|Paris is Burning © 1990 - a documentary about the gay ballroom scene in New York City.|
I am a slow learner. Growing up gay in South Louisiana in the early 1990s I had no idea there was a subculture just for me. I could have had a family. I could have been like the fem boys and the drag sisters and mothers of the street. I could have jumped on the Greyhound bus in Mandeville, Louisiana and landed as a street kid in New York City. However, as a twelve-year-old kid who had a semblance of his own gayness, I did not come out to my friends as gay until I was seventeen years old (which is an entirely different story) - and I was not out to any of my family members until way later in life (when I was in my 20s and 30s). I remember my mom asked me when I was about sixteen if I were gay and I flat-out said: "No, Mom." I did not have to think about it. I was not ready to go down that road. I think I had a deep sense of secrecy because I had internalized that my gayness was not something to share. It was a part of me but it was not something I wanted other people to know. And as the kids in Jennie Livingston's documentary Paris is Burning attest to - coming out as gay was not a safe option - even for the ballroom kids. In fact, it was the rejection of their gayness that led the ballroom kids to ascend on New York City's underground club scene in the first place where they ineluctably formed their own version of families (called "houses").
I recently watched the documentary (which I am ashamed to say was my first viewing). I had only seen clips on Youtube and had listened to Ru Paul Charles preach about the film on her cable TV reality show Ru Paul's Drag Race - which has gathered a lot of its aesthetic and jolt from the ballroom culture. Ru Paul rightfully references the show on her show - and I think she sees it as "a peering into" the world of drag culture that perhaps not many people are privy to. I could have used the truth of Paris is Burning growing up. I am sure my story is not unique. Growing up in the suburbs - which the filmmaker Xavier Dolan once said was "the place where dreams and ambitions go to die" - I wanted something more than "this provincial life." Thank you, Belle. Little did you know that as a gay kid Disney's animated bibliophilic French country girl was my hero. When you are gay - and you do not have a lot of representation in movies and on television - you go and find it; you make it; you see it in the subtext - which is probably why gay folk are really good at reading between the lines (and why some of us have made a name for ourselves in literary theory). Looking back on it I was crafty as a kid. I consumed gay identity - but I did it covertly and I was careful about learning how to be gay. I think I failed because when I went to my twenty-year high school reunion no one was surprised; I realize now that the superlative I received in the yearbook for "most friendly" was actually a substitute for "most gay." In the 90s there were emerging examples of gay representation but you had to look for it. I did buy a copy of XY magazine at the newsstand (I had to go in the back and look behind the Playgirls; but I found it - and I was internally satisfied by the magazine's outright celebration of gay male beauty. As a way of marking my gay desire, I did cut out my favorite pin-ups and pasted them in my notebook (that is a true story). I also hunted the shelves of the local public library for gay-themed books. I stumbled upon a copy of Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar and read its frank discussion of surreptitious male desire and came to understand that homosexual desire was not only universal (not just tacked on to my identity) but something that existed and has existed for a long time and in different civilizations and dispensations.
I say I am a slow learner because I have accumulated gay culture in drips and drabs. In 1996 I discovered the musical Rent - and I listened to it with my friend Jonathan like a billion times - along with tracks from Tori Amos's album Under the Pink and Crash Test Dummies. As a teenager, I was a theater kid. Being involved in community and school theater helped me to form my first sense of belonging. It was the closest I got to the ballroom scene as a kid. Not to say I was out in the small theater world I participated in (nor were any of my friends). We were the kids who did not do sports, were not especially interested in academic accolades, and we just wanted a space to hang out, to be on stage, to work together and to put on plays. My closest friends were straight boys and girls; and very rarely did sexuality ever come up in conversation; I never had a gay friend or lover in high school, and, as an adult, I was surprised when someone I knew in high school had come out as gay as an adult. Austin, for example, was a shy kid in my Seventh Grade American history class; his father was the vice principal of the school; he made excellent grades and he was intelligent and well-spoken; however, I don't think we ever socialized. Ever. Why didn't we connect as kids? Being gay is not an immediate reason to become besties, apparently. I had heard on Facebook that he had come out in college and he was, according to a mutual friend, very gay.
