20 October 2012

Paris Is Burning: A Document Of The Lost Generation Of Trans People

I saw Paris Is Burning not long after it was released in 1990.  I was very deeply in the closet then.  So, perhaps, it wouldn't surprise you to know that I went to see it with a woman with whom I was trying to initiate a more-than-friends relationship.  (It didn't happen.)  The funny thing is that she suggested the film.

But I digress.  One thing that's very interesting about the film, even for someone who's not interested in drag balls or "voguing", is that it shows a city and culture that were disappearing as Jennie Livingston (a white lesbian) was directing it.  In that sense, it reminds me of Leslie Feinberg's novel Stone Butch Blues, which portrays an upstate New York of smokestack industries and blue-collar jobs, and the "butches" who worked some of them.  That way of life was dying just as the novel's protagonist was coming of age, and was long gone by the time the novel was published.  As Jay Toole (who is not given to hyperbole)  remarked in a recent conversation with me, "There aren't any stone butches anymore."

Likewise, the kinds of young African-American and Latino gay males and transgenders Livingston presents are all but gone, literally as well as figuratively.  Several of the subjects of the film are known to be dead, from AIDS and other forms of violence, and it wouldn't surprise me that others have passed.  Many ran away from, or were thrown out of, their homes before reaching the age of majority, which means that some were probably "off the grid" in that era just before the Internet.

The ones who have survived, as Melissa Anderson points out, probably would not recognize New York as it is now (assuming, of course, they still live here).  Then, the Christopher Street pier, where many of them hung out, was as weathered, splintered and rotted--and, in daylight, as forlorn--as a piece of driftwood on a beach. So were most of the other Hudson River piers of Greenwich Village, Chelsea and other downtown and West Side neighborhoods in Manhattan.  Now the Christopher Street Pier and others around it are, in essence, little parks that stand between the Hudson Greenway and the river.  Instead of young people who are essentially homeless and outcast in other ways, the Greenway and piers are filled, at least on fair-weather days, with cyclists, runners and parents with their kids in strollers, and still other people with dogs.  The Chelsea Piers, which occupy the piers that formed planks from the ends of the streets in the West 20's, is full of restaurants, shops and other attractions that bring in families and tourists.  The subjects of Paris Is Burning almost certainly could not have afforded to go to any of those establishments--not that they would have--even if they were doing sex work, which was the most remunerative employment available to most of them.

Which brings me to my next point...The young gay and trans people who were "voguing" in the '80's and early '90's almost certainly wouldn't recognize me, my trans, gay and lesbian friends or, in fact, nearly any member of today's LGBT communities.  Although things are far from perfect for us today, we have no need for those balls to which the young gays and trans people expended much of the energy, and what little money, they had.  The fact that they tried to portray, as accurately as possible, supermodels, actresses, singers and other female performers, in competitions in which they represented "houses" named after fashion designers like Chanel, is an expression of their yearning to belong to the rest of the world and the knowledge that they don't, and perhaps never will.  (Note the use of the word "houses" by young people who were disowned by their families.)  Some would never have the means to belong (Many of them shoplifted the clothing and makeup they wore for those competitions!) others simply won't live long enough.  

Most of them could not finish high school, and could not imagine going to college or into any sort of program that will train them for a job that would provide them with the trappings of a middle-class life.  They never met gay or trans people who were writers, scientists, professors, economists, musicians, engineers, doctors or historians; if their teachers were in the LGBT spectrum, those young people would not have known, at least with any certainty.  And they almost certainly could not have imagined a world in which Dick Cheyney would express his support for same-sex marriage, or in which straight entertainers or other celebrities would advocate for trans people.

They would not have seen trans people my age, and might not have known that any existed.  That is because--as they could not have known--most trans people around my age would begin their transitions at an age, and in an age,  to which most of them would not live.  

In other words, whatever Jennie Livingston's intentions were, Paris Is Burning has become a document of the lost generation of transgenders and the history and culture that disappeared with them.