Sometimes you stumble onto something so heavy and laden with raw love that it brings you to your knees, tears your heart open, and spills your innards out all over your nice custom coffee table, the one you commissioned from this dude in the Carolinas and had shipped clear across the country. That happened to me last night after I re-watched Paris Is Burning, the critically acclaimed 1990 documentary about the Harlem drag ball scene in New York’s late eighties.
Paris Is Burning introduced me, at age 20, not to gay culture, which I was already immersed in, but to a gender-bending underground scene in New York City created by gay men of color, most of whom were formed in a crucible of crushing poverty. It also reinforced the lesson that life could be short and brutal for the different – the gay, the brown, the poor, the artistic, the Other of any kind. It was then, and remains now, a beautiful film, a time capsule of New York in a time and a place that would soon disappear, a chronicle of the era of pre-cocktail AIDS, when being black and gay, let alone trans, was an almost certain death sentence of either disease or violence.
As I watched it, I kept wondering how many of the people in the film were still alive – not many, it seems, and several died within a few short years of Paris’ release. There was much bitter sentiment that the subculture had been exploited and appropriated and the principals cheated out of the acclaim and money due them by the film’s success. More happily, there was the flowering of Willi Ninja, ‘Mother’ of the House of Ninja. Willi is largely credited with being the father of voguing and was able to knit together a career after the springboard of Paris Is Burning. As I read about him and his artistry, and his death in 2006, at the age of 45, of an AIDS-related heart condition, I stumbled onto this video, which tells a story, in six short minutes, about family.
The communities of the ball scene so deeply considered themselves family that they organized into ‘houses’ of ‘mothers’ and ‘children’ to form loyal networks created for mutual survival and self-realization. They fed each other, housed each other, claimed their dead, celebrated their kin. These were individuals who were the lowest of the low in society’s eyes: rejected by whites for being black, rejected by the middle class mainstream for being the kind of poor that is hard to imagine if you didn’t come up in it, rejected by their faith, God, ethnic communities, and families of origin for being gay. These people knew about being invisible and forgotten, and yet in the face of a kind of wholesale rejection and marginalization that most of us could never conceive of, they had the strength and sheer will to create families and to embrace life, art, and beauty in ways that have deeply influenced our culture. They are our Godfathers.
As someone who has always felt, and has been singled out, as ‘different,’ and who has suffered a fractured and troubled relationship with my relatives, like many of my kind I have found solace in the form of the tribal and communal bonds formed with friends that have truly flipped the script of what ‘family’ means. For those of us who have been rejected by our families or communities because we were not like them in whatever way – religion, appearance, beliefs, mindset, who we love – this restructuring of family and kin has been nothing less than transformative, validating, and lifesaving. Those of us who have learned to make something from nothing, to cobble together a life no one thought we’d ever rise to, know what it is to be redeemed by love.
Our patchwork families have taught us that we are of worth, that we can and should be loved, that we are allowed to have the dreams society, our teachers, our parents, or the media told us we had no place having. While we were encouraged all our lives to render ourselves smaller and more invisible, and preferably to just disappear, these neo-families taught us to claim our space, to exhale and make ourselves taller and wider, to speak with a resonant voice and take our place at the table.
These are the people, these outsiders and Others, who take care of me, who see me though the dark times and share my joy in the good ones, and know I have their back and will put a knife in someone else’s if they ask me to. These are the people I know would come take care of me if I were stricken with cancer, and they know, without any shred of doubt, that I’d do the same for them, right up to the last day, the last minute, the last breath. Because of them, I know that though I am childless, parentless, distant from biological family, I don’t have to live in fear of being sick or dying alone – these bitches will be by my bedside and will sing me over to the other side.
To see the raw emotional response of the clearly unwell Willi Ninja – the love, the exhaustion, the gratitude, the passion that wash over his face in waves – to his chosen family and community’s great outpouring of validation and affirmation, brought me to tears, as did the unstoppable love in Barbara Tucker’s voice – pure love, sheer love, distilled into an otherworldly voice that will sing his glory down through the ages.
This is what kind of love was born in torn-up Harlem halls full of brown men stuck between worlds. This is what kind of love was born in the thump of the rave and house clubs that were our ‘church,’ our sanctuary from the grinding rejection of everyday people, when we were younger and much more unsure of our place in the world. This is the kind of love born through midnight phone calls from coast to coast, cheap Southwest plane tickets, brunch, homemade soup, and robotic vacuums. In a way, we are lucky as much as we are unlucky – though somehow we are Other, we are Together, and I only hope when I die that my friends will sing and shout for me like this, and know how grateful I am for them and that my love is true, and it is long, cheating even death.