"Paris Is Burning" provides a rare glimpse into a formative moment of LGBTQ community and culture. It's a movie I keep coming back to, and it gets more difficult and heart-wrenching to watch as the years go by.
It's talked about as a landmark movie for LGBTQ+ people, and it is. But it's impossible to watch the movie and not realize that it's a movie about race, from start to finish.

People don't talk about that part as much, though.
Literally the opening shot of the movie - before anybody even speaks - is a news marquee: "White Supremacist Church Begins National Conference".

Yes, "Paris is Burning" is about race. It's about how queer PoC experience racism.
The ball scene is rooted in Black culture (and Black queers responding to anti-Blackness, specifically), but non-Black people of color are a big part of its history too. The movie touches on that a bit.
"Paris is Burning" is a documentary about an underground ball scene that was created by Black queens and queers who were excluded from the whites-only events.

Yes, segregation "ended" before the 1960s, but that doesn't mean it was over.
It's a movie that's tough to watch for a number of reasons.

The first time you see it, it strikes you as a moment in time. But when you re-watch it, years later, it drives home how much more has been lost to time - and yet, how little has changed for the better.
"My dad used to say, 'you have three strikes against you in this world. Every black man [already has] two. But you're Black and you're male and you're gay. You're going to have a hard time. If you're going to do this, you're going to have to be stronger than you ever imagined."
That's the opening line of "Paris is Burning". From the very start, it's a movie about race.
LGBTQ+ have never, by and large, had it "easy" anywhere in the world, at any point in modern history. But most contemporary discourse around drag (and Paris is Burning) whitewashes the story, which in effect washes away the meaning of it all.
At one point in the film, Dorian Corey of the interviewees explains that drag balls involve people emulating something that is structurally inaccessible to them. They look and walk the part in every way, except one - which happens to be the one society requires of them.
The focus in drag, then, is not on the emulation, but on the parts that can't be emulated: privilege. White privilege, straight privilege, male privilege, etc. - any and all of it.

That's what's really on display in a drag performance, by virtue of its absence.
You can look at this another way: drag has always been an ironic art form and it's generally a maximalist one as well. When portraying maximalism ironically, the meaning has to come from negative space. In other words, the only thing that has meaning is that which is *not* shown.
When white and cis men try to emulate drag culture, they usually miss this point entirely. To them, the focus is on the outlandish outfits and flamboyance.

Their privilege is invisible to them, so an art form which is all about highlighting privilege is lost on them.
As Dorian Corey explains, this is the concept of "realness". That's a term which could easily be misinterpreted and misused by people who aren't QPoC, and many white people who see the movie probably still don't understand what "realness" actually is.
"Realness" is often misinterpreted to mean "looking like the real thing" - that is, a drag queen or a trans woman looking like a cis ("real") woman. Which would be pretty problematic - framing cis women as the normative "real" and everyone else in opposition to them. But...
"realness" is intended as an ironic term. The Black femmes who dress as executives exhibit "realness" only because everyone in the in-group

a) knows that they *aren't* executives
b) knows *why* society won't view them as "real" executives
"realness" is not about saying, "you could pass for the real thing". It's about affirming, "yes, you *are* the real thing."
To be reductive and trite about it, "realness" is not about being true to the thing that you are emulating; it's about being true to *yourself*, and others recognize that you - the real you - are already that thing, and are valid, and are respected.
"realness" requires both irony and courage.

Executive Realness is a ball category, but if Jeff Bezos showed up and tried to walk? Would that be realness?

Fuck no! He's already a CEO, and the world recognizes that. It's the opposite of realness.
(That said, I will say that I'm very amused by the thought of Jeff Bezos showing up at a drag ball, attempting to vogue, and getting his ass absolutely HANDED to him by a rookie queen on her first-ever walk)
Another thing the movie shows (but is easy to miss) is how queer terminology and identities were fluid in NYC in the 1980s, in a way they aren't today.

(Partly because those terms and identities were still being defined within queer culture - they were at the forefront of it!)
There was a good thread about this some months ago (which I can't find), on how flexibility and playfulness with words were an integral part of queer ingroup culture (not with outsiders, but with each other) in the 70s and 80s.
That playfulness can only exist within the ingroup, which is why it's become less common over time. As queer people become more visible in the mainstream and need to assert our identities to a hostile mainstream, that playfulness and flexibility has been weaponized against us.
This isn't to say the drag ball scene was one big happy love-fest. Dorian Corey said herself "They call it a competition, but make no mistake - it's a war."

