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The Pale Shade of Drag

On the thirtieth anniversary of Paris is Burning

“Opulence! You own everything!” For many viewers of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the origin of the exhortation might very well be pinpointed to the second episode of the eleventh season, in which Mercedes Iman Diamond’s mispronunciation of “opulence” birthed a thousand memes. Its first recorded appearance, though, long predates RuPaul’s sanitized spectacle of glam: Junior LaBeija, in the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, showers the praise on a queen working an elegant black evening gown draped in pearls and fur as she competes for the top prize in a Harlem ball. Its formal addition to the argot of Drag Race strengthens the show’s claim as the rightful heir to, and indeed the culmination of, a project that began when the sequined figure of the drag queen first sashayed into the mainstream.

That project has long upheld one goal: visibility and the material benefits that would consequently, inevitably accrue to LGBTQ individuals everywhere, alleviating the rampant poverty and violence visited upon the likes of those depicted in Paris, director Jennie Livingston’s portrait of the Black and Latinx drag ball circuit of Harlem at the height of the AIDS crisis. Instead, despite great strides toward legal equality, we’ve found ourselves mired in much of the same: persistent homophobia; the continued marginalization and murder of trans women, particularly trans women of color; prohibitively expensive prophylactic measures, testing, and treatment for HIV/AIDS, which continues to disproportionately sicken and kill poor queer people of color. Meanwhile, a multimillionaire drag queen, surrounded by Emmys, reigns from her prime slot on cable television over an army of queens hocking Mac lipstick and Pepsi Cola. At long last, the queen has completed her assimilation into the capitalist fold she’s long caricatured, and so a cottage industry of critics claimed, subverted. She’s become a mere ambassador of glam.

Thirty years since its initial release and four years since its admission to the National Film Registry, Paris is Burning remains a cultural piece de resistance, an enduring site of critical fascination and theoretical production on 1980s Harlem’s African American and Latinx queer communities and the culture of drag balls. The balls at the center of the documentary—lively, cutthroat pageants of drag and dance—are organized by local enclaves called Houses, whose respective members compete for trophies in various categories drawn foremost from heterosexual consumer culture: High Fashion Evening Wear, Runway. Performers showcase their ability to inhabit a class position, such as the haute bourgeoisie (Town and Country), or occupation, like macho businessman (Executive Realness)—all inaccessible to them outside the balls due to the constraints of their racial and social milieu. “In real life,” observes old-guard queen Dorian Corey, “you can’t get a job as an executive unless you have the educational background and the opportunity.” This is also where the idea of Realness, the convincing articulation of those categories, emerges as the primary objective of a queen’s performance. The ability to hide one’s queerness and “pass” as heterosexual of another gender is valued within the balls as the ultimate art of deception, one that corroborates the plasticity of gender, the artificiality of its construction, and its gleeful subversion. The balls, in other words, are a gold mine for theorists of gender and sexuality.

To the nineties American mainstream—read white—viewer, this was a revelation: an episode from the life of a queer tribe.

Of equal critical interest for theorists are the Houses and their embodiment of the notion of kinship which, though not biological, reflects the social, emotional, and structural form of the nuclear family: House mothers watch over and guide their “children” even as they challenge the heterosexual family’s notions of social and physical reproduction. House mothers, for that matter, can be trans women or gay men and their connection to House children is certainly not biological.

The formation and concept of the Houses has provoked endless critical discussion and theoretical production: although the House exists outside the nuclear heterodominant model, it nonetheless replicates many of its socio-culturally gendered configurations. In Paris is Burning, Pepper LaBeija, mother of the eponymous House, explains that queer kids, rejected by their biological families, would come to the Houses in search of a family. In that sense, as LaBeija holds, Houses “are a group of human beings in a mutual bond” inspired by but not constrained by the old model. Coupled with an already burdened history of rejection, the vast majority of House members have to face the harsh realities of being impoverished, a sexual outcast, and a person of color—all in the midst of the AIDS crisis, against which Houses could offer minimal material protection.

