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.

Film & Cinephilia

It is impossible to say all I want to say about film in 500 words. It has literally meant the world to me. I love music as well but have definitely relied on film even more to get me through the difficult stages in life. Film is a whole different world awaiting your discovery. It is like “Calgon, take me away” in its ability to transport you to a different time and place. I love that ability to virtually time travel and to escape into a complex world that is vastly different from mine own. Film is the ultimate in edutainment. It entertains and it simultaneously educates.

I enjoy teaching film and I even have had a few shots at making films. I have made three autobiographical documentaries with co-producer Peter Welch: A Transgender Path, TransAmazon: A Gender Queer Journey and Transilience. They all talk about different aspects of my life as a transgender person. It was really helpful to be on the other side of film, actively exploring film production rather than just spectatorship. I learned how difficult it is to make films, especially when you don’t have any money. Film is a very expensive medium and takes many people on staff to make a truly quality production. I think we could have used more money and technical expertise and yet I am still proud of the films we produced given the reality we had to contend with.

What are some of my favorite films? Paris is Burning. Mommie Dearest. Three Women. The Shining. Pariah. Moonlight. The Color Purple. Born in Flames. Ed Wood. And many more.

It is also true that film has some shining examples of cultural productions but also some of the most horribly made excuses for “art” that perhaps ever existed. There are a lot of really, really bad movies out there. I can’t imagine how many hours I have spent camped out in front of impossibly terrible films. And sadly I have the tendency to see it through to the end as I don’t like to watch a movie only halfway through!

It is interesting to me how much people these days like to binge watch long TV series. I rarely like to do so. I enjoy the economical nature of film. They can say what they say in generally 90 minutes to two hours. Just like books over 200 pages annoying me for their inability to get to the point of what they need to say, series seem to me as just franchises that are designed to make more money and suck up more of people’s time. I like film because you are in and out of a story in a flash. Despite it being short, it can make a lasting impression on a person and really pack an emotional wallop.

There is so much to say about film and I am sure it will pop up in future entries. For now, suffice it to say that I love films [most recent love: I, Tonya] and am so thankful for the important part they have played in my life. They have opened up new worlds for me, educated me, and sometimes just taken me out of my own life for a while to make me laugh and amuse me. Film can do it all and it was one of the most important inventions in the history of time. Just like literature, it has the power to transform lives and hearts, and that is no small feat.