Paris Is Burning

Posted on Posted in Nightlife, On The Scene

It’s not often one gets a chance to experience history in the making so when that chance does come around there should be no hesitation, no question; participate or regret it for the rest of your life. Such was the case when a friend informed me that there was an upcoming Midnight Mass screening of Paris is Burning…hosted by Peaches Christ…at the Castro Theater…including a pre-show Ball highlighted by a special appearance of Latrice Royal. I had yet to attend a Midnight Mass event but Peaches Christ’s reputation for showmanship, comedy, and insight was well known and she certainly didn’t disappoint this eager new fan. As a noted cinephile with a flair for comedy and flamboyance, Peaches easily crafted an authentic Ball experience while at the same time paying proper homage to the history of gay culture that got us to where we are now.
It is early evening, surprisingly mild for San Francisco in Spring, as we make our way up Castro Street, a road proudly displaying rainbow flags at each doorway and known the world over as the birthplace of Bay Area’s gay community. When director Jennie Livingstone began filming footage of the underground Ball society of New York City for what would become the groundbreaking documentary on gay and drag culture things were much different, even here in the Castro. Huge strides were being made for LGBT rights but prejudice still prevailed, the streets were still dangerous, and most queer culture remained underground. In the post-Paris is Burning world this began to change; with an example of a group of people carving out their own place on their own terms queer communities found strength and solidarity in claiming who they really were. Peaches describes the phenomena as a sort of catalyst, “After the movie came out and was widely distributed, queers sought it out, understood it, embraced and appropriated its culture on all levels of queer culture. Its effect on our language, style, and dance cannot be underestimated.” Most of us already realize the impact and influence that Paris is Burning has had on the gay community but there is something extremely special about getting the chance to actually immerse oneself in the living history.
The neon marquee lit up the sky and reflected off a myriad of sequined gowns as crowds swarmed the sidewalk in dizzy anticipation of the evening’s event. It had the look and feel of a Hollywood movie premiere, one that the colorful cast of Paris is Burning could only dream about as they cobbled together a pseudo-glamorous life in the New York Ball scene 25 years earlier. It was sobering to think about the celebration they missed here tonight, their lives ended tragically early, yet forever remembered for the foundation they laid as we are now united in “queerness” and solidified as a tribe. This is our gift, as RuPaul states, “We as gay people, we get to choose our family. We get to choose the people we’re around,” and the contributions we all bring to the table cannot be underestimated.
In the dark theater a spotlight illuminates a makeshift vanity table as Peaches finally makes her appearance, dressed down in a robe and wig cap, an obvious send up of Dorian Corey in the film’s most memorable sequence. In a moving, and sharply satirical, homage she sits to address the audience, mimicking speeches we are familiar with while putting her distinctive comedic touch on them all.
“Shade. Shade is I don’t tell Heklina she’s ugly…because she knows she’s ugly!” Peaches says with a devious grin, roasting her longtime friend who happens to be in attendance. Laughter and thunderous applause erupts as Heklina stands to flip off the entire crowd, smiling and taking it all in stride. We know this “read” will be vindicated at the next Trannyshack event; their friendship and bond strengthened by the back and forth banter.  Peaches then effortlessly moves on to consider what it means to be legendary, to make your mark on the world, as the screen lights up with images of Latrice Royal. The rumble of anticipation builds like an earthquake while the highlight reel begins to play, drowned out by shouts and applause to bring out our beloved chunky but funky queen.
POW! The spotlight shoots to the back door where Latrice has suddenly materialized. The deafening roar that accompanies her dramatic entrance creates a shockwave which knocks the breath out of me; it’s obvious that Latrice has certainly attained legendary status and she was going to make us all eat it! She won the “Miss Congeniality” Drag Race prize with her positive attitude and maternal guidance but her robust performances are what make you stand up and take notice. Tonight was no different and this queen was giving a show of a lifetime; redefining “working the stage” with a dramatic costume tear away and earth shattering jump split that earned her a well-deserved standing ovation.
