A week or so ago, I watched the documentary Paris Is Burning for the first time. I’m not sure how I haven’t seen it before now; I guess I thought I already knew what it was about. I would have said it explored/explained the drag scene and the beginnings of voguing at balls in New York in the late 1980s, but that is only part of the film’s focus. Balls did start as a drag phenomenon, but although many of the most heavily featured people in the documentary are drag queens or transwomen, Paris Is Burning takes a broader look at the (mostly) male gay community in New York, from those actively in “houses” competing for prizes at balls to audience members, to teenage kids hanging around outside.
I felt a lot of sadness when the film ended. There’s extraordinary poignancy in the creative response to incredible rejection and pain. On the one hand, here are people making their own clothes, creating new identities and forceful statements of self in their ball costumes. Here is the creativity and resilience of making new families (complete with surrogate mothers), building community, and expressing personal and communal identities with such elan that new art forms like voguing evolved from them. On the other hand, these artistic and insistent statements of “somebodiness” assert themselves in response to constant attempts at negation. One character describes the multiple “whammy” of being both a black man in this country and also gay. Others describe being always outsiders in their home places, or being rejected by families and communities of origin. Here the need for gay black and brown men to create replacement families because of the absence of their own; here the belief that the achievement and glamour achieved as a ball winner is as close as they can ever come to success.
The filmmaker intersperses a street interview with two boys — one 13 and one 15 — throughout the film. One seems to have no family; the other has perhaps sneaked out of the house. They literally hang around on the street; their arms around each other seem sometimes the intimate touching of lovers, sometimes a more desperate clinging to each other. While voicing their desire to find and claim the community of gay New York around them, they also look forlorn and so, so young.
As a mama, it makes me wonder: do any parents really hold their beautiful infant in their arms, stroking the fuzz on his head with their kisses, breathing in the singleness of his baby scent, marveling at the perfect rightness of his tiny hands — and say, “Little one, I will always and forever love you. No matter what happens, you will always be mine and I will always be yours . . . unless you turn out to be gay, in which case you’re right out of here”? Maybe it is because my children are still small –still climb into my arms to be held and kissed and comforted — but I find it so hard to understand. I can’t think of a greater failure of parenthood than to put my baby on the street, broke and alone, searching for love to replace that which I told him he didn’t deserve from me.
Perhaps it is easy for me to feel that way in this era, when science has confirmed that gayness and straightness is conferred by nature, rather than the result of some choice. I am sure that many past parents’ anger and rejection was only the other edge of their love and pain — “Why did you have to pick the ONE thing I cannot accept? It is you who rejected us!” I try to remember this, and I hope a lot has changed on the streets of New York since Paris Is Burning was released in 1990.
A recent audio documentary piece provides some perspective on fathers’ reactions to gay sons now and in the past. Fifty years ago — in 1960 — novelist John Steinbeck drove across the United States with his dog, Charley, and wrote a book about his travels and the people he met. To honor the half-century mark of Travels with Charley in Search of America, audio producer John Biewen visited some of the same places to strike up conversations with local artists. Here’s the description of Biewen’s stop in Spokane, Washington for his program Travels with Mike (as in microphone):
On the outskirts of Spokane, Steinbeck met a gruff man and his son, Robbie. Steinbeck implied that Robbie was probably gay. Fifty years later, we meet a Spokane native much like Robbie – a hairdresser, actor, and resident director of one of the finest communities theatres in the country, Spokane Civic Theatre. And yes, Troy Nickerson is a gay man. But he has one big advantage over Steinbeck’s Robbie: Nickerson was born a quarter century later.
Take a listen. I’ll give Troy’s father the last word about choosing to accept his son: “I realized it was either “this” or I’ll lose him. And I’m not gonna lose him. No way.”