Every Monday throughout June, The Byrd Theatre will celebrate Pride Month with #MonGays, a series spotlighting the LGBTQ community. This week, a film that should need no introduction: Paris Is Burning.
Do you wish Blanca Evangelista were your mother? Has Lil Papi become your latest crush? Is Pray Tell the person you aspire to be? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you’re certainly a fan of Pose. But how much do you know about the award-winning documentary that inspired it: Paris Is Burning?
This season of Pose, house mother Blanca becomes convinced that New York City’s underground Ballroom scene is about to go mainstream, thanks to Madonna’s hit single, “Vogue.” What she doesn’t know in the show is that it will take another three decades before ball culture truly approaches the realm of common knowledge and begins to accept the scene’s black, brown, and trans roots.
When Virginia Pride first approached Health Brigade about sponsoring week 4 of MonGays at the Byrd, Heather Turbyne-Pollard, the free clinic’s Director of Resources & Philanthropy, immediately knew which to choose. “NYC ball culture has been recently reintroduced to younger audiences in a major way, with Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s TV series, Pose,” Turbyne-Pollard stated. “This series has been groundbreaking for its inclusion of the largest transgender cast ever for a scripted series, and that’s pretty magical. Knowing this, we wanted to provide some exposure of where ball culture began, with Jennie Livingston’s cult classic documentary film, Paris Is Burning.”
The erasure of the black and brown individuals that created ballroom culture began as soon as the scene’s popular resonance began. Madonna’s hit song — inspired by the 1980s invention of voguing by queer people of color — ignores the dance’s actual creators, choosing instead to pay homage to white celebrities unrelated to ball culture, such as Gene Kelly and Ginger Rogers. Although director Jennie Livingston failed to pay her documentary’s participants as promised, her film at least re-centered the phenomenon on its actual progenitors.
Jamie Burch, Health Brigade’s Resource & Development Associate, sees tonight’s screening of Paris Is Burning as a chance to celebrate their organization’s long history of serving the LGBTQ community in Central Virginia. “The houses and families celebrated in Paris Is Burning remind us of the folks we’ve been serving in Richmond for almost 50 years,” said Burch.
Watching this season of Pose begin to grapple with the devastation HIV/AIDS wrought upon the queer community, and especially its people of color, has not been the revelation for Health Brigade’s staff that it has been for mainstream society. Back when it was the Fan Free Clinic, their staff knew the level of death and despair all too well.
“One of Health Brigade’s proudest moments in the 80s was our response to the AIDS pandemic, sending out care teams to support those living — and dying — with AIDS,” Burch explained. “Our volunteers warmly embraced those who had been abandoned by family, friends, the community and society. In the 90s, as HIV/AIDS became a manageable, chronic disease, we shifted our focus to HIV/AIDS education, prevention, testing and support services. We became known as ‘the’ place where you could obtain services and support if you were infected or affected by HIV/AIDS.”
Health Brigade hopes that by elevating Paris Is Burning to the big screen at the Byrd, they can help to memorialize that dark era and the struggles of those who lived through it, while also providing a night of hope and joy centered on the stories of queer people of color. “We love Paris Is Burning because, although many of the individuals featured in the film were navigating the complexities of AIDS, racism, poverty, violence, and homophobia, they managed to somehow band together to form an amazing outlet for celebrating their identities and supporting one another,” said Burch. “We think that’s something worth reminding folks of, especially today.”
“We love the idea of adding some extra celebration of Pride during June,” Burch continued. “MonGays is made from a few of our favorite things: our beloved LGBTQ+ community, neighboring nonprofits, and a local institution of Richmond culture: the Byrd Theatre.” Health Brigade hopes some of tonight’s attendees will turn out in their ball finest, whatever their chosen category may be.