Why New York Pier Culture Deserves Attention Beyond Paris is Burning

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Nov. 14 2013 4:49 PM

Paris Is Still Burning in Pier Kids: The Life

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Still from Pier Kids: The Life

Throwing shade. Reading for filth. Voguing whilst giving banjee realness. Due in large part to the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race, these slang expressions and the constellation of gestures, postures, and attitudes that surround them have become commonplace in the gay (and, increasingly, diva pop star) community. And yet, in one of the more uncomfortable paradoxes of modern gay life, members of the primarily African-American and Latino “pier queen”/ballroom scene in which the culture originated continue to be marginalized by the (white) mainstream. That’s not shady, it’s cruel.

Until recently, one of the few means by which outsiders could learn about this influential group of LGBT people was to watch Jennie Livingston’s landmark 1990 documentary, Paris is Burning. It’s required reading for anyone curious about gay culture, especially if you happen to want to try reading yourself. But films like that are naturally bound to their moment in history; meanwhile, the descendants of PIB are still very much alive, struggling to survive amid the same homelessness, hostile families, sex work, and general economic and social hardships that come with being oppressed. They even inhabit the same spaces their predecessors did; namely, the Christopher Street pier (hence “pier queens” or “pier kids”) and surrounding area in Manhattan’s swank, police-patrolled, and increasingly buttoned-up (read: hostile) West Village—just blocks, ironically, from the site of the Stonewall uprisings.

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It’s this new generation that filmmaker Elegance Bratton hopes to document in his project Pier Kids: The Life. Clips from the film, which is now entering the post-production stage, look great, and the project’s tagline, “Nobody Wants To Live Outside,” promises a necessary confrontation with forces in the neighborhood (which includes many affluent gay people) who would rather the kids not be such an unsightly blight on the pier. Check out a teaser below, and if you’re as excited for this film as I am, kick in a few bucks on Bratton’s Kickstarter. It’s a small price to pay for the cultural debt the larger culture—myself included—has run up.

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.