not in our stars, but in ourselves
26/52: An LGBT movie
The times are, thankfully, a-changing. When Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning was released in 1991, after she’d spent seven years making it, the world was a very different place. We’re a long way from where we need to be, still, in terms of lesbian/gay/bisexual/trans rights – but we’re inching forward. Same-sex marriage is now recognized in all 50 states; there are some visible and eloquent trans women in mainstream media; and we’re generally becoming a more inclusive and accepting society. Progress is slow – too slow – and the SCOTUS decision isn’t nearly enough, but we’ve come a long way.
Paris is Burning begins in New York City in 1987, exploring the then-thriving ball culture among black and Latino gay and transgender people. We meet some of the ball’s most famous fixtures: Pepper LaBeija, Willi Ninja, Dorian Corey, Venus Xtravaganza, Octavia St. Laurent, and many more. They explain how balls work, and talk about their lives. Early in the film, LaBeija recalls, “I remember my dad used to say, ‘You have three strikes against you in this world. Every black man has two: that they’re just black, and they’re a male. But you’re black, and you’re a male, and you’re gay. You’re gonna have a hard fucking time.’ Then he said, ‘If you’re gonna do this, you’re gonna have to be stronger than you’ve ever imagined.'” And it’s clear that that’s true. Many of the people attending these balls are destitute, having been thrown out of their homes. They create their own community, and find acceptance and celebration in it, but they still have to endure “real” life – as gay and/or trans people of color, in a world that doesn’t care much whether they live or die.
At a ball, drag queens perform in various categories, aiming for realness: opulence, town and country, luscious body, high fashion evening wear, voguing. In each case, each category takes as its inspiration something from the rich, white, straight world. The performers do their best not only to recreate it, but to redefine it, and make it theirs. They may not have eaten in a few days; they may have stolen all the clothes they’re wearing; they may be living under a bridge somewhere; but they experience a brief moment of the power and prestige that rich,white, straight people experience all the time.
Each performer belongs to a different “house” – as in House of Chanel, House of Dior, etc. – that acts as a surrogate family for these disenfranchised young men and trans women. During a ball, the houses are more like gangs, “fighting” each other during their walks, reading and shading and out-voguing each other. I don’t mean to be that oblivious white straight person…but it’s all pretty fabulous. These people – “nobodies” as far as the rest of the world was concerned – are some of the most charismatic, talented, and dedicated people you’re likely to see. They seem to have internalized old Hollywood movies, learning from the screen sirens of the studio era, and from the apparently effortless grace of dancers like Fred Astaire and explosive enthusiasm of dancers like the Nicholas Brothers.
There’s a lot going on here, in terms of commentary on race, sexuality, class – and gender. The head of each house is called “mother.” LaBeija is the mother of House LaBeija; Angie Xtravaganza is the mother of House Xtravaganza; Willi Ninja is the mother of House Ninja. Performers need to earn their way into a house, and then the best and hardest working performer might eventually ascend to the status of mother. A house mother might be a trans woman, or a gay man, or a drag queen – but in each case, the mother takes her role as a nurturer and loving presence very seriously. The house mother may or may not have been cast out of her own home, but she knows that many of her “children” probably were. They need to feel love and acceptance, and the mother provides that.
Greater minds than mine can unpack the gender politics of drag balls, but for whatever it’s worth: I find it interesting, touching, inspiring, I don’t know what else, that these disenfranchised people appropriate the language and characteristics of femininity – in a world where white, toxic masculinity has made it abundantly clear that they’re not wanted. They embrace sisterhood. They embrace beauty and glamour. They mother each other. Many of them are gay men, so of course they’re not anti-man, but they’ve clearly decided that the patriarchy is not for them. They seek empowerment – denied them by white male hegemony – in regal femininity.
Not all of Paris is Burning‘s stars are gay men: Venus and Angie Xtravaganza, among others, are trans women. It’s quietly implied that, even within drag ball culture, transphobia exists: LaBeija seems incapable of understanding why anyone born a man would ever want to undergo sex reassignment surgery, since women are treated badly too, and since they might “change their mind” later. Without quite realizing it, LaBeija seems to have hit on an especially brutal point. Cis women aren’t treated especially well by the patriarchy, but trans women are treated worst of all. Case in point: Venus. Livingston revisited the various stars in 1989, and found that Venus had been murdered by a john when he realized she wasn’t a cisgender woman. It’s horrible and heartbreaking; and as far as we’ve come since the late 1980s, it’s sobering to see how many of the issues affecting these mothers and children and voguers and queens are still plaguing us. LaBeija notes that black people have had everything taken away from them over the last 400 years – and they’ve found a way to survive. In the late 1980s, young gay and trans people were, according to Venus, very likely to be sex workers; trans sex workers especially are still far more likely to be brutalized and killed than their cisgender counterparts – who don’t exactly have an easy time of it.
Without attempting to be a scholarly treatise, Paris is Burning nevertheless raises a myriad of important questions about intersectionality – questions we still haven’t quite figured out how to answer. It’s a fantastic ride, and lots of fun, especially during the ball scenes – but we had a long way to go then, and we have a long way to go now.