Tuesday night, the second night of OKC Pride Week, Banquet Cinema near downtown hosted the showing of Paris is Burning, a documentary that shocked many, and empowered countless others when it was released in 1991.
Oklahoma City Councilman James Cooper, the first openly LGBTQ member of the Oklahoma City Council, gave a brief introduction to the rise of “new queer cinema” in the 1980s as a response to the restrictions on language and subject matter in Hollywood at the time.
Paris is Burning was a rare look into the world of what is known today as “vogueing”, a form of posing that rose as a way of competition between drag queens at first practiced only in the ballrooms, but, then later in public.
RuPaul’s Drag Race creates a contrast to the world depicted in the film.
His show has been on mainstream TV for over a decade now.
RuPaul Andre Charles has become wealthy by making drag competition something that seems very accepted and normal in the world of entertainment.
But, there was a time when drag competitions had to be held in secret. And, winning a drag contest was mostly a matter of personal pride and bragging rights only, rather than resulting in hundreds of thousands in winnings and the beginning of wealth creation as it is today.
Director Jennie Livingston provided an inside look at the New York ballroom scene in the 1980s that gave an outlet to men who wanted to live lives and dress as the women they felt they were.
Parts of the film are playful and funny, and other parts show the hardship of life in the 1980s as a trans person.
Viewers learn of “houses” – essentially group homes – that provided shelter to groups of trans women when their birth families and society did not want to have any part of their lives.
To watch the film cold, one could believe that we are seeing a relatively carefree world where trans women take care of each other and find strength in numbers.
But, history and current numbers of trans women killed shows that it could and can be a lethal world even for the most talented and intelligent.
We find toward the end of the film that the especially convincing, petit and winsome trans woman – Venus Xtravaganza – was ultimately found dead four days after having been strangled in a hotel room.
To view the film now with the knowledge that even in 2019 queer life continues to be a lethal equation gives the film a particular gravity that it may not have had in 1991.
Oklahoma City concerns
Councilman Cooper stepped out of the showing briefly to talk with Free Press about the impact of the film and why he agreed to introduce it and lead a discussion after it was over.
“Paris is burning is important because it is the reality of the world,” said Cooper.
“Forty percent of our youth homelessness is LGBTQ and this film, in so many ways, without ever saying it, is about that, right?”
Cooper said that the talk of “houses” in the film can also point to contemporary concerns in Oklahoma City.
“Those kids from the seventies and eighties, until this day, they create families because too many of their families have kicked them out,” said Cooper.
Cooper considers the realities being depicted in the film of isolation, danger, and homelessness to be current realities for LGBTQ persons in 2019.
“This film is important because it speaks to what was going on in the 80s in New York,” said Cooper. “But it speaks to what’s going on all across the world, all across our city right now.”
He said that with one of the topics for the upcoming MAPS 4 projects being homelessness, that discussion will be front and center in the city over the next year.