.
Realness, in its roots, is the ability to pass as a heterosexual in society, to look “straight”. It is “to be able to blend in” traditionally heterosexual spaces and not be singled out. For black people, it was already hard enough to get anywhere professionally. As stated in the film, “those that do, are usually straight”. Therefore, these categories exist not only to include more members but so everyone can see themselves as anything they want to be. Even things the “real world” would never allow ballroom goers to become.
Due to relentless exclusion from professional or executive opportunities, many drag queens paid for their passion for ballrooms through “hustling”. In the times of the AIDS crisis, New York was an especially dangerous place for LGBTQ+ sex workers and escorts due to transphobia. Mother Angie Xtravaganza discussed with deep sadness how common it was to have a trans sister be found murdered in horrific ways. It was “part of being a transexual in New York City”. Unfortunately, this nightmare reality for trans women, in particular black trans women, continues today.
Beautiful, fun, and haunting, Jennie Livingston effectively shone a light on a community of misfits, outcasts of heteronormative white society. Paris is Burning is yet another example of how we as a community cannot forget those who fought for our rights and freedoms that we enjoy today. There is still a long way to go for the LGBTQ+ community. Non-POC members need to step up for our black and Latinx brothers and sisters. Without them, you wouldn’t have such a rich vocabulary taken for granted from the queens of the ballrooms. –Ileana Melendez
Paris is Burning is available in the Criterion Collection
This documentary focuses on drag queens living in New York City and their “house” culture, which provides a sense of community and support for the flamboyant and often socially shunned performers. Groups from each house compete in elaborate balls that take cues from the world of fashion. Also touching on issues of racism and poverty, the film features interviews with a number of renowned drag queens, including Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija and Dorian Corey.