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‘Paris is Burning’ to serve as centerpiece for intersectionality

“Paris Is Burning.” Credit: Courtesy of Melissa Starker

The Wexner Center for the Arts will open its doors Tuesday for a night of inclusivity and LGBTQ visibility with its screening of “Paris is Burning.”

Directed by Jennie Livingston, the 1990 documentary follows New York City’s ball culture, the underground LGBTQ subculture in which people walk in drag for trophies or prizes, and the African-American, Latino, gay and transgender communities involved in it.

Terrance Dean, a visiting scholar and doctoral candidate at Vanderbilt University, said he pitched the idea to the Wexner Center to encourage open dialogue about the intersection of black sexuality and queer identity.

“We look at how black, gay men and women have been ostracized and marginalized in the communities, not only within larger society but also in the queer community as a whole,” Dean said. “I really wanted to help create a space where black, queer persons can feel their true authentic selves.”

The showing will be followed by a panel discussion that includes Dean, as well as Townsand Price-Spratlen, an associate professor in sociology, and Shannon Winnubst, professor and chair of the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies.

“Livingston was well ahead of her time on multiple levels — by valuing the voices, visions, experiences, ideas, dreams and ability to affirm identity in all its expressions, along the most marginalized subgroups that exist,” Price-Spratlen said.

The film portrays the ballroom subculture in the ball circuit, in which people walk and perform in an accepting, positive space.

“There’s a celebration of communities, in the way that communities take care of themselves,” Winnubst said. “That’s a very powerful part of the film.”

In many ways, “Paris is Burning” is an exploration of the overarching systems of society, examined through the filming of ball culture, Winnubst said.

“The gender system we have — that comes out of that bourgeois, white, domestic sense of things — is actually a form of power that regulates non-white communities,” she said.

For Price-Spratlen, this power shapes the heteronormative beliefs that still exist today, a time when the documentary seems to be at the foreground of conversation about these issues.

“This is the historical moment that we are in,” he said. “In view of that, affirmations of a justice vision, affirmations of visibility, and identity and acts of resistance through ‘the personal is political’ is all the more essential … to recognize the continued resonance and relevance of ‘Paris is Burning’ as a critical work.”

Dean said the event will provide room for students to sit in an inclusive space and be visible to each other.

“I wanted to make sure every black and brown queer person, and other minority queer persons on the campus, had the opportunity to see the film,” Dean said. “And that we had the space and availability to accommodate everybody.”

The screening and discussion of “Paris is Burning” will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Wexner Center. Admission is free.


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