But dynamics within the predominantly Black and Latino queer drag scene are very different from dynamics with mainstream.
You'll notice, for example, that there isn't a lot of distinction between men in drag and trans women. The documentary shows a few of each, but the ball scene doesn't distinguish between them directly. The lines in queer PoC communities in NYC were much blurrier then.
The documentary doesn't explain this, because a 1980s viewer would have taken it for granted, but it's notable to a 2019 viewer. HRT and SRS were much less accessible then for poor Black and Latinx queers.
HRT was also much more dangerous then - many (most?) people who were on estrogen obtained it in ways that weren't always completely legal.

Nowadays, trans women who take estrogen monitor their vital organ functions, but most of these women then didn't (or couldn't).
Because transitioning was a newer, less accessible, and fairly dicey prospect for QPoC, queer communities naturally evolved to have more space at the time for people who had ambivalent feelings about transitioning, or who needed the flexibility of still "passing" by day.
The documentary shows some of this - one of the house mothers opposes SRS and speaks quite bluntly about how she advises her children against it. But one of the other house mothers had both top and bottom surgery and is shown playing at the beach in a one-piece.
The language that Pepper LaBeija uses about bottom surgery would actually be downright offensive today coming from a person who isn't trans, but (a) she was trans*, and (b) language is specific to both temporal and situational context.
Also, an interesting sidenote here: she was AMAB and used female pronouns (she/her), but she referred to herself as a drag queen, including (to my knowledge) until her death.

Again, queer terminology isn't rigid (because, duh, gender and sexuality aren't rigid either).
This is why RuPaul's transphobic comments on why trans women should be excluded from drag are so off the mark (in addition to being offensive).

Trans women have always been a part of drag ball culture, from the *very beginning*. And RuPaul was there, so he would know that!
But as I said, "Paris is Burning" is a movie that's only gotten more difficult and wrenching to watch as the years go by.

Watching it in 1990, it would seem positively cheery and uplifting, compared to watching it today, when you see the bleak hopelessness pervade every moment.
"Paris is Burning" is a documentary that explores the hopes and dreams of people who, by and large, never got the chance to live their dreams.
Octavia St. Laurent is one of the most endearing characters in the film. While talking about her ambitions, she delivers her classic line, "I want to be somebody. I mean, I am somebody. I just want to be a rich somebody."
"This is not a game for me, or fun. This is something I want to live."

For her, drag was not a performance; it was a rehearsal.
In the end, Octavia St. Laurent lived a life to be proud of, as an HIV educator, but it's certainly not the one she wished for. She never achieved fame outside "Paris is Burning." She spent years doing survival sex work and died prematurely of cancer at the age of 45.
She later described "Paris is Burning" as the turning point in "a really bad time in my life". For her, the documentary was a reminder of "how far I've come". At the same time, she felt she had so far yet to go. Here is her final interview, a few months before she died.
At another point, Pepper LaBeija talks jokingly about her plans for "the next forty years". It's almost cute and funny, but sad to watch if you know how the rest of her life played out.
On a cheerier note, though, she talks about how glad she is that she didn't have bottom surgery. Which is heartwarming to watch, knowing that she met her partner a few years later and they had a (biological) daughter together!
[cn transphobia, violence]

But if you're looking for uplifting happy endings, that's the closest you'll get. The most chilling moment every time, for me, is the scene where Venus Xtravaganza talks about the dangers of sex work, and how she wants to stop escorting.
She tells a story about escaping through a window after being threatened by a client who tried to kill her.

For first-time viewers, it's just a scary story. For those of us who've seen it before, and know the ending, it's like hearing a ghost talk about her own murder.
[cn transphobia/violence]

Venus Xtravaganza's murder was not an isolated incident - trans women were frequently attacked and killed.

Nor is it a matter of the past - trans people are being murdered at *higher* rates today than they were in 1988. Mostly trans women of color.
That's why "Paris is Burning" gets sadder to watch as the years go by. Because we'd like to know that those women would have lived better and happier lives today. And it's not obvious that they would.
Yes, ARVs are around today, which means AIDS "shouldn't" be a problem anymore, in theory.

But theory isn't practice, which is why one of the dancers in the movie died of AIDS in 2006 - long after single-drug combos were on the market.
As it turns out, just because a treatment exists doesn't mean everyone can (or does) access it. The people shown in the movie are in the demographic that is still, *today*, at the highest risk of contracting HIV and suffering complications from it.
It's easy to brush off Angie Xtravaganza's dying of AIDS (at the age of 28!) as something that only happened because it was a bygone era, when "lots of people were dying of AIDS"...

...except people are *still* dying of AIDS, today. Yes, in the US.
The LGBTQ+ community has made great advances in the last 30 years (largely due to the work of Black and PoC activists).

As it turns out, those gains have been captured almost entirely by white cis gay men and women.
It's 2019. We have the Internet. In theory, escorting should be safer for trans women of color than it was in 1989, because they can use the Internet to coordinate and vet potential clients.

Except it's not, because #SESTA/#FOSTA undid all 30 years of that progress.
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