A fellow alumni from Sarah Lawrence College was recently shocked and confused to learn that I’d spent four years (give or take, ahem) at our school and had somehow never seen the documentary Paris Is Burning. Even after attending one of the queerest schools in America, then going to become a mother, a film and TV critic and now a TV writer, I’d managed to miss Jennie Livingston’s beloved film about the queer ballroom culture that reigned in 1980s Harlem. Although I certainly had known enough not to attribute voguing to Madonna, I was completely ignorant of the impact of this particular world on those who participated in it, those who bore witness and on American culture today.
As a black woman, I rarely feel like I’m appropriating someone else’s culture, but in watching Paris Is Burning for the first time, I realized that so much of what I associate with black women and black culture belongs to and was birthed by queer culture. We all know that these worlds are not, and have never been, mutually exclusive, but origin stories—especially in this country—are integral to our worldview, and more specifically, to the way we behave and speak.
Post-Paris, I’m not sure that you should, for example, be permitted to use the word “shade” without having seen this movie. I certainly feel guilty that I have, especially knowing that one of the first times I heard the word was from Lil’ Kim, and so I always think of her “Crush On You’ verse when I hear the term “throw shade.” But that seems wrong now, or at least historically inaccurate. It seems better, rather, that I should hear “shade” and picture the emcee Junior LaBeija shouting from his pulpit. And while it’s true that the people we meet in Paris Is Burning didn’t invent the term (or those others—werk, yas queen, etc.), it feels so important to associate them with these words, to know from whom I’m borrowing when I use them, or when I engage with their constant usage on social media.
Post-Paris, today’s homophobia and queer and trans-antagonism becomes all the more infuriating. Like so many other great stories, the 1990 documentary is a tragedy. It is the tragedy of families and houses born out of the rejection of biological families; the tragedy of the great Venus Extravaganza; and the tragic loss of many of the film’s participants, like Willi Ninja, to AIDS and AIDS-related illnesses. So what I’m wondering is how we can live in a culture that loves and openly steals from their world, and yet remains a hostile environment for black and Latino queers. I’m wondering how many trans black women were killed last year by people who have, in some way, benefited from queer culture? Why are we still not living in a world where black queers everywhere have equal access to health care, education and all the necessary tools required to bring a permanent end to AIDS? I’m wondering what would happen if we loved black queers as much we love/steal from black queer culture?
We are 25 years on from the release of Paris Is Burning and while HIV acquisition has been stemmed across much of the LGBT community, in America 43 per cent of new HIV infections in the queer community are black gay men specifically. In this fact alone, it is clear the stranglehold of oppression around the Paris Is Burning cast did not wither when they went to their graves but still holds power in the communities from which they came. —Shon Faye, Looking at Paris Is Burning 25 Years After Its Release
I’m riddled with questions after my first Paris Is Burning experience: Is there anything more American than stealing from a culture and then leaving them to die—or violently killing them with your bare hands? Are we really moving towards a place where our black and Latino queer family will be treated as true family? How can we even effectively measure our progress, especially when we are still attributing so much of their work to the onset of Beyoncé, or worse, Broad City?
I struggle with these questions because one of my least favorite things about this country is the false perception or narrative of progress. If a Hollywood mogul is taken down (not imprisoned, mind you, but simply fired from his job and publicly shamed) for sexually harassing and allegedly raping women, you will hear cries of “progress” for women. If a black man is elected President, you will hear cries of “progress” for blacks. If one queer black movie wins the Best Picture Oscar, you will hear cries of “progress” for black queers. And “progress” always translates to a pat on the back for white people, proof that they’re doing well, that they’re evolving as they are ever-prone to do and that, in fact, they might even relax a little and take a break for all their hard work—you know, progressing and making America better for everyone.
