I recently taught Jennie Livingston’s famous documentary Paris is Burning to a group of undergraduates. As I was watching the film, a number of realizations struck me at once: most of my students were not born when the film was released, let alone shot (1990 and the 1980s, respectively); the particular iteration of the subculture brought to life in the documentary has faded into history; many of the participants are also no longer with us. These realizations, commonsensical as they may seem, struck me with a particularly intense force, evoking a profound sense of melancholy that has haunted me frequently of late as I have begun to think about the ways in which contemporary gay politics, and gay culture more generally, seems determined to forget the eras that preceded the present.
In some ways, such deliberate amnesia is completely understandable. It’s no secret that the 20th Century was, in many ways, incredibly homophobic, and LGBT people lived precarious lives, with the threat of death and violence never far away. Indeed, part of what makes Paris is Burning such a powerful and evocative film is that it manages to capture that, showing us a world in which parody and irony are a means of coping with a world that cares little for the lives of the poor, people of colour, or LGBT folks (or, gasp, someone who occupies all three positions simultaneously). The death of Venus Xtravaganza, briefly yet viscerally alluded to in the film, serves as a potent reminder of just how fragile queer life was (and remains). The film continually asks: how do you cope with life, knowing that it can be snuffed out at any moment? That question is just as pertinent, and just as difficult to answer, now as it was then.
Though I am, by most standards, a fairly young ga-y man, I’ve always felt a peculiar affinity to the generations that preceded me. Unlike so many young LGBT people, I do not see my elders as hold-overs from the bad old days before we had gay marriage and gay people all over television, from the relatively asexual Cam and Mitch of Modern Family to the hyper-sexual Connor of How to Get Away with Murder (which, I’m sad to say, is the implicit if not always stated position adopted by all too many in the younger generation). Perhaps this is a result of my own social position as a queer person originally from Appalachia, which has lagged behind the coasts in terms of queer acceptance. Perhaps it also has to do with the fact that my undergraduate queer experience was shaped by several older homos who still had a foot in that older world.
It also has to do, however, with my own sort of melancholic temperament, which helps explain why films such as Paris is Burning and even a more recent film such as The Normal Heart strike such a chord with me. There is something profoundly affective about these types of films, that provide us a glimpse into a world forever gone, yet which they allow us to touch, even if just for a brief time. Films set or filmed in the 1980s in particular always carry this sense of mourning and melancholy for me; I can’t help but remember the generation that came of age during the height of the AIDS pandemic, when I was just a child and had no true consciousness of the scale of the conflict. Films like Paris is Burning allow me, as a younger gay man, to gain at least a temporary access to the world that preceded mine, even as it reminds me that that world has forever vanished.
Watching this film, I am powerfully reminded of the dangers of forgetfulness that perpetually haunt us. When I hear comments like those recently made by Russell Tovey about his gratitude about not being effeminate, I can’t help but think that part of what makes his comments possible is a terrible bout of amnesia that keeps him, and others like him, from remembering the key roles played (and still played) by “effeminate” gay men. Let’s not forget that the riots at Stonewall were started by drag queens who had had enough of the bullshit, and that it has long been the more “effeminate” gay mean leading the charge in terms of challenging patriarchy and homophobia (which almost always work in tandem). Watching Paris is Burning is, for me at least (and I hope for others), a way of both remembering and mourning the queer past. Rather than strenuously disavowing the melancholia that such mourning inevitably brings with it, I think that perhaps it would do us all a collective good to embrace this side of ourselves, to experience the uncomfortable, and sometimes painful, aspects of our past so that we can truly grasp the nature of our present, and the possibilities of our future.