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Looking Back to When Paris Was Burning

The landmark documentary Paris Is Burning was released in New York on March 13, 1991.  Filmed in the mid-to-late 1980s, the film is an PIBintimate peek into New York’s LGBTQ culture, specifically ball competitions, where participants dress, dance, and compete in a number of themed categories.

Paris Is Burning received rave reviews upon its release, and won prizes at festivals including Sundance, the Berlin International Film Festival, and the Toronto International Film Festival. It introduced largely-white audiences, both gay and straight, to cultural phenomena including voguing, shade, and reading — terms now used widely today both in and outside of the LGBTQ community. The film has many moments of pure fun and entertainment, but it’s also an important exploration of a culture that brought identity, creativity, stability and structure to many at-risk lives.

In a world where LGBTQ culture was much less mainstream than it is today, the young men and women of the 1980’s ball competitions relied on kinship and mutual aid. The scene is dominated by young people of color, who are even more at risk than their white peers of being ostracized, targeted, and treated unequally by employers, law enforcement and even biological family. The “family” or “house” structure explored in Paris Is Burning often served as a replacement for the support systems the subjects of the film had been born into, which had dissipated due to their gender and sexual identities. They sought support and acceptance through ballroom culture, but they also created community at the (then-crumbling) Christopher Street Pier along the Hudson River. Since the 1970’s, the piers at the western edge of Greenwich Village have been a magnet for gay youth, many of whom suffered unwelcoming or unsafe homes, limited job prospects, and threats of violence.

The New York of Paris Is Burning feels in some ways like a world apart from the city today. But the culture it depicts still exists, including the social scene at the Christopher Street Pier.

Credit: Jessica Dimmock for The New York Times
Credit: Jessica Dimmock for The New York Times

The waterfront today remains a popular place for black and Latino LGBTQ youth to socialize, organize and provide emotional support for each other. For some, it is a favorite outdoor hangout. For others, it provides a much-need sense of place – reports show that between 20 and 60 percent of New York City’s homeless youth are gay or transgender, and many of these homeless or transient people congregate at the Christopher Street Pier. Just like in Paris Is Burning, the community today still faces fierce discrimination, violence, and prejudice. And documentary filmmakers continue to train their eye on the piers and ballroom culture. Pier Kids: The Life is a new documentary that chronicles four men and women of color in New York’s Christopher Street culture. Marginalized by race and their sexual and gender identities, the subjects of Pier Kids find community, culture, and purpose through the Christopher Street scene.

Of course so much has changed since Paris Is Burning was released twenty-five years ago.  The piers went from crumbling relics in a no-man’s land beyond the collapsing, disused elevated West Side highway, to part of a lush new waterfront park bordered by ever-increasingly expensive real estate and development.  The Christopher Street pier is no longer quite the same attraction it once was for LGBTQ youth of color — both because there is greater acceptance and resources for such youth and their culture (as evidenced by everything from RuPaul’s Drag Race to the Harvey Milk High School to the non-profit FIERCE), and because the Village, and especially its waterfront, continues to skew increasingly towards the well-to-do and established. And of course a current proposal to create a framework for allowing transfer 1.5 million square feet of air rights to the waterfront blocks between 59th and Chambers Street could continue that transformation. GVSHP is working hard to make sure this development is reasonable, appropriate, and includes zoning and landmark protections for vulnerable districts. Find out more about the issue and take action today to ensure we’re successful in this goal.

Paris is Burning exposed an entirely new audience to the underground LGBTQ scene of the mid-1980s. Its popularity surely contributed to mainstream America’s eventual acceptance of much of the LGBTQ culture today, but people of color still have an especially steep climb towards equality and excellence. For over a quarter century, Paris Is Burning has been a tool of exploration and education, and the upcoming Pier Kids documentary will hopefully continue to shed light on a Greenwich Village community that needs our ongoing acceptance and advocacy.

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