Author’s note: “Paris Is Still Burning” is the first in a series of op-eds on queer history that will appear on this blog. It will feature both local (ie, Atlantic Canadian) historical content (and context) and larger historical events.
It’s 1990, and I am a kid living in rural Nova Scotia watching Siskel & Ebert. It’s a Saturday afternoon and they are talking about a recent documentary. All of a sudden, a black drag queen in a gold lamé dress, with puffed sleeves that are bigger than a tire, is on the television. Off screen, someone is yelling for everyone to get off the floor. “Learn it, and learn it well,” they say.
What I am learning is that there is a world out there.
It’s been more than 20 years since Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning was released. The film depicts the lives of a group of predominantly black and Latino gay men and transgender women living in New York City during the late '80s. They are members of “houses,” congregations and fraternities who battle each other during balls or pageants, competing in various categories in which they emulate certain ideals of straight society. Executive realness anyone?
The film is also known for being one of the few detailed portraits of voguing during its initial heyday. Although people may have been acquainted with the term and elements of the dance thanks to Madonna, Paris Is Burning took an academic and sociological glance at what was mostly viewed as a dancefloor fad.
Twenty years later, the film still resonates in the queer community. I have conversations with young queers who were barely out of diapers when the film came out yet can recite great lengths of dialogue from it. They can read someone or throw shade, having been taught by no less than Dorian Corey and Venus Xtravaganza.
But the balls and voguing did not go the way of the gay dinosaur. They simply went back underground, and new generations of houses have come about, while some of the old stalwarts still hear the names ring out during the balls. The House of Ninja and the House of Xtravaganza are two that still produce dancers and voguers who will leave you gagging.
Fast forward to the 1:27 mark.
For a white kid from a middle-class family living in a fishing village of 300 people, you would think I had nothing in common with anyone or anything on that screen. But I felt a kinship and a sense of belonging. I wanted to be like them: these were people who dreamed themselves into existence, even when reality was trying to shake them awake into living nightmares. Once in a while, in front of all their peers, they could be whoever and whatever they wanted. And that gave a shy and closeted kid a lot of hope.
Addendum: Jennie Livingston, the director of Paris Is Burning is still making films. She is currently looking to make a film about the subject of death and identity. You can find out more on her Kickstarter site.
Butch Queen Bonus: In 2010, Cabin Fever Records put out a 12-inch recording called “Shade,” by The Realness. This quasi-bootleg record samples dialogue from the film in a booty-shaking, duck-walking track.
A must for those who want to be real.