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What ‘Paris Is Burning’ Taught Me

Paris Is Burning is a documentary film that chronicles the New York City ball culture of the mid-to-late 1980s, in which the gay and transgender community gathered for highly structured competitions during a time of extreme oppression and poverty. I remember watching it for the first time more than a year ago, and in just over an hour I had found more to identify with as a gay man than anything to come out of my own lifetime. It’s also taught me some of the greatest life lessons that I’m ever likely to come across.

  • Check your privilege. The LGBT youth of today have it easy compared to our forefathers. Most of the individuals followed in the documentary were homeless, abandoned, uneducated and of ill-health; just as many met tragic deaths either through hate-crime or AIDS-related complications. Still, the ballroom was a picture of optimism and spirit. The struggles these people faced (particularly in the Trans community) are a reminder that today’s gay youth are incredibly privileged. Not enough of us are aware of our history, and I believe it’s a necessity in ensuring positive movements toward equality.

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  • Fake it ’till you make it. Men and women of ball culture never let poverty stop them from showing the world that they could stand toe-to-toe with corporate culture. In the words of legendary mother Dorian Corey, “the fact that you are not an Executive is merely because of your social standing in life. In a ballroom, you can do anything you like.”  They were the embodiment of aspiration, and definitely role models responsible for my own career drive. Some of them even made it out of the streets – the house of Ninja is well-known for its influence in both the fashion and music worlds through introduction of ‘voguing’.

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  • A sense of community. The gay community wasn’t always so inwardly critical. Of course, the ballroom queens of Paris Is Burning were certainly ruthless, but ultimately the ball was a scene of acceptance and diversity. Before the eighties, ballroom queens were solely concerned with the Las Vegas showgirl look. As the years passed, categories expanded and allowed any individual to participate. The community was structured around houses of younger queens, led by an older ‘mother’ and ‘father’ in an attempt to regain lost stability at the hands of prejudiced families. This is a sentiment still practiced in most of today’s drag circles.

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  • Reading is fundamental. As my close friends can attest, I learned a lot about quick wit from my forefathers. The ballroom queens turned a sharp tongue into sport, and so ‘shade’ and ‘reading’ were born. Whereas ‘shade’ is mere bitchiness, ‘reading’ requires a more intuitive approach. “Reading is the real art form of insults,” Dorian Corey explains. Scenes from the documentary prove that a good read can even get you out of some dicey situations, as demonstrated by a couple of gay men who are provoked by some homophobic individuals. The terms have since found themselves ingrained in modern culture too, by both mainstream and underground hip-hop particularly.

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For those who are interested in watching the film (and it’s highly recommended that you do, gay or straight; male or female), it’s currently available to watch in its entirety on youtube. Not only is it an important commentary on LGBT rights, it’s also a great insight into class, feminist issues, and race relations of the time.

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