A few weeks ago, my partner and I watched Paris Is Burning on Netflix.
It’s a documentary movie that was released over 20 years ago, but somehow, I hadn’t seen it until now.
It’s a story about young adults and teenagers living in several of New York City’s subculture: gay kids, some in drag, intersecting with entrenched racism and abject poverty.
The result is fascinating, to see how they see the world and how they view power and privilege (and, sadly, how little that’s changed since the movie was made).
I can’t claim this movie is my story; I am not a person of color and I’ve never experienced that level of exclusion.
(There are some interesting discussions online about the process of making the documentary, and about accusations that Jennie Livingston, a white documentarian, was exploiting the movie’s subjects.)
But it brought back a whole lot of memories for me.
I came out at age 21. This was several years after the era (1986-1990) this movie captures.
My family didn’t disown me, but coming out confirmed my status as a strange, unknown factor in their midst, much as I had always been throughout my life.
At that time, their reactions varied from unconditional if confused support to a cool politeness about the whole business.
I needed to connect with someone or something, and while I loved my family, we were speaking two different languages.
For a whole lot of reasons (some of my own doing, and some detailed here) my initial attempts at college crashed like a lead balloon.
My first stop on the Reality Is About To Kick You In The Ass Express landed me in the Rust Belt town of Erie, a few hours away from home.
I spent big chunks of the next five years there, living a life that I recognized bits and pieces of in Paris is Burning.
It was a radical change. I went from a comfortable suburban upbringing to a day-to-day existence where nothing was certain. I was never homeless, but for several years had “housing insecurity.”
I moved around from place to place, sometimes sharing a place as an official roommate, other times scoring a couch for a week here or there until someone got fed up with me.
In the course of four years, I moved at least twenty times. It was probably more, but to be honest, I lost count.
A few times, I tried to get out – heading to Cleveland, or Pittsburgh. But something would crack — the job, the apartment lease, something — and back I’d go.
Even then, Erie put the “Rust” in “Rust Belt.” It was a midsize town of about a hundred thousand people, and the bottom was falling out.
My generation’s parents were losing their jobs as the factories shut down, like dominoes falling. There was little available for us, a fast food job here, a woefully underpaid gig in a retail store there. Some went to cosmetology school to learn a trade, and fared a little better in one of the chain “chop shops.”
My parents came through in emergencies with help, with food, with money. They were weary, too, just hoping I would catch a break, that I would land on my feet.
There were two conflicting forces that ruled my life at this time. There was hardship, and one shitty, minimum wage job after another. There were many moves, brought on by fights with roommates or a loss of income. Twice I was fired from a job for being gay. Once, I was asked nicely to find another place to live (read: evicted) when the landlord learned I was gay.
But there was also a fascinating community that felt like a world I could conquer. It was not a place filled with unconditional love, or with sunshine, kittens and roses. Those that entered had to fight and claw their way into the ring. This is part of what’s shown in Paris Is Burning, and it completely rings true to me.
On the one hand, we fought hard and rough and often with each other. It was do unto others before they do unto you. It was also easier to just always be in fight mode. We were fighting to survive in our small space, fighting the larger culture that didn’t want us around.
But if an outsider came into one of our local hangout spots to mess with one of us? We pulled together and fought them off. Drunk straight guys cruising for a fight would always be outnumbered by sixty or seventy of us, and would scurry away, tail between legs.
One of the things that rang most true about Paris Is Burning for me was the thievery. Few of us wanted to hurt anyone, but as the saying goes, “A girl’s gotta eat.”
Most of us were just hungry and between paychecks, and would sneak food at our menial jobs at restaurants and convenience stores. The bolder ones might slip a few dollars into their pocket here or there.
Some were far more outrageous or desperate. I remember hearing the story of one guy who showed up to the club on a Saturday night looking dapper in a new designer suit. There was no way in hell he could afford it. How did he get it?
The story slowly came to light: apparently, he’d gone to the high-end men’s retailer in question, tried the suit on….and then, after rolling the fabric into a tight ball, shoved it into his anal cavity and walked out of the store. (How much was that dry cleaning bill?)
Another story involved several friends seeking new outfits for a drag performance, and running, Thelma-and-Louise style, from a stodgy old dress store in the outfits themselves.
I’m not condoning stealing, or laughing at it to minimize what it was. But it seemed so natural at the time. People do desperate things when your rent is due, or you’re hungry, or your kid needs to see a doctor. It’s something I’ve always remembered.
And we were just starting out, trying to figure out both the world at large and our little underground community. (Erie was also the place where I first fell, head over heels, in love.)
We had to know two languages, two sets of signals and signs. It got really tiresome after a while, unless you were at the ends of the gender expression spectrum, where hiding simply wasn’t an option.
I always had such respect for the drag performers. Many of the clubgoers considered drag shows an irritant, something that took time away from dancing on a weekend night. But for me, I was always interested in the theatrical aspects, the aesthetics of it all, the ability to put on a show, to reinvent oneself.
One of my dearest friends in Erie was a quiet, mild-mannered man. But when he assumed his drag alter ego, the personality change was amazing. The shyness was gone, and in its place was a bold, bawdy creature who flirted with everyone in sight.
It briefly inspired me to try drag for myself . I was the ugliest drag queen in the world, but I definitely had fun. It cemented my appreciation for it as an art form, and I loved coming up with stage and song ideas.
It really got me thinking about the ways we all wear masks. This is not a new idea – RuPaul’s talked about how everything we all do is ‘drag,’ is all performance of an identity.
While Erie didn’t have any “houses” like Paris is Burning, we did develop our own families, so to speak, ones that filled in the spaces that our own families could not. We walked through fire together, had fun together, drank together, and fought like cats and dogs.
It’s been almost thirty years since the mid-80’s era, when Paris Is Burning took place. It was sobering to learn that almost all the key performers in the movie have since died, and many of them died at a young age — some from HIV/AIDS, some from other illnesses, some from the residual effects of a lifetime of poverty. And a few died from the violence visited upon gay and transgender people then (and now).
It reminded me of the faces of people in our own Paris, the ones who died young at the hands of those same villains — watching a young friend, only 24, waste away from the effects of HIV/AIDS, watching a dear friend succumb to the ravages of mental illness and alcoholism. I wish I had the resources to help them. I do now, but I didn’t know then, and I didn’t have the voice to speak up and ask for help on their behalf.
My life today is so radically different than it was then. Sometimes, it feels like it all happened to someone else. I’m at a point of consistency, of having achieved a certain amount of success.
The funny thing is, though: I’ve lived in Chicago for half a decade, now. I’ve met some nice people, and yet, every last one of them has slipped through my fingers. I don’t know if it’s them, or me, or some other factor, but the friends I’ve made here are here today, gone tomorrow.
I live hours away from those old friends, and yet, we remain close. We’ve survived geographical divides and the occasional falling out, and stayed in touch with each other. They remain on a very short list of people I could call for advice, for help or for bail money.
Paris Is Burning’s Dorian said you’re lucky if you’ve made a mark on the world.
I’ve made a small mark, but it’s a mark. And we have been there to bear witness for each other, to record that we have made our marks.
for Destiny Divine, royalty and a true titleholder; for Theresa Jean, a generous soul and ‘the big noise’; and for Mama Puccini, who knew where to find the boys AND the booze.
And for the late Deatrice, who loved the nightlife, and is sorely missed.