Monday, June 6, 2011

Paris is Burning

The Queer Film Blogathon is a month-long event celebrating gay cinema presented by the site Garbo Laughs. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the host site. The final list of blog posts will go up June 27, 2011.

Paris is Burning

last seen online via YouTube

Head west down Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, past the West Side Highway, and you'll reach the Hudson River Park, which is part of a huge greenw
ay going up and down the west side of Manhattan. I like this park. I come here every so often (sometimes for movies in the summer), in fact I was briefly there last weekend. If you stand out on the piers, you can practically reach out and touch Hoboken across the river. In this particular section of the park, in the vicinity of the water fountain, you'll find young African American and Latino gays hanging out. This is their territory, and has been for a long time, even before there was a Hudson River Park.

Though it isn't talked about, you can clearly see this area - long before it was renovated into a park - in the documentary Paris is Burning. The difference
is striking: there's much more bare concrete, and it's not terribly inviting, particularly at night. Yet I imagine it must have seemed like more of a refuge to the gay youth of the 70s and 80s than it does now, overrun with people like me biking or picnicking or jogging or what have you.

I suppose there's an ironic sociological statement to be made about minority gay youth literally being on the fringe of mainstream city life. That actually ties into the movie, in a way, which explores the heyday of New York gay "balls," glamorous competitions combining elements of fashion, dance and performance art into something unique. It was a world unto itself where, as the subjects reiterate throughout the film, you could live out your fantasies and be whatever you want to be in a way the real world would not permit if you we
re gay...

...especially if you were black or Latino and gay. In Paris, we see some of the subjects talking about idolizing white movie stars or models and wanting to be part of the world that they occupy. For them, the balls were the way to do it: even if it was a minuscule world, it was still one they could call their own. Over twenty years later and minority gay role models in mainstream pop culture are still few and far between, though the fringes appear to have their fair share - in hip hop, for example.

As an unrelated aside, Paris briefly talks about "voguing," the dance that Madonna made popular with her hit song "Vogue." I can't see that without thinking about my high school prom, which was in 1990, the same year of the song. We were all voguing on the dance floor, even those of us too nerdy to know better. Of course, I suspect most, if not all of us, had no idea that Madonna's tune was inspired by young black gay kids "striking a pose" on the floors of the balls. Madonna championed gay subculture not unlike the way Lady Gaga does these days, only the difference seems to be much more explicit. For black and Latino gay kids, I suppose that makes them role models as much as anyone else.


Previously in the Queer Film Blogathon:
The Children's Hour


  1. Really great discussion of an excellent and ground-breaking film. I especially like your final sentence -- I hadn't ever thought of it that way, but I suppose it does bring the whole thing full circle.

  2. I suppose so.

    I like the West Village, though I don't go there as much as I used to. I had a favorite cafe on Christopher Street that's gone now.


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