How A Screening Of ‘Paris Is Burning’ Sparked Outrage From Within The Queer/Trans Community

PARIS IS BURNING, 1990. (c) Off White Productions/ Courtesy: Everett Collection.

Protest surrounding a planned screening of the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning on June 26 in Brooklyn has prompted arts organization BRIC and the filmmaker herself to reevaluate the program.

The movie’s director, Jennie Livingston, and musician/artist JD Samson were invited to join in the screening as part of the Celebrate Brooklyn! events, and many were upset that no queer and trans people of color or representatives from the thriving ballroom community that the film documents were asked to participate.

PIB introduced the world to a subculture that had never received mainstream attention, and with that exposure came questions of exploitation and appropriation. Livingston, a white female, was (and still is) sometimes criticized for gaining fame by telling a story which some feel wasn’t hers to tell.

That these ideas are still being debated is a testament to the power of the film, and love it or not, you don’t have to look far in gay culture to find its impact. Take ‘throwing shade’ for instance:

Livingston defends her outsider status as such: “I’m white, yes, but I’m an openly queer, female director, and I can’t think of anything more out of the mainstream. I’m sorry, but I do not think I have the same relationship to the ruling class as a straight man,” and she certainly has a point.

A petition titled Cancel Celebrate Brooklyn/BRIC’s screening of Paris is Burning & End the Exploitation of the Ballroom Community and TQPOC! gained traction, and reads in part:

While Jennie Livingston and Mirimax [sic] profited immensely off of this anthropological foray into the lives of low-income TQPOC ballroom members, through years of lies and dishonesty, Livingston was able to use people for the sake of her own fame and has been living off of their stories ever since. In the meantime, most of the original cast has been murdered or has died in poverty. This is exploitation of a vulnerable population who trusted Jennie to do right by them.


– Apologize to the affected parties listed

– Use the platform that you’ve gained through our stories to speak out against the atrocities that are killing us daily. Violence against trans women of color specifically, like the still unsolved murder of Venus Xtravaganza, is still rampant. Share your limelight with people and organizations doing work that benefits the communities in the film.

– Pay retribution to the survivors and communities of the people you exploited in Paris is Burning with all future proceeds.

To which Livingston responded:

I’m grateful the conversations here encouraged me to deeply consider my relationships, both to surviving members of the Paris is Burning cast and to the TQPOC community at large. As we move forward towards the 25th anniversary of the film, I need to keep talking with the cast members themselves about how they feel about the film and its continued distribution. And if they’re interested, about how can the cast and I work together to benefit the community?

Last year Junior Labeija and I did a screening to raise money for the Ali Forney Center (which serves homeless queer youth). So many of the people in the film are gone: what are we empowered to do to continue their legacy and honor their memories, to benefit ballgoers, and to fight violence against trans and queer people of color?

BRIC also put out a statement:

We have now done what we should have done when we initially planned the event: reached out to QTPOC organizations and individuals, and members of the ballroom community, to gain their insights and hear their ideas for the program. We apologize for not having done so earlier.

After this consultation, the revised line-up, which we hope to finalize in the next few days, will include artists and programming from the QTPOC and ballroom communities.

Some of the protesters aren’t satisfied. Ashley Love, a journalist and a transsexual and intersex advocate, found both the statements from Livingston and BRIC to be inadequate. “There’s no mention of the petition’s mention of trans-misogyny, JD Samson’s association with the anti-trans-feminine slur tr*nny and Michigan Music Festival, and BRIC excluding the term ‘transphobia’ in event description,” she told Queerty. “This protest is more than resisting Brooklyn gentrification, it’s for reparations for the misled film subjects and against transphobia”


Tell us what you think in the comments.

H/t: Gawker