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Paris is Burning

The drag and gay cultures of New York City show some of the most stigmatized yet resilient individuals in the entirety of ghetto life. Most of the “women” or “girls” or “queens” in the movie came from already impoverished and difficult backgrounds, that, when their gayness and ambitions of womanhood were discovered, were then kicked to the curb. It is a hard life that has been made for them, but still they soldier on (some of them literally during a Drag Ball) and strive to create a niche for peoples of their sexuality and persuasion.

The Ball circuit is a gaudy and flashy one, full of vanity and heated competition, the most interesting aspect of which is the social organization. The formation of what Dorian Corey refers to as “gay street gangs” is incredibly prevalent amongst the community. A community in need of support and family. So it is, that they band together and take care of one another to not only win the coveted Ball trophies and prizes, but also survive.

However, these groups exhibit something far from the qualities of normal “street gang” mentality. Though, they do war on the dance floor their shared purpose is mostly one of mutual understanding and communal growth. They form a “House,” in the hopes of establishing dominance in the highly competitive circuit. It seems fit to assume that these House formations confine themselves to similar neighborhoods and may make up what sociologist Martin P. Levine describes as a “gay ghetto”

Levine’s definition of such a ghetto mostly revolves around whether or not an urban neighborhood “contains gay institutions in number, a conspicuous and locally dominant gay subculture that is socially isolated from the larger community, and a residential population that is substantially gay” (1979, 364). While the documentary doesn’t quite make the case for the subculture it follows to compose a gay ghetto, it can readily be assumed that amongst the ranks of these drag queens and gay folks that a gay ghetto is where they exist. Because Levine’s research is situated amongst “gay culture areas,” we may not see such organization in a place like Harlem due to its relatively different gay culture that is most likely not part and parcel of the larger gay community. Given the economic and social deficits already facing Harlem’s ghetto community it is not unthinkable that its gay community takes on a life of its own separated from the larger cultural arc it may considered by outsiders to be a part of. This research is made based off of community forming aspects such as gay ownership of institutions or residential property, which it can be assumed is not all that affordable to Harlem’s average gay male. However, were Levine to travel to Harlem (god forbid!) to study the gathering, fashion, and linguistic habits of these gay males, not to mention their Ball scene, he would most likely have given this specific community a bit more notice. Yet, as Levine does point out and Paris is Burning does show: “gay men or women…are always aware that the heterosexual majority regards them as socially unacceptable. In reaction, many homosexual people have withdrawn from meaningful relations with conventional society and restrict their social life and primary relations to other gay persons” (1979, 373).

Another intriguing aspect of this Drag Ball scene is the proclivity for vanity and expensive tastes. Both Octavia Saint Laurent and Venus Xtravaganza embody the gay male ambition to become a woman and enjoy the luxury and fortune that a woman may find herself able to achieve. However, this is also what the scene is mostly about: vanity and beauty. Venus Xtravaganza mentions in a candid interview:

I would like to be a spoiled rich, white girl. They get what they want, whenever they want it. They don’t really have to struggle with finances and nice things and nice clothes, and they don’t have to have that as a problem. This voices the concerns of wealth and minority appetite for what their White counterparts have by way of class provenance, a luxury which they are not privy to.

A great deal of the Drag Ball categories toy with imaginary notions of wealth, prosperity, and beauty as a way of coping with poverty and the denigration of homosexuality. This are mostly products of environment and circumstance. Were these individuals born into a world accepting of gayness and bereft of financial discordance it is highly likely that this behavior would not be relegated to subcultural formation and proceedings. But, the Balls continue due to their allowance of free expression and drag identity. And not all expressions deal directly with beauty or womanhood, one deviation from such particular expression is that of “Executive Realness.” This category, similar to the “Town & Country” category, promotes the imagining of a White and prosperous identity, devoid of the lower class worries the contestants come from. Dorian Corey enlightens the audience on the purpose of such a category:

In real life you cant get a job as an executive unless you have good educational background and the opportunity. Now, the fact that you are not an executive is merely because of the social standing of [your] life. That is just pure thing. Black people have a hard time getting anywhere and those that do are usually straight. It becomes clear that it is not just the stigmatization of gays that troubles this community but the harsh reality of being an ethnic other and the financial difficulty that is an essential element of such reality.

Paris is Burning, by Jennie Livingston, is a poignant documentary that brings us into the heart and soul of the gay scene of the inner-city. It is one of hope and ambition that collides head-on with the general difficulties of being not only a minority, but a transexual. Fame, fortune, and leaving one’s “mark on the world” display themselves as the salient aspects of the Drag Ball ambitions. As Dorian Corey says in conclusion: “I always had hopes of being a big star…As you get older you aim a little lower and I just say ‘well, yeah, you still might make an impression’…and then you think you’ve left a mark upon the world if you just get through it and a few people remember your name…Pay your dues and enjoy it. If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you.” It is a sad close to the film, but it stands out as sage worthy advice from a veteran drag queen who has been around the block and back.


Paris Is Burning. Prod. Jennie Livingston, Barry Swimar, Claire Goodman, Meg McLagan, Nigel Finch, and Davis Lacy. Dir. Jennie Livingston. By Jonathan Oppenheim, Paul Gibson, Maryse Alberti, and Stacia Thompson. [Prestige], 1990.

Levine, Martin P., and Michael S. Kimmel. Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone. New York: New York UP, 1998. Print.

Gender | Movies

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