The Queen Diva You Best’a Believah: Big Freedia Reframing Pop Culture

Teaching the course “Race, Sexuality & Representation” has been a great joy. To have 15 upper-level students who are Women’s Studies majors and minors has been a privilege. It is also fun to be able to study people I greatly admire, like Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, Audre Lorde, Sylvester and Beyoncé. In this article, I would like to focus on another person that we have studied: Big Freedia. We read Big Freedia’s autobiography and watched a short documentary about her on YouTube. I am a big fan and this article will be largely be me fan-girling about Big Freedia.

I first was introduced to Big Freedia on her TV show on Fuse called Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce. The most recent season was called Big Freedia Bounces Back. Seeing Big Freedia on the screen brought me back to when I was around 10 years old. I was watching a show that has long since been cancelled called Solid Gold. It was kind of like American Bandstand and featured popular artists performing their hits. That week they had Boy George and Culture Club on and I was Transfixed. Finally, I knew I was looking at someone like me, someone who did not fit the cookie-cutter image of traditional men and women. It was so empowering to see a reflection of myself on the television screen.

Big Freedia is a Black, Gay, Gender Nonconforming Icon. Although Freedia identifies as a Gay Man, many people use she/her pronouns and it is believed that this is Freedia’s preference. In honor of Freedia’s preference and femininity, I use feminine pronouns in this article. Like with Boy George, I was transfixed when I first saw Freedia on television. Big Freedia the TV show is not just another reality TV show. It has a lot of heart and it profiles people that we NEVER get to see on TV. Big Freedia is not Transgender, as far as we know, but she is Gender Nonconforming. Perhaps even more importantly, Big Freedia is African American. We don’t see Trans and Gender Nonconforming People of Color on television. Big Freedia having her own TV show, making her own music videos, writing her autobiography and doing many other things is truly revolutionary. It has taken a long time for her to rise in her career and she has worked incredibly hard. I hope she realizes what she means to so many of her fans and what she means to the culture as a whole for LGBTQ+ people, People of Color and many other groups in American culture.

Big Freedia has truly had to crawl her way up the ladder of media success. She was born poor as Freddie Ross in New Orleans and started out singing in the church choir. She switched it up and got involved with the Bounce music scene in New Orleans. Freedia was very close to her mother, Miss V., and her mother supported her in her career and through coming out as Gay. Freedia started performing in the club scene and quickly made a name for herself. She has had A LOT of challenges to deal with in her meteoric rise in the Bounce music industry. These have included the death of her beloved mother at a young age from cancer, being shot twice in an attempted crime, Hurricane Katrina, the death of colleagues, lots of management changes over the course of her career, and a legal problem that made headlines when she was accused of Section 8 theft.

I absolutely love Big Freedia’s music videos. My favorite one is called “Explode.” In it, she begins by saying:

“My music, it makes me feel good about what I do and the culture that I represent. People get confused by if I am ‘he’ or ‘she.’ I am more than just Big Freedia. I am more than just Queen Diva. I am more than just Freddie Ross. I am Me. I am the Ambassador, representing for New Orleans and for bounce music. So many things in my head sometimes, it just all makes me want to explode.”

The video then goes on to show Big Freedia and her troop of dancers, often called shakers, dancing on the street, in a laundromat and in a club. Big Freedia’s style might best be termed “androgynous royalty.” I particularly like how they are engaging in twerking in the laundromat. I go to the laundry every week with my mom and it is a pretty dismal place. As many people have commented, bounce music is happy music. It is by definition fast paced and euphoric. So Big Freedia and her shakers taking over the laundromat is a form of breaking up the mundane practice of washing and drying clothes. When Freedia and her dancers take over the street, which occurs in videos like “Duffy”, they literally stop traffic. I see this as a decolonization of space: a decolonization by Blackness, Queerness, and Gender Nonconformity. It is reclamation of territory that has been dominated by whites, heterosexuals and cisgender people.

Freedia reframes popular culture in the same way that she reframes identity. In Euro-American identity politics, there are very clear demarcations between “Gay Man” and “Transgender.” While I am not making the assertion that Freedia is Transgender since she has said explicitly that she is not, I am asserting that her Gender Nonconformity and Queerness mix together in a very fluid way. Freedia’s best friend and fellow Bounce music artist Katey Red is a Trans woman so Freedia is very familiar with Trans identity. Freedia may identify as a Gay Man but prefers the use of feminine pronouns. I think Freedia challenges the fixity of a Euro-American paradigm that would see “Gay Male” and “Transgender Woman” as absolutely antithetical. Big Freedia’s Queerness is complex and challenges us to re-think the total separateness of gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation and how we might rework these entities in very creative ways.

