This past summer was the twenty-fifth anniversary of Paris Is Burning. This was the iconic film debut of the ballroom scene as it was in late-80s Harlem through the eyes of gender variant and sexually fluid Black and Brown protagonists. The instant fame of its flamboyant stars is underscored by the fact that Jennie Livingston, the director, lawyered them all out of their rightful proceeds. (Damn Jennie!) Since its 1991 release, most of its impact on popular culture has been credited to other sources. Ask most Americans, and they think vogueing belongs to Madonna. (Who can't actually vogue.) The prominence of "throwing shade" and "reading" are credited to The Real Housewives of Atlanta (chile, bye) or worse, white twinks at a college drag show. That's cute, but Paris Is still burning today and the ballroom got sumt’in to say!
On Saturday, November 14th, the documentary will be screening in full glory at the Plaza Theater in Atlanta. There will be pre-screening performances, discussion, and maybe even a runway competition. You must buy your tickets on the Scoutmob site and come in your fiercest runway realness look!
In anticipation of the screening, here are six sick'ning things Paris Is Burning taught us about social justice:
Sistahs Are Doin’ It For Themselves
When in doubt, start your own empire. It all started, at least in NYC, by Crystal Labeija, Mother of Pepper Labeija, after she was fed up with the obvious anti-blackness in the judging of the drag pageants. She founded the first House balls, known then as "Harlem drag balls," because the white drag community was (and still is) anti-black. Notice in this clip she doesn’t blame Harlow, but the crooked judging system that privileges an unpolished white queen over Black diamonds (AKA Crystal Labeija).
Teach The Children Their Herstory
Creativity and fierceness have moved the ACT UP movement, civil rights, and queer liberation. When you get to walk like you own the city, you start to realize you DO own the city (OPULENCE!) We owe a lot of our movement (s)heroes to the ballroom scene. Marsha P Johnson, mother of the Stonewall Riots was a ballroom "butchqueen up in pumps".
"Got To Be Real"
The runway is a battleground, and the outside world, a war. Vogueing isn’t just that Sailor Moon vs. Wonder Woman clip that went viral. There are many categories and creative styles of vogueing. It’s an art. Vogueing "old way" started with precise model-like poses (get it? VOGUE magazine? GET IT?). It was performance art that said, "if you won't have Black models in your magazines, we'll be our own models of glamour." When trans women, trans men, and queer men compete in "realness" categories, they are literally working to avoid violence if they are perceived as "not cisgender" or "not heteronormative." So please, in the name of Dorian Corey, stop trivializing the struggle. "Extra Guac at Chipotle Realness!" #CHOPPED If you wouldn’t be fired from a job, denied housing, harassed, socially shunned, criminalized, or killed for it, reconsider if it’s got to be "real."
LSS: Legends, Statements, Stars
We are social workers, entrepreneurs, students, fashion designers, choreographers, celebrities, and minimum wage workers. We supersize your happy meal and give your Twitter something to talk about. Ballroom legends and icons who are finding career success include: the recently, publicly out Love and Hip Hop: Hollywood cast member Milan Christopher (walked Sex Siren / Vogue Femme), musical artist fka Twigs studying under Benjamin Milan, and social media "it girl" King Amiyah Scott (Mother of House of Chanel, ex-Mizrahi).
An example of professionals in ballroom, this symposium was organized by Martez Smith, MSW student, House of Lanvin, (Old Way vogue) and an up-n-coming legend in HIV prevention justice.
I Wanna Be a Spoiled, Rich White Girl
Don’t be fooled. The House Ballroom scene isn’t all glitter and glamour. The same gurl getting her 10s and trophies is more likely to be sleeping at Peachtree and Pine. The ballroom is a safe haven where she can, for a night, escape the fact that "Black men in Atlanta have a 60% chance of becoming HIV positive by the time they are thirty" (Emory University) or that "twenty trans women of color have been reported murdered and that number continues to grow" (HRC). Black brilliance is a diamond. It comes from the pressure of survival in a state actively trying to undervalue your worth and either sell or dispose of you. Ballroom culture will continue to remain underground until Black queer and trans people are no longer economically oppressed. (Check if your cultural appreciation is free trade, boo.)
Check out "Pier Kids: The Life" or "How Do I Look?"
Pay It No Mind
Black queer, trans, and gender non-conforming people organized an entire culture; lucrative and thriving. Only recently have the gurls been able to assert ourselves as consultants with content expertise in fashion, dance, and art. The Ballroom has been the sequined backbone of American culture. Queens have labored and their werks have been stolen, re-branded, and sold for gold that we don’t even see a twinkle of. So support the artists, don’t just appropriate *ahem* appreciate the art.
FKA Twigs booked the gurls, and look at this powerful showcase of talent.
Divoli Svere has been releasing vogue tracks for YEARS (Myspace teas, lol) and now resides in Atlanta. It's rumored he'll be dropping an EP this week. Maybe it'll pay homage to Paris is Burning. Maybe not. Either way, you'll GAG! You can throw coin at it here on bandcamp: https://divolisvere.bandcamp.com/