Paris Is Burning is a documentary that follows the homosexual and trans ball culture in New York City in the late 1980’s. The balls’ participants were predominately non-white males in the homosexual community brought together by their stigmatized role within society. The balls were a pageantry like competition with several categories that both femmes and butch queens could participate. The performers were judged on costume, appearance, and “realness”.
Before I further discuss the film, I did want to mention that not once was the word transgender mentioned. I understand that this term was not yet developed and so it is very apparent how many trans people fell under the umbrella identity of homosexual. Some participants in the film identified as strictly homosexuals and others mentioned that they would like to be a transsexual, that is they would like to have sexual reassignment surgery.
The film opens by describing the balls and the purpose they provide to the participants. Many participants are young males that are abandoned by their families because of their homosexuality; They are often from poor backgrounds and live on the streets. The ball culture provides a sense of inclusion that they have not found elsewhere in their lives. “Houses” have been created out of this culture. Houses were described as a form of homosexual street gangs. There is a leader, often referred to as the mother or the father of the house who is seen as the most convincing or powerful performer to which the others look up to. These groups stick together and compete against each other in the balls. The idea behind the balls was to become “anyone who they wished”. It was a cultural statement even mentioned in the film that the best life belonged to that of the white heterosexual person. Those people could become a professional if they wished; the homosexual or trans non-white person could not. By participating in these balls they were able to emit what they felt themselves to be. The participants embodied the roles that they wished and in a way, if only for a brief moment, exuded that lifestyle.
The balls were originally very dynamic and flamboyant. Participants often dressed as show girls with feathers and beads, but as time went on through the 1970s and 1980s, the balls became more mainstream with the present day of the film showing many participants emulating models. There were several ways competition was perceived in the balls and “shade” was a term used often. Shade was described as competition in a sense of playing dirty. Often participants would do anything to win, including calling out participants from other houses on their particular dress, their appearance, or even stealing their belongings before their performance. “Mopping” was also a term used during the film. Mopping was used in reference to stealing. Many participants stole the clothing for their costumes or even meals to keep themselves fed. It was a mental game and also physical when it came to dancing. “Vogue” dancing was highlighted in the film as a way to challenge one another during a ball. The Vogue dancing later became main stream and its creator, Willi Ninja, became mildly famous from its popularity.
Of all of the house-mothers only one, Anji Xtravaganza, from the House of Xtravaganza was a post op transsexual; though there were several members of houses that did identify themselves as female. One house-mother, Pepper LeBeija, mentioned that he was happy to not have surgery because women were treated just as badly as gay men. He also stated that once the surgery was done, if one was unsatisfied, there was no way to return to being male.
The film ended by checking in on participants two years later. One member of the house of Xtravaganza had been murdered when she got into the car of an unknown subject trying to make money to save for sexual reassignment surgery. Willi Ninja was showcasing his famous dance that was being covered by mainstream news reporters during a fashion show. Though many participants dreamt of a life of wealth and elegance, it was shown that very few, if any outside of Willi Ninja, were able to obtain it.