Paris is 'Still' Burning

5.22.2011

By Steven Thrasher

More than 20 years after the film was released, the Bronx's drag ball scene continues to thrive as a home for queer culture in an otherwise hostile world.

Photos by Kevin Amato

Though less than eight miles apart, the Bronx Pride Center couldn't be more different from the better known, much better funded Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center in Manhattan's West Village. There are no Keith Haring murals adorning its bathroom walls; in fact, its second-floor toilet doesn't even have a proper handle. If not for its modest canopy sign -- right next to a butcher's prominent MEAT MARKET lettering -- you'd pass the dilapidated building without so much as a cruising glance.

But for some of New York City's most marginalized LGBT youth, the Bronx Pride Center is one of the few places in the borough where anyone cares if they live or die.

The Mott Haven neighborhood where it is based has one of the highest rates of AIDS-related deaths in the city. It's also in one of the poorest congressional districts in the United States. That lethal combination of poverty and disease makes the queer kids who call these streets home particularly vulnerable.

It is here where the underground ballroom drag scene, observed by much of the world for the first time in Jennie Livingston's 1990 Paris Is Burning, still sizzles. On any given weekday, you can find queer kids hanging out on the center's second floor practicing duck walks, hand performance, spins, and dips. Faced with the task of simply staying alive, they catwalk. Just feet above the streets where they could have the shit beaten out of them for acting so flamboyantly, they vogue to their spirits' content, arms flying freely.
Ballroom drag events account for about 80% of the center's first contact with the 4,000 youth they service each year. But getting them off the streets and onto the dance floor is an act of triage that creates its own undesirable side effects, the center's executive director Dirk McCall acknowledges.

VIEW THE SLIDESHOW FOR MORE IMAGES FROM KEVIN AMATO'S BALLROOM SHOOT.

'There are kids here who have seroconverted,' says McCall, 'and they're selling their HIV medications on the street for money to buy their clothes for the balls.' Concerned, the center plans to start a fashion workshop, so kids can use their facilities to make their own clothes from donated materials for free.

Not that making your own outfits would get you into, say, the House of Milan or the House of Mizrahi. But it may get you a walk on the 'kiki' circuit, the junior league that evolved for kids wanting to get into ballroom before they're old enough.

The runway is where many shattered young queers have turned to feel beautiful when their own families have rejected them. And when those selective ballroom "houses' won't give them the time of day, they come here. The Harlem River may be a poor substitute for the Seine, but here, Paris is burning hotter than ever.

'This is a shade-free zone!' cries out Pony, a dance instructor who has the look, energy, and moves to pull off his name.

'Throwing shade' at someone is ballroom slang for dissing them, and Pony will have none of it in his Tuesday afternoon vogue class.

'How many of you have ever walked a ball?' he asks the 15 or so drop-ins. Only three -- including an alluring, confident girl named Jenovia -- raise their hands. 'How many have ever walked a kiki ball?' The same three hands go up.

The group is very different from what you'd expect if your main exposure to drag was La Cage Aux Folles or RuPaul's Drag Race. As cliquish as it can be, there's room for everyone in ballroom drag, especially kiki. There are categories for boys and girls of all body types, many of which have nothing to do with cross-dressing. 'Thugs,' whom the untrained eye wouldn't suspect of being gay, let alone drag queens, look nothing like those walking 'BQID' ('butch queen in drag').

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