GRID (Gay-related Immune Deficiency), as AIDS was first termed, or the “gay plague,” as evangelists deemed it, devastated the ball circuit. By the time Paris is Burning premiered in New York City, some one hundred thousand people, many of them queens and ball-goers, had died of the disease, almost a third of them in 1990 alone. The epidemic was God’s punishment for queer promiscuity, conservatives alleged, and through the eighties and nineties  (consider mayor Rudy Giuliani’s rigid policy to rid New York of its vibrant sex culture on the grounds that it posed extreme risk on public well-being) they set about regulating or else snuffing out entirely the cultural institutions they viewed as helping to spread the disease: in New York City, bathhouses, discos, and sex clubs were shuttered. Yet, the balls persisted.

In the Houses, queens sought refuge from the animosity of the streets; in the spectacle of the balls, they sought the glamor, recognition, and trappings of material wealth denied them. Consider Venus Xtravaganza: “I want a car. I want to be with the man I love. I want a nice home away from New York . . . I want to get married in church in white. I want to be a complete woman and . . .  a professional model behind cameras in a high-fashion world.” These aspirations, shared by many other ball-goers, point to a desire to fully embody the normative figurations of femininity as shaped through a heteronormative and individualistic middle-class mindset. The performers’ wide internalization of the 1980s American materialist ethos and suburban life aspirations dilutes the allegedly radical edge of the ball’s cultural praxis. As Judith Butler has argued, “as much as there is defiance and affirmation, the creation of kinship and of glory in that film, there is also the kind of reiteration of norms which cannot be called subversive.”

Disruptions of normative gender and familial structures notwithstanding, subcultures premised on a drive for recognition and material accumulation are inextricably bound to operate within the capitalist terms of their cultural production. Although a significant number of the ball members appearing in the documentary died prematurely before their career could even take off (including Venus Xtravaganza, murdered less than two years before the documentary’s release), there were those who would go on to spread the culture of the ball—particularly that of “voguing”—to a much wider audience.

Willi Ninja, godfather of voguing, starred in Malcolm McLaren’s 1989 music video for the song “Deep in Vogue.” The House of Xtravaganza was hired the following year to choreograph the dance to Madonna’s “Vogue,” which introduced the dance style to the mainstream. At a time when ball-goers struggled to make ends meet and turned street culture into performance, the Material Girl was pilfering aesthetics from minority cultures and broadcasting them to the world, a textbook instance of how subcultures are absorbed by the mainstream.

Drag has always carried with it the seeds of its own assimilation.

While mainstream industries do seek to turn subcultural production into profit, the relationship between the margins and the mainstream is always of mutual interest. As Dick Hebdige explains in his seminal work on punk culture, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, “the creation and diffusion of new styles is inextricably bound up with the process of production, publicity, and packaging which must inevitably lead to the diffusion of the subculture’s subversive power—both mod and punk innovations fed back directly into high fashion and mainstream.” Subcultural style is born from and abides by the rules of the market to which it ultimately returns, a fact that makes any discussion of cultural appropriation by the mainstream a lot more complicated than it actually is.

There remains, too, the question of how a subculture enters the mainstream: disseminating a portrait of a theretofore inward-facing culture requires delicate balancing as to how it is approached and turned into narrative without presenting it as an exotic spectacle. This is indeed a hard task, especially if one takes into account how one’s background shapes their perception; how years of Hollywood’s filmic tradition may affect a director’s insight; or how academic studies built on the art and literature of the Western canon mold students’ practice. In Paris is Burning, the director’s lens serves as a peephole into the lives of outcasts, a glimpse of a unique amalgam of personhood: the queer, racial/ethnic, lower-class subject—indeed a spectacle of otherness. To the nineties American mainstream—read white—viewer, this was a revelation: an episode from the life of a queer tribe.

Though Livingston was allegedly welcomed by the Harlem ballroom community, and she explained that she and her team tried their best not to impose “any agendas” while making the film, many critics later characterized her as exploitative. Years later, performers appearing in Paris is Burning were featured in another documentary about ballroom culture, How Do I Look (2006), in which they described Livingston as a white outsider filming and profiting off Black and Latinx culture. While Miramax, the film’s distribution company, allegedly garnered around $4 million—extraordinary for a documentary at that time—performers were paid relatively little, if anything. The film’s relative success at the box office proved to be the beginning of a long arc bending toward assimilation that would land a scant few palatable drag queens on primetime cable television and in Super Bowl ads.

