Last Tuesday, Hart House Social Justice Committee hosted a film screening of Paris is Burning. Seen as one of the most important and relevant documentaries about the LGBT community, it was released in 1990 and is still constantly referred to and discussed today. A panel with drag performers from Toronto joined the audience afterwards to discuss the drag scene in the near past and today.
“In the great tradition of Paris is Burning, bring out your library cards! Because reading is what? Fundamental!” If you’ve watched any season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, this phrase will be familiar as it is often gleefully trilled by RuPaul along with other popular Drag Race terms such as “reading,” “living,” and “shade.” These phrases are timeless and as colourful as the Drag Queens themselves. However, the celebrated culture of drag that we know and love today, were drawn from Paris is Burning, which presented an important history of drag and ball culture by following Black LGBT and Latino participants in the ballroom scene in the late 1980s.
Although the film prominently featured gay and transgender issues that men and women struggled with, it also brought up important discussions about class. Pushed to the fringes of society and often kicked out from their homes, the Black LGBT and Latino kids often ended up on the streets and relegated to poorly paid jobs—if they could find any at all. They could barely survive with such jobs as people didn’t want to pay them more than they deserve. Working on the streets was their best option, despite the dangers and risks.
As I watched the documentary and listened to the ball performers speak about their hopes and dreams, it was clear that they did not just want to move upwardly from their class, but to be seen as rich and successful. Many of the ball categories that were walked in reflected that; business executive, vogue, realness. All these categories represented a figure who was not just accepted and belonged in the world of the cis, straight, and wealthy, but was also admired in them.
The panel that followed the screening involved four drag performers: Courtney Conquers, a bio drag Queen; Zackey Lime, a drag king; Luna DuBois, a drag queen; and The Ugly One, a drag queen (that’s her actual drag name!). All expressing various facets of drag and coming from different perspectives in terms of how they view and came to drag. They spoke in front of the audience for over an hour about the drag scene in Toronto. Conquers spoke about seeing Paris is Burning for the first time, saying that it came “on TV when [she] was about ten-years-old.” She resonated with the concept of family and houses, referring to the drag community as a chosen family.
Mel and Zayn of the Social Justice Committee did a successful job of hosting an event that shed light on not only the drag scene in Toronto, but part of its important history and influences.