“How to Survive in Gay World”: The Literacy Narratives of Paris is Burning
In January 2015, I attended a screening of the documentary Paris Is Burning hosted by photographer and friend Gerard Gaskins at ArtRage, an art gallery here in Syracuse. I had seen the film dozens of times before this screening, but Gerard was hosting, and I figured Syracuse only had some nay events catered towards Black queer people. So I might as well go. I decided to put on some black eyeliner, skinny jeans and my rabbit black fur jacket. I was giving entirely too much, but if you can’t be gay at gay shit, where can you be gay? I walked into the event and was greeted by a room full of old White people.
This was no time to be shy. I looked around for a minute and found Gerard, which was not hard because he was the only other brotha in the room. His eyes grew big as he looked me up and down and complimented me on my look. After rapping for a minute, I continued to look at the photos on display, which were a mixture of ones from Gerard’s book Legendary and the photo exhibition “Trans*cending Gender.” A couple more people of color arrived. I found my seat next to Black woman and a Puerto Rican man named Joshua, who had already started kiki-ing. Soon Gerard started the screening. For the first time, I became very aware of myself watching this film that my friends and I quote lines from daily. Instead of enjoying the movie, I was reading the mostly White crowd and trying to figure out how they were reading this film that I held so intimately.
Throughout the movie, the two friends sitting next to me screamed “Yes Bitch!” “Yasssss Mama!” especially when Octavia St Laurent came across the screen. It was there emotional response to Octavia’s hopes for the future that left the biggest impression on me. As Octavia talks about wanting to travel the world, have many men, and be a household name, the two cry and say “You did it, Mama! You did it!” I later found out that these were two of Octavia’s gay children.
After the film was over, Gerard fielded questions about the film and ballroom culture. He discussed the ways ballroom culture still exists today around the world in new outlets. He was then asked about the ballroom children themselves. Since 1990, the majority of the documentary participants had died, and the film itself ends with the murder of Venus Xtravaganza. Gerard informed the audience of several ballroom performers who went on to live happy lives and earn doctorates. He told us that he did not want to give the impression that every story in the ballroom scene is tragic, which many suggest Paris is Burning does. He wanted us to know that some ballroom performers were flourishing. Then the woman next to me interjected, “We must remember that they survived. We survived.” Gerard cosigned Octavia’s daughter’s comments. She wanted us to remember that even the ones who never made it out of Harlem or earned a degree had survived. I see Paris Is Burning as a story of survival.
What I found most compelling in the film was the performers’ precise commentary on how gender and class were socially constructed in the country. While acknowledging gender and class as real social constructs, their personal narratives about the ballroom scene and related topics demonstrated various ways Black queer people have historically reimagined and refashioned these constructs to survive. In this chapter, I rhetorically engage with Paris Is Burning as a text. Specifically, I will be critical engaging with key scenes that refashion in various ways static notions of gender and class in order to survive in a larger White supremacist society. I argue that the Paris performers provide insight into the ways Jennie Livingston interviews several members of the ballroom scene about various topics, including language, family, beauty, future and class. As a viewer and member of the larger Black gay community, it is clear to me that the participants were trying to pass on know-how and a history to the next generation, through their telling of narratives. Throughout the film, the ballroom performers pass on clear rules of survival in dialogue along with a critique of a racist and unequal class system. I see Livingston’s Paris Is Burning as a literacy narrative of the golden era of the Harlem ballroom scene. Specifically, I argue that the Paris performers act as Black queer ancestors who leave fierce literacy mandates of survival through their narratives in the film. I begin by discussing the movie and its importance to Black queer and Queen culture. Then I will tease out fierce literacies and literacy narratives as theoretical concepts that help me engage with the participants as ancestors.