Technically this film is outside the remit of this blog as it was released in 1990. But I have included it for two reasons.
Firstly, the people and events therein were all filmed in the late 80s. And, secondly, those people and events are both quite extraordinary testaments to survival under adverse conditions.
In this case it’s the homophobia, transphobia, racism and poverty experienced by the film’s subjects – young (and not-so-young) black people in New York. And the key elements of this strategy are the creation of non-biological families known as ‘houses’ and participation in the faux glamour of drag balls.
The grandly-named houses (House of Labeija, House of Dupree, House of Extravaganza, for example) serve as a home or meeting point for dozens of marginalised queer people. In so doing they give them a sense of identity and belonging. Each house is headed by a House Mother and/or a House Father – although either of these roles can be undertaken by gay men or trans women.
The houses are, effectively, a type of queer gang. But, being queer, this means that any competition between them isn’t fought out on the streets with lethal weapons.
Instead, gang members face off on the floor of the drag balls, competing to see who can best sashay across the floor in one of numerous competitive drag categories. These include Femme Queen, Femme Queen Realness (a drag queen who could pass for a real woman in daylight in the outside world), Butch Queen First Time in Drags at a Ball, and Executive Realness.
Extraordinarily complex codes of language and behaviour have been developed to accompany this behaviour. ‘Shading’, for example and – a more familiar term – ‘voguing’.
These and various other elements combine to create a viable alternative reality for those dispossessed by virtue of their race, gender or sexual orientation. Some of the diverse participants featured in this film include 13 and 15-year old street kids and a young trans woman who, like so many of her counterparts, works as a sex worker to sustain herself. Sadly, like so many trans women, she ultimately becomes the victim of a brutal murder.
It’s hard not to see the similarities between this group and the marginalised queer population that survived in New York’s Village District in the 60s – and who ultimately kicked off the Stonewall riots.
This is an extraordinary film about an extraordinary group of people. It’s now available – in full – on YouTube (and Netflix, at least in the UK). An important part of queer history.