***If you know anything about me - you know that after I graduated from high school I joined a Catholic Seminary and I joined the Benedictines - a monastic religious order; so I was the opposite of Austin. I put a stop on my secular gay journey and embraced Catholicism. However, I am proud of the fact that I did not suppress my gayness. I had to go to Baton Rouge and visit a psychologist who gave me a battery of tests - including the Rorshach test, a memory test, the MMPI-2 (which is a 562 question personality test) and a series of spatial reasoning and cognitive tests. It took all day! The doctor asked me a series of sexuality-related questions - one being "Are you attracted to the same sex?". My response was "Yes, I am." I was anxious about what the priests would think. Fr. Hank took me aside - a week after I had taken the tests - and told me that he had read the report and that I was brave to be so open. He said I had chosen to pursue a life dedicated to Christ - so whether I had gay or straight proclivities the bigger question beyond my sexual orientation was - did I have what it took to be a priest or religious brother - to live a celibate life. He said, "You are a curious, intellectually capable young man. Just don't become an air traffic controller." It turns out I had bombed the spatial reasoning test. So there was that - and the fact that eventually (which is an entirely separate story) I committed a decade of my life to the religious life - I did leave and join the secular world again. So. The question was - what was my sexual identity? At the time I eschewed categories (which is a tell-tale sign I was lost to who I really was). However, I did embrace more of myself - and I dated a little bit and explored relationships. The first job after I left the monastery was as a High School English teacher at a Catholic school in New Orleans - so while I was out to my friends - I was not out at work. Even today my gay friends who work in Catholic schools do not come out at work. It's too risky. It's only recently - in my late 30s that I have been more comfortable being out in a more public way - and while it has been freeing and rewarding, I still feel uncomfortable about it. I have the voice of an imaginary straight person in my head: "Why do I need to know about you being gay? I don't feel the need to fill you in on my straightness." My response would be: "But you do. You do fill me in on your straightness. All the time. You say, 'Have a great weekend. The wife and I are going to see the in-laws.' Or you say, 'My girlfriend just got a new job.'" Depending on how safe I feel I could say something similar about a boyfriend or a husband or about how my friends are going out to see our drag mothers - but it is not a default. Being straight is a default; being gay is a game of "Do I say it? Or not."
This year marks my tenth year as a teacher (depending on how you count the years and so on). But it's ten years if you count my adjunct professorships, my middle and high school jobs, and my tutoring gigs. This year I received an assignment from a student - he's about twelve-years-old and James Charles - the Instagram celebrity - is his famous person on the planet. In class, we were talking about social media (because what kid in the twenty-first century does not have something to say about social media — even if they do not use it)? He said he loves James Charles. And the other kids in the class knew who he was.
James Charles is a gay social media star; he is all the rage, apparently (although recently he was caught up in a media squall that put a dent in his YouTube following); and I love that the kids in the class knew who he was. Also, one thing I noticed this year (which I have not noticed as much in the past) is that kids know the gay lingo that is prevalent in the documentary Paris is Burning — like "to spill the tea" and "to throw shade." These were the markers of the gay ballroom scene for gay kids in New York - the majority of whom were Black and Latino. Now the lingo has become mainstream - thanks, first, to Ru Paul Charles, and carried on by the young set represented by James Charles and his gang of Instagram and Tik Tok kids. But I wonder if James Charles knows his Paris is Burning ancestors? Charles, in his videos, and on Instagram, calls his followers sisters. Does he claim "sister" as his own or is he willing to recognize the inheritance? Next time I talk to him I'll ask.
|With new media comes new forms of representation|
Because it's not all harmony and social cohesion, though. I want to be loud. Be proud. Loud and proud. I think I am vocal - now - more than ever - not because of some need for self-expression but rather to normalize gayness; but, also as a form of resistance. A push in the face of those who may wish to hate us or who think we are everything that is wrong with society. I keep hearing the voice of an angry straight person in my head: "We don't want you." And then I think of a kid who I once taught; God knows where he is now; but, when he was a teenager he was painfully awkward and so desperately wanted to fit in. He was also extremely intelligent and keen on art, film, and literature. When he graduated from high school he left me a beautiful note that said, in part: "We are all stars in the same constellation."