Drag embodies transgression from the gender norm, a radical and farcical interpretation of femininity and masculinity. Drag may be amenable to commodification and assimilation, but drag queens themselves have embodied genuine queer resistance throughout the history of the LGBTQ movement. It was a group of queens and trans women who led the charge against homophobic police forces during the Cooper’s Do-nuts Riot in Los Angeles in 1959. Seven years later in San Francisco, queens and trans women again led the charge against police during the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot. Both of these predated the commonly held advent of the modern LGBTQ movement: the 1969 Stonewall Riots. Ever since, drag queens and, by extension, individuals actively opposing cis-stemic gender roles, are hailed within the community as revolutionaries.

In the contemporary context, there are practitioners of drag, such as San Francisco’s Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence or Radical Faeries, who extend this legacy of drag as a means of resistance and go beyond the shellacked spectacle of RuPaul’s Drag Race. By combining a camp perspective of gender with guerrilla activism, each group has employed drag as a political weapon against the heterodoxies imposed by civic policies, religion, and public discourse in a fashion that is simultaneously satirical and serious. The San Francisco queens abide by the rules of drag as, yes, a dramatic-cum-cynical commentary of gendered reality, but more important, they take their drag into the streets.

As for RuPaul, Drag Race just completed its twelfth season and has spawned an entire media empire: RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, RuPaul’s DragCon, international tours, podcasts, as well as international “sister” shows. Included on Time’s list of most influential people, RuPaul has authored three books, won six Emmys, and pulls down an extra buck fracking on their sixty-thousand-acre Wyoming ranch. Indeed, RuPaul is a paragon of the all-American success story, a shining and impossibly well-coifed example to entrepreneurial gays the world over.

While the United States has finally welcomed queer culture into its home, hardly is this the case with queer individuals.

Beyond the unrelenting glitz and glam of the pop limelight it’s clear that, while the United States has finally welcomed queer culture into its home, this is hardly the case with queer individuals. It is ironic and deeply disturbing to witness increasing rates of violence against gender-nonconforming individuals at a time when queer directors, writers, and actors such as Lena Waithe, Billy Porter, and Dee Rees, and shows like FX’s Pose, are fawned over by critics and in glossy magazines. According to Human Rights Campaign (HRC), at least twenty-six transgender individuals were killed in the United States in 2019. In 2020, we’ve witnessed the high-profile murders of two Black trans women, Riah Milton in Ohio and Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells in Pennsylvania, whose cases are among the twenty-eight murders reported so far this year. Previous reports indicate an average of twenty-five people annually losing their lives in the United States because of their gender expression—although the number may be much higher. Of these, a strikingly high percentage (approximately 80 percent) are trans women of color.

The liminal position of trans women of color and the exigency of monitoring—and halting—hate crimes against them is a reality that is a far cry from the celebratory image of LGBTQ people in pop culture corpora. Certainly, in television and film there has been progress in moving away from the pathological self-loathing image of queerness toward one that is more positive and self-asserting. At the same time, though, blunting the edge of queer narratives significantly compromises viewers’ understanding of the lived experience of many queers for whom “Opulence! You own everything!” was always more of an aspiration than a material fact.

In the midst of all this unfinished business, straight audiences applaud the farce of drag on VH1, a diluted vision of the act that, heeding the siren call of marketability, has been massaged into a palatable and apolitical shadow of itself. But drag has always carried with it the seeds of its own assimilation.

Drag queens going mainstream is not enough. Visibility in popular culture is indeed important, but it should not be the sole end of the contemporary queen and the LGBTQ movement writ large. Representation in the mainstream media properties does not stand in for politics and activism. What about representation in other workplaces and other fields? What about political representation? What about social provisioning—housing, health care, education—for the most vulnerable groups of the LGBTQ community? If we were to cherish a message from Paris is Burning and its participants it would be this: reality is happening on the streets, in social exchanges.

That’s where political solutions to these urgent needs will be found. Having heels on the ground will produce far more material change than snatching a realness trophy on cable television.