top of page

Paris is Burning: The Importance of Community to LGBTQ+ Youth

Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning acknowledges that family doesn’t always mean blood, a notion that is well understood by the LGBTQ+ community. When unaccepting parents and a prejudiced society ostracize queer youth from their childhood homes and comforts, they are left to fend for themselves and search for a new sense of belonging. Pepper LaBeija, a legendary drag queen and mother of House LaBeija says in the film, “When someone has rejection from their mother and father, their family, when they get out in the world, they search. They search for someone to fill that void.” Livingston’s film investigates this all too familiar experience by interviewing African and Latin American individuals from the drag-ball scene in Harlem, New York.

Queer people of all ages flocked to the streets of New York to search for the acceptance and love that their own families wouldn’t offer them. Often, they would come across like minded people and become adopted by the different “houses” such as LaBeija, Xtravaganza, and Ninja which participated in drag-balls. The balls were places for people to compete in various fashion and appearance competitions as well as to dance and strut down the ballroom floor. While these communities have been described as “gay street gangs” and are highly competitive when it comes to the fashion and vogueing at the balls, they have also been described as “families for a lot of children who don’t have families.”

In many ways the houses are a more accepting version of the nuclear American family. The members of each house take its name for their own, are shown in photos that could easily be mistaken for family portraits, and are cared for by mothers and fathers of the house. Where queer teens may have been abandoned by their own homophobic parents that wouldn’t allow them to express themselves as they truly are, they gain a new identity in these houses that will support and protect them from the homophobia and racism that plagues the streets.

One member of House Xtravaganza shares that for their birthday every year Angie Xtravaganza, the mother of the house, would give them a birthday gift but their real mother wouldn’t. These mothers of each house are established because of their talent and power within the drag-ball scene but more importantly because they are protectors of their house’s children. They offer sanctuary and security to members who have no one to turn to and want to get back on their feet.Though they may not share the same blood or background, the fact that they share queer identities and experiences creates an unassailable bond,“I say that’s my sister because she’s gay too and I’m gay.”

Paris is Burning depicts a time within LGBTQ+ history that is plagued by fear and loss from the AIDS pandemic as well as the ever present danger of homophobia and transphobia on the streets of New York. The sense of camaraderie and acceptance that the drag balls and houses provided at the time show how essential community and belonging is to queer people. The drag balls were places to show pride for yourself and to let your peers celebrate you with trophies and applause. At these shows a person could be whoever they wanted to be and act however they wanted to without judgment, “we’re not going to be shady, just fierce.”


There was something for everyone at the shows no matter the participants' resources or appearance. Categories at the balls included everything from butch queen and luscious body to upcoming pretty girl and schoolboy/schoolgirl realness. Regardless of class, gender, or race a person could walk away from the ballroom competitions with a trophy and know that they belonged somewhere. Winning one of the awards has been equated to winning an Oscar or achieving celebrity amongst their peers.

The drag-ball and house culture in Harlem during the ‘80s and ‘90s showcases the indisputable value of community to LGBTQ+ youth. These found families and ballroom shows created a sense of purpose and solidarity that is essential to young queer people who have been estranged from both their own families and society. In these spaces people didn’t have to feel shame because they didn’t conform to societal standards or because they looked a certain way, instead they were celebrated for being different and true to themselves amongst the people who loved and protected them fiercely.

Livingston’s documentary is essential viewing and perfect to watch this Pride month! The film is a cultural touchstone within the queer community and documentary filmmaking at large. With interviews from BIPOC individuals and stories from queer icons, you are guranteed to take away a new understanding of LGBTQ+ history from the movie.

Paris is Burning is currently streaming and available to buy on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, and Max.

Written by Lindsay Paul

bottom of page