I speak of this American progress in hopes of troubling our collective to response to headlines like this: “Ryan Murphy Makes History with Largest Cast of Transgender Actors for FX’s Pose.” Like many of you probably did, I gasped in excitement over the headline, and the many others I saw on the day of the announcement. Immediately, I thought of all of the brilliant trans actors who have contributed to Jill Soloway’s Transparent, including black trans actor Alexandra Grey. I thought of the doors they opened up, and the doors these unknown trans actors (along with the many queer and trans people behind the scenes) are getting ready to open up (or burn down, preferably). But then I remembered how progress always seems to work around here, how whiteness works and how class works. And a day after the big historical announcement, it was announced that several straight, white actors would be taking lead roles in Murphy’s new project as well. It’s too soon to say how their presence will impact the show and the storylines of the queer and trans characters the series promises to follow, but I don’t feel the need to explain my skepticism any further. I won’t let white and straight people do what they so badly want to do, and celebrate, before they’ve even pulled out the knife . Let’s, instead, ask ourselves when progress for queer and trans people won’t be deemed “historical.” Let’s fight for trans actors in roles beyond just trans characters. Let’s demand work for members of the LGBTQIA community that isn’t only and always specific to their sexual identity.
And if we’re truly in the business of “progress,” let’s pull out the knife and heal the wounds, by demanding changes in the communities where black queer people are most often victimized, violently and otherwise. We are living in an America where a white person addicted to opioids will find far more sympathy—will soon (perhaps post-Trump) find laws and bills passed in his name, will be looked at as a patient, not a criminal—while a black person living with AIDS or HIV is what he has always been: someone who should have worked harder, been more careful and not given in to those baser, animalistic instincts that can often result in tragedy … but completely preventable tragedies that the rest of us must shrug at. After all, these people have to take responsibility for themselves.
So, I’ll say what I’ve said before about black people in America: we are owed, and we shouldn’t even be using the word progress until these “historical” announcements have come to an end. And the queer black and Latino people who have come before us, and written the scripts that so many of use today, scripts that helped define so much of our culture, are owed, as well. It’s not that I needed a movie to tell me this, to remind me of how much work there is to do, but I will admit that I did need the words of some of Harlem’s finest to remind me that when we celebrate those moments that feel like a shift, we should do so amongst ourselves, in our own ballrooms (and at our own cookouts—invitations to which are rarely, if ever, given out). Perhaps I did need a reminder that family is chosen and that those who have the audacity to stand up and perform identities of their own choosing, at the risk of shade, must be protected at all costs.
This is white America. Any other nationality that is not of the white set, knows this and accepts this till the day they die. That is everybody’s dream and ambition as a minority—to live and look as well as a white person. This is white America. And when it comes to the minorities; especially black—we as a people, for the past 400 years—is the greatest example of behavior modification in the history of civilization. We have had everything taken away from us, and yet we have all learned how to survive. That is why, in the ballroom circuit, it is so obvious that if you have captured the great white way of living, or looking, or dressing, or speaking—you is a marvel. —Pepper LaBeija
Who among us is willing to do this work of protecting and embracing those communities who have long since been showing us how the gender binary is flawed, how all such binaries are flawed—work that might begin with acknowledgement of our own complicity in erasure or neglect of certain histories? I jokingly asked for forgiveness when I posted on social media that I’d gone my whole life without seeing Paris Is Burning, but in a very real way, I do feel I am at fault—for not seeking out this story, for not investigating the origins of the images and jokes I’ve laughed at, for ignoring those people who’ve told me to see it over the years. For not putting it on my list earlier—hell, for seeing some of the whitest movies ever before seeing this one. I can’t even remember what finally caused me to queue it up on Netflix, but I’m late in a way that somehow isn’t funny or cute. I’m not queer or trans, and I don’t speak Harlem, and I still feel like Paris Is Burning is one of those stories that I should know, the same way I know certain gospel songs word for word. Discovering it now feels like discovering Mahalia Jackson or Toni Morrison after 30 years on this planet. Let it be known that from now on, for whatever it’s worth, I intend to bear witness and be on time for stories like this, to participate in the amplification of these voices. They don’t have to sound just like mine to ring true, or to deserve—in the words of Brooke Xtravaganza—to be “as free as the wind blowing out on this beach.”
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer on Hulu’s upcoming series The Looming Tower and Amazon’s Homecoming. She is the former TV Editor of Paste, and her work has appeared in Salon, Indiewire’s Shadow and Act, and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.