By 1991, New York City’s queer drag balls were finally exposed. Paris is Burning, a documentary style film took a look inside of what mainstream media had swept under the rug, and what was causing a silent blazing fire of self-expression within the city’s marginalized gay community.
“Drag balls, the product of a poor, gay and mostly nonwhite culture, had been held in Harlem since the 1920’s. But it wasn’t until Jennie Livingston’s award-winning documentary, “Paris Is Burning,” was released in 1991 that anyone outside that world knew much about them,” wrote Jesse Green for The New York Times in 1993.
Viewers saw black gay men in heels and extravagant outfits. What appeared to be even more outlandish, however, was all of their larger than life personalities. There’s Pepper LaBeija, the fierce drag queen who many queer kids called mother. There was also Willi Ninja, best known for his influence in the dance world and ball scene.
“I’ve been a man and I’ve been a man who emulated a woman. I’ve never been a woman. I never had that service once a month,” LaBeija affirmed during a clip of Paris is Burning. “I’ve never been pregnant. I can never say how a woman feels. I can only say how a man that acts or dresses like a woman feels.”
Not only did the film unleash the inner city ballroom culture, it also placed a magnifying glass on the social-economical issues that engulfed those who were a part of it. It showcased the different ballroom houses that populated the community, which served as safe havens for those who no longer had a biological family but were adopted by a gay one. These houses or families were like gay street gangs all fighting for acceptance and freedom. Instead of guns and knifes, lipstick and high heels were their weapons of choice.
With time, the world began to catch up. Madonna hand picked two young Latino dancers from the House of Extravaganza, and took them on her Blond Ambition Tour in 1990. (One of the dancers, Jose Gutierez, originally appeared on Paris Is Burning.)
Now, twenty-five years later, Swedish filmmaker Sara Jordenö’s KIKI attempts and succeeds at showcasing the present day ballroom culture known as the “KIKI scene.” The personalities, costumes, attitudes, strengths, struggles and vulnerabilities are all there. Jordenö partnered up with one of the documentary’s subjects, Twiggy Pucci Garcon, (né Ryan White) a member of the ballroom scene and a Senior Program Officer at True Colors Fund, a non-profit that serves LGBT homeless youth, to write the film.
More importantly, the film touches on the advocacy work that many of these LGBT youth of color within the ball room scene are involved with to help make a difference. Through interviews and revealing scenes of raw conversations, the film excels at depicting the many issues that encircle this community. For Jordenö, it was imperative to get the story as accurate as possible, by representing this community in an authentic way.
“We were really attempting to make an honest project,” Jordenö says over the phone, adding on that recognizing her privilege as a white woman was imperative in helping her tell this story. “I think that every person with white privilege has some work to do. A constant work that will never end to figure out their place in the world, and know what that privilege is. It’s a work that never ends.”
“I always had white privilege and I grew up in Sweden, so I was never at risk,” she continues. “Even though my life wasn’t always easy growing up. Of course, it can’t be compared the struggles I had to the struggles the youth in the KIKI scene have.”
Those struggles include HIV, homelessness and substance abuse, among many others. For fellow cast member, Francisco Gonzalez Jr., better known as “Mother Chi Chi Unbothered Mizrahi,” his transparency about substance abuse in the film was helpful for many. “It’s all about what one watches and what one grasps from it,” he told Remezcla last year. “For me, most of the time, when I talk about my issues with overcoming substance abuse, that’s what people connect to with me. I have people come up to me who are fighting their own demons. A lot of them tell me, “Wow, watching this movie really makes me feel like I’m not alone and that people care.”
In efforts to highlight the many topical issues KIKI shines a light on, we’ve compiled a timely list of seven social issues the documentary educates the masses about. Peep the rundown:
1. Identity, Religion And Discrimination
For most people who identify as LGBT, navigating the rocky road of self-acceptance is a steep one. It’s even harder if bias religious views are involved. KIKI touches upon the subject when you see Twiggy trek back home to Virginia from NYC. There, he explains what he dealt with the church and the small-minded town he comes from. Like him, Jordenö also relates to this, as she is a queer woman who grew up in a very religious home.
2. The Police Force Against LGBT Youth
The Christopher Street pier is one of New York City’s enclaves for LGBT youth of color— especially for those who are homeless and/or are part of the ballroom scene. Through various testimonies from the film’s different subjects, you’ll see the injustices that the NYPD serves these young people. One of the film’s main characters, Divo Pink Lady, a 25 year-old black gay man from Brooklyn, says he’s been arrested three times around the area. In the film, he admits it was a humiliating experience. He says he feels the discrimination stems from the pre-conceived notions the police have of the ballroom community.
Through a heart wrenching confessional style scene from Kenneth “Symba McQueen” Soler Rios, a young Latino gay man who confesses he is HIV positive—vividly remembers when hearing the news, the only thing he could think of was becoming another statistic. The Center For Disease Control and Prevention reports that Latino and African-American gay men, ages 13-24 are infected with HIV at higher rates than their white counterparts (at a 38% rate for black men in 2015) These are staggering numbers, but the more visibility the issue gets, the closer a solution is on the horizon.
4. Street Harassment And Discrimination
LGBT people are subjected to vast amounts of street harassment for simply being themselves. When Gia Marie Love, a black transgender woman and Christopher Waldorf, a young Latino gay man are captured walking through the streets of Harlem, a group of little kids start yelling anti-LGBT slurs. As the tensions rise, viewers see Gia getting flustered. While these were most likely harmless kids, the engrained homophobia and trans-phobia instilled in them at such a young age is dangerous. Nonetheless, but just as important to showcase considering how at-risk the trans population is. In 2016, 26 trans people were reportedly killed—making half of them African-American trans women. Additionally, a report by Save Dade, an LGBT advocacy organization, states that 53% of transgender people experience street harassment and disrespect in public.
5. LGBT Youth Homelessness
LGBT homeless youth is one of the community’s biggest problems. Essentially, it’s the entry way for the spread of other unfortunate things like, HIV infection, poverty and drug use. Through Izana “Zaryia Mizrahi” Vidal, a 20 year-old transgender woman from Harlem you’ll see the intricacies that come with being transgender and living on the street. The film chronicles her transition from the inception to its final stages. Through the process, she is forced to live on the street because of her family’s disapproval. In various clips, she talks about this and the hardships she’s endured; like having to resort to sex work for survival.
6. Sex Work And Gender Identity
Over a discussion group about sex work, Gia Marie Love and another member explore the topic of transgender women participating in the trade. The participant, a young black gay man, says that during his time as an escort, he noticed transgender women making more money than he did. He also mentioned how many young men even go through transitioning in efforts to make more money. While this may be true, he admitted to not counting that as a real transition because of the reasons behind it. Still, Gia affirms it does not matter where an individual started for their identity as a transgender person to be validated—no matter how your gender expression in viewed.
“To people if you’re a certain type of trans-woman they place a little bit more value on your identity,” she explains over the phone. “Or if your story matches this mold or this representation of what is trans or if you look a certain way. My argument is that we need to stop placing values on people’s identity based off their narratives or how they look. At the end of the day that person is trans woman if that is how they identify, and we need to respect that.”
7. Gay Identity And Machismo
For most gay men who are black or Latino, the hyper-masculinity they are subjected to by their peers is intense. And often times, the young-gay men of color experience isn’t something that is as talked about in main stream media. Through out the doc you’ll see Christopher Waldorf’s own issues with his family, and trying to be himself. As he was growing up in a Latino household in Harlem, he had to often suppress his feelings in fear of what his family would do. It’s an all too common story, yet refreshing to see an image of oneself on screen. More of these are needed.