There’s still a few more hours of June left, which means that if you haven’t got in your (at least) annual viewing of Paris Is Burning there’s still time. The documentary, which got a gorgeous blu-ray release from Criterion this year, presents a collection of vignettes showing Harlem’s drag and ballroom scene in the mid to late 80s, and it’s as foundational (and flawed) a text as any queer person could ask for.
Paris Is Burning explores the roots of today’s cultural touchstones: reading and shade; pageants; drag houses and chosen families; and of course, voguing. But there’s also a darker side to the lives in the movie, with many of the subjects passing away not long after it came out. In fact, due to violent crime and a lack of effective HIV treatment in the early 90s, people were starting to talk about ballroom in the past tense. For a time, it looked like the culture might literally die out.
So why didn’t it?
For an answer to that question, you might take a gander at a video that I just dropped as part of my queer YouTube series Culture Cruise. This month’s video provides bit of historical context for the documentary, zooming back in time to the pageant-fight that helped create the ballroom scene in the 1960s; and then even further to the Pansy Craze of the 1920s; and then further still to lavish galas of the 1860s; before jumping forward in time to the 1990s.
Early drag balls were open to people of all races, which was a bit unusual at the time — but they weren’t all that welcoming to people of color. Black participants were expected the lighten their skin, and when it came time for competitions Black performers almost never won. Frustration over the systemic racism in the scene reached a boiling point one night in 1967, when a performer named Crystal LaBeija unleashed a tirade at pageant organizers.
Following that night, which was fortuitously captured on film for the documentary The Queen, Crystal and her friend Lottie began drag balls of their own, and drag houses. Where pageants functioned more like royal courts, houses were more like families. Queer people could look after each other, support each other, and provide help when biological family couldn’t be counted on. Paris Is Burning is an invaluable record of the world that Crystal helped foster.
And those family structures became even more vital as the HIV epidemic dragged on and it became clear that the people in charge of the country were content to let queer people die, year after year after year. Starting in the 90s, the houses banded together to create new collaborations to fight AIDS. They started the House of Latex to throw the annual Latex Ball for fundraising and education; and an initiative called Project VOGUE connected HIV educators with house mothers and fathers who could pass that knowledge along to their children.
There’s no way Crystal could have known, back in the late 60s, that the family structures she was creating would some day save lives during an unimaginable epidemic. But it’s thanks in part to her that the culture thrives to this day.
And speaking of this day, there are some wonderful (and more modern) documentaries about the scene. Check out BET’s series Queer as F**K, this TEDx talk on the Language of Vogue, and the channel Ballroom Throwbacks.
We’re living in an amazing time for ballroom culture, with shows like Legendary and POSE — shows that not only highlight the amazing work of people in the scene, but provide real-life role models who are Black and queer and a real part of the community.