Finally, I wish to end this piece by saying that Big Freedia is Royalty. There is a reason she is called the QUEEN Diva. There is a reason there is such a thing as Drag Queens and Drag Kings. In a society that hates Blackness, that hates Queerness, that hates Gender Variance, for a Black, Queer, Gender Nonconforming person to demand their right to the throne is revolutionary. Big Freedia will never know how many countless people she has helped to honor their own uniqueness and claim their own nobility. We are all majestic and remarkable, larger-than-life figures like Big Freedia remind us of exactly that.

 

 

Paris is Burning

I have probably seen the film Paris is Burning [PIB] close to 100 times. I can quote sections of it and know what scene is coming from one to the next. What is interesting about PIB is that I share some things in common with the subjects of the film but also have many differences. Through these differences, it is a film that has given me hope, strength and resilience. I write about it here as an homage, even though there are very real problems with its production.

Growing up as a queer, transgender teen in rural NH, I was in search of role models, of history, and of affirmation. I believe it was around 1992 when PIB was released on VHS. I quickly procured a copy and watched it over and over again. It was a whole new world. I was excited by seeing life in New York City, and I was excited by the whole subculture created by Black and Latinx Gay Men and Trans Women based in the Ballroom Scene. I liked the language, I liked the style and I liked the honesty of the people who were interviewed. As mentioned, I grew up as a white, working-class, rural child and teen in the 80s and early 90s. My first icon was Boy George from the group Culture Club. I was transfixed by his gender variance, beauty and music. Finally, I saw a reflection of someone who looked like me. It was not until I was 19 that I first learned the word “transgender” but when I did I knew it described exactly who I was. I knew I was also queer as fuck and did not fit into the cis-hetero world whatsoever. The subculture portrayed in PIB was one that glorified queerness and gender transgression. Nothing made me happier than to see subjects in the film “queening out” in public, making hyper-feminine gendered movements and articulations to shock cis-het onlookers and to amuse themselves. PIB helped me to realize that I could be myself, even though there was often a steep price for being one’s self.

I love the glamour, fashion and drama in PIB. These sisters, brothers and siblings are really into walking the runway, into performing vogue and to working the different categories. PIB reminds us that gender is a performance. In fact, many different things are a performance, as evidenced by categories such as executive realness, banjee boy and school boy, military, etc. As grand dame of the balls Dorian Corey says, if you can look the part, you can be it. In many ways, the film engages with difficult Butlerian gender theory but in a much more relatable way. In fact, Butler writes about the film and the film has become famous for its exhibition of intersectionality in action: looking simultaneously at race, class, gender, sexuality and more. As a professor, I have used the film many times to cajole students to look at the politics of performance and the ways in which intersectional analyses are vitally important in understanding the construction of contemporary society and culture.

As Fabulous and Amazing as the world within PIB is, it is also a world beset by multiple forms of oppression, including racism, classism, homophobia and transphobia. Given my identities I could understand some of these forms of discrimination. I could certainly understand homophobia and transphobia, and I could understand classism to an extent given my working-class background. But I could not understand extreme poverty and homelessness, nor could I understand the extreme racism that people in the film experienced. This was where my differences from the people in the film emerged. But it was also one of the first times that I learned about Queer and Trans People of Color [QTPOC] and the multiple forms of oppression that they face. The subjects of PIB often formed families of their own due to parental rejection and many others had run away from home. They formed “houses” of their own to form community, support and in many cases to forge basic survival.

The oppression can be so bad that it can cost people their lives. Transgender people face massive levels of employment discrimination. This means that people are forced into the underground economies and get by through doing things like sex work, drug dealing and boosting. The woman above in white was named Venus Xtravaganza. She was a Latina Trans Woman and a Sex Worker. This was how she survived in the brutally homophobic, transphobic and racist time of 1980s NYC. She was killed by one of her johns and discovered in a sleazy motel room three days after she had been murdered. Learning about what happened to Venus was the first time I learned about anti-trans hate crimes. I was horrified by the ending and cried many tears over it. A beautiful young woman who had the whole world in front of her had had her life stolen away by a bigot. Her story is one that I have never been able to forget.

PIB is not without controversy. The director Jennie Livingston is a white, Yale-educated cis woman. She has been very tone deaf over the years about her own privilege vis-a-vis her documentary subjects. While she did well financially and professionally from the film, the subjects of the film continued to deal with oppression, poverty and a lack of opportunities. I am sad to report that all of the principles of the film have passed away, many of them quite young. This controversy reminded me of the obligation of a documentarian towards the people they represent. Certainly Livingston failed to give her subjects the money and assistance they needed, even as she cashed in on their lives, experiences and stories.

At any rate, I do not love PIB for its director. I love it for the brilliant people profiled within it. The film will always have a very special place in my heart for showing what is possible, how things are socially constructed and how people can create a fabulous world even within the harshest of circumstances. The film is a queer classic and one of the first that shows the realities of QTPOC. Over 25 years after its release, it still packs a wallop and reminds us that we can be whoever we want if we are willing to fight for it.