In October 1991, I was 18 and living in Fresno, and I had a long-standing offer from the manager of a local theater to put me on the guest list for any non-blockbuster movie. When I told them I wanted to see Paris Is Burning, they recoiled slightly and said, “Oh, that movie?”
Yep, that movie: Jennie Livingston’s documentary about the Black and Latinx drag ball scene of late-1980s New York, now re-released in a shiny new restoration. This reemergence is tied into the FX series Pose, and Pose’s producer Janet Mock has described her show as being in a “parallel universe” to Paris. (I’ve heard only good things about Pose but haven’t yet watched, though I did love FX’s Fosse/Verdon.) In Paris Is Burning, Livingston follows several participants in the drag ball world over the course of several years in the 1980s, delving into their hopes, fears, and triumphs. And since you’ve no doubt always wondered how voguing originated, Paris answers those burning questions as well.
I was barely starting to scratch at the closet door back in 1991. To put things in context, Fresno’s first Pride parade had occurred that June — the Ku Klux Klan protested it, which was covered by the local paper with a very modern sense of bothsidesism — and for better or worse I wouldn’t find the courage to come out as transgender until I was 25 and living in San Francisco. Paris Is Burning also opened in Fresno a week after a deeply transphobic film that had felt like a strong arm pushing me back into the closet dropped on VHS: The Silence of the Lambs. (Kindly go fuck yourself, Silence.)
I knew deep down I wasn’t a transvestite or drag queen or any flavor of gay man like those populating Paris Is Burning’s trailer and poster, but I was starved for positive representations of crossing gender lines, or anything that might give me hope that I could break out of the stifling masquerade of masculinity and be true to myself.
About 20 minutes into the film, there she was: Venus Xtravaganza.
Even dressed at her most casual, she was graceful and utterly feminine, because she was utterly herself. Venus participated in the drag balls because the House of Xtravaganza was her chosen family, but at the end of the day she was a woman. It was one of the strongest senses of wannabe I’d ever felt: Even though she was petite and thin while I was tall and thick, I wanted to be Venus Xtravaganza when I grew up. Like my other deep-dark-secret transgender hero Kelly Michaels, Venus didn’t use wigs but instead wore her own bleached-blonde hair. Although Venus wanted what we now call bottom surgery, she didn’t let her genitals define her gender, which was another huge influence on me. And oh, how I coveted her lithe frame and visible clavicles! Shhh — don’t tell anyone about my lifelong desire to be skinny, which is an unpardonable offense in 2019 San Francisco.
Speaking of progressive taboos, back then I didn’t know about the million thorny issues of class, privilege, and cultural appropriation in my admiration of Venus, what with me being a white community college student in Fresno and her being a Puerto Rican sex worker in New York. If it helps, Venus was 22 when her Paris Is Burning footage was shot in 1987 and I was 18 when I first saw it, so at least it wasn’t youth fetishization. And unlike Venus, I lived to see my mid-20s and beyond.
The promo material for the 2019 re-release acknowledges Venus and the presence of trans women in a way the 1991 release’s publicity did not. (She didn’t even make it into the group shot on the poster, having been murdered in 1988.) Her death is acknowledged in the film, leading several 1991 reviews to describe her as tragic — while also misgendering her, which, ugh. As the Santa Maria Times’ mustachioed film critic wrote on Aug. 25, 1991: “In one startling scene, one character — the tragic Venus Xtravaganza — lays across a bed reciting a string of ‘I wants,’ convinced that beauty will bring it all to him [sic].” Among the wants the fully clothed “character” of Venus recites in the oh-so-startling scene are “to be with a man I love” and to have “a nice home away from New York.” A queer person who wants to find love and security? It doesn’t get more startling than that!
Her death was a tragedy, but the only thing that would have made her too-brief life tragic would have been if she hadn’t lived it as Venus Xtravaganza. In that respect, it was a triumph.
Aside to Jennie Livingston: I apologize for not having paid to see the movie the first time around. I hope this makes up for it a little.
Not rated. Opens Friday at the Opera Plaza Cinema.