Peaches, now adorned in a stunning multi-colored sequin dress and her trademark tsunami of red hair, invited Latrice to sit and catch her breath at the judges table while she introduced us to the rest of her celebrity panel. Years of careful planning netted an impressive judges panel which included eminent ball producer U-Phoria, Tamia of The House of Comme de Garcon, Joquese of Vogue & Tone,  and the legendary Glamamore. Smiling at the row of judges Peaches quipped, “Latrice, it looks like the last supper,” and proceeded to bring Spider Revlon onstage to call the evening’s activities. With everything in place the Ball commenced with true extravaganza, also known as Runway Couture. The abundance of competitors decked out in jaw dropping ensembles included Midnight Mass regulars like Lady Bear, Becky Motorlodge, Monistat, and Sister Pat, along with other popular performers such as Dulce de Leche and Serenity Heart. The gals gave it their all, working every inch of the stage and showing that drag is just as much attitude as it is creative looks. I certainly didn’t envy the job of the judges as they whittled down the numbers and finally crowned Sister Pat for her unbelievable newspaper print Marie Antoinette.
Next it was a chance for the boys to show off in the Butch Queen in Heels category which commanded they be as manly as possible while in heels. It was difficult not to envy these beautiful bearded boys and the ease with which they strutted in dangerously high stilettos. The battle began to really heat up and these queens pulled out all the stops to beat out their rivals, including dropping to the floor doing pushups, cracking whips, and diving into headstands. It sure appeared as though the fella in full football regalia and sparkly red pumps had it in the bag when the ball was unexpectedly crashed! I’d heard the rumor a few minutes earlier but didn’t believe it until a slim, long-haired beauty slithered her way on stage…it was none other than Raja! The audience couldn’t believe their eyes and the theater filled with thunderous applause for the second time that night as Raja camped it up on stage, brushing her hair and pouting, “I’m not here to be butch, I just wanted to show off my runway!” Despite crowd approval she was quickly disqualified for lacking the “manly as possible” part of the theme. (Honey, you look wonderful but butch queens do NOT tuck!)
By this point the night couldn’t get any better but with the final category of “Vogue Femme” we were to be given a taste of what a real ball was all about. Spider requested bass-pounding music and began calling as the dancers spun, flipped, and undulated wildly on stage. Bones seemed to melt into pure muscle and sinew as contestants twisted and folded their bodies like origami, jumping over one another and propelling themselves off the judges table. The panel struggled to narrow the field as the dancer struggled to maintain their high energy but eventually Ryan Davis managed to triumph with his otherworldly flexibility and innovative dance moves.
The pre-show Ball was brought to a close with a video premier and live performance by queer electro-pop duo Double Duchess. With their catchy beats, playful lyrics, and a well-produced video it was a more than satisfying way to wrap up what Peaches described as an “only in San Francisco event.” After a final bow from all of the participants, judges, and stars it was finally time to catch our breath and get on with the Paris is Burning screening.
Peaches returned to the stage to introduce the film and tenderly reminded us of the reason we were all here by sharing personal memories of her first viewing and how it changed her life.
“I was a junior in high school and I remember my hands were literally shaking when I went to purchase a ticket—I was a closeted queen and was terrified someone would see me buying a ticket to the movie—that my secret would be revealed. I watched it wide-eyed and in awe and while there is clearly a tragic element to the film, especially ending with Venus’ murder, I found it to be inspiring, creative, loving, and it really showed me that there was a way people like “us” could find a family, create a world for ourselves, and that the world could be imaginative, unique, and FABULOUS. I went to see it three more times in the theatre and each time I did, my hands shook a little less when I bought a ticket.”
Not only does this groundbreaking film remind us of where we have come from and it is OK to celebrate who you are, but also highlights the things which haven’t changed in the intervening years. In her true encouraging style Latrice lays it out for the younger generation, “Our youth should be aware of just how far we’ve come, while realizing we still have so much further to go. But with knowledge comes power, and hopefully our youth will learn that they too, have a voice.”
The key factor to remember about the voice the gay community has is that it only yields power when it is used and that power is amplified by the voices joining together, in that family we get to choose for ourselves. Although things are far from perfect, especially for the trans community, it is heartening to see how far society has come in the 25 or so years since Paris was released. Though, in reality, it’s not so much that society has changed as the LGBT community has changed. We have become stronger, more vocal, more visible, and more successful in our own right. We are the ones with our own awards, movies, magazines, and queer focused businesses. And we have come together as a family, honoring those who fought before us and educating those who will come after. We laughed at the subtle humor of Dorian, applauded the effervescent Venus Extravaganza as she commands, “Touch this skin Honey!” and dabbed tears from our eyes at the quiet fortitude of Pepper LaBeija. This is the magic of connection and this is the magic of Peaches Christ, a legendary queen who fashioned an event none of us will forget.


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