Despite Its Controversial Past, Paris Is Burning Has Many Gifts to Offer Queer and Trans People of Color

Octavia St. Laurent in Paris Is Burning.
Octavia St. Laurent in Paris Is Burning.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

With the hit song’s release in 1990, Madonna’s “Vogue” may have presented the signature dance style of New York’s ’80s ballroom scene to the mainstream. But it was the legendary film Paris Is Burning, released the next year, that went deeper, introducing audiences to a subculture of queer and trans people of color (QTPoC) who used both performance and community to protect one another in the face of intense marginalization and oppression. Thanks to a remastered Pride month theatrical release by Janus Films, viewers both new and old will now have a chance to revisit the original documentary and take stock of its legacy.

And what a complex legacy it is. We can start on the level of basic representation. Category walks and slang definitions aside, Paris gives voice to the struggles that so many QTPoC were experiencing in 1980s New York, struggles like homelessness, fiscal instability, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. But even as we see Black and Brown queer people navigating the tough parts of their lives, the film offers a glimpse of the ways QTPoC individuals create family, find joy, and reclaim their sense of belonging all in the middle of a dance floor.

This powerful mix carries forward today in shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, Pose, and the opulence-filled Viceland series My House, the last of which gives us an intimate understanding of what the ball scene looks like now. Paris Is Burning walked so that many of these other shows could run. However, even with all of the representational good that many believe the film did for the QTPoC community, Paris still continues to be a great source of controversy and debate.

The criticisms of the film, some now decades-old, can be divided into two camps. One involves how Paris encourages us to relate to those who live in the ballroom subculture. Are we being invited to understand their lives and support them, or are they being mocked? Arguing that the film overly focuses on voyeurism and pageantry, bell hooks and other commentators believe that Paris takes away from the significance of the community and only serves as a means for white observers to “depict black rituals as a spectacle.” Then there’s the idea that director Jennie Livingston should never have had a hand in making the film, given that her identity as a white genderqueer lesbian doesn’t align with the struggle.

Despite all the shade that surrounds the film, I hope audiences of this month’s rerelease will find more good than bad in Paris. The movie set an important precedent for QTPoC visibility, giving viewers an honest look at what it’s like to be Black, Brown, poor, and othered by society. It offered insight into the violence and discrimination that Black trans women often face and the classism and elitism that still plague the larger LGBTQ community. Without Paris, we’d lack an important document of how the HIV/AIDS epidemic affected Black and Brown people in the late ’80s. Without the film’s record of each of the legendary houses, we wouldn’t have the language or vocabulary to fully understand our queer history.

At the 2018 MTV Movie & TV Awards, Lena Waithe argued that we owe everyone in this film a debt of gratitude because “they strutted through a brick wall so we wouldn’t have to.” I agree. When I look at Paris Is Burning, I choose to focus on the gifts those barrier breakers left to us: that community is and will always be the only thing that saves us, that QTPoC can be the source of our own solutions and healing. Paris left us a pivotal understanding of where we have been and who fought to get where we are. And for someone like myself who identifies as nonbinary, Paris will always have a special message: No matter what category you walk in, you better work it!