A Queer Transcript of “Paris is Burning”

by Ethan Seavey

Picasso’s “Le Moulin de la Galette” (1900) depicting a queer space in Paris; across the sea and nine decades from where “Paris is Burning” was filmed. Photo taken by the author

This is your sign to acknowledge that it is pride month and that pride comes from decades of unvalued work by Black and Latinx queer people and that pride month would not exist without their strength and that you should watch the film Paris is Burning because you’ve lived 23 years as a white queer person and keep hearing about it and you should listen to it now, because it’s temporarily available on the airline catalog of free movies (for pride month, to be taken away at the end of it…).

18 minutes and 20 seconds in: a voiceover.

When you’re a man and a woman, you can do ANYTHING [ANYTHING being a word enunciated and drawn out slowly, taffy-pulling, teeth-pulling]

you can- 

you can almost have sex on the streets if you want to [if you want to, why would you want to, out in the middle of the pavement? the gays cannot understand this heterosexual urge because gays find comfort in bushes and forests and dark hideyholes in parks where you have the freedom to not be seen by anyone you don’t want to see you and to run away and blend back into crowds for safety—out in the street, that is a liberation I fear & do not want]

the most somebody gonna say is “hey you gotta hump for me?” 

(clap) you know 

but when you’re gay [syntactically intertwining “but” with the word “gay”; always an exception, always an oversight, always a “but when you’re” statement to explain to those who are not, always explaining ourselves, always defending ourselves]

you uh [gay hesitation]

you monitor everything you do [overthinking your gayness and whether it’s too excessive for this day in this place]

you monitor how you look, how you dress, how you talk [too gay; too femme; too masc; “too” interpreted as a moment of judgement (too much for what space and too much for what people?); “too” being reclaimed & transformed into a synonym for “abundantly” and “extravagantly”]

how you pass [passing for somebody you’re not; passing on the street]

did they see me [they did]

what did they think of me? [I’ll never, ever know, but I have to be content with knowing it might be a slur]

to be able to blend [like vibrant paint spreading into water droplets on saturated paper]

that’s what realness is [realness being a category in 1990 Black and Latinx ball culture]

if you can pass to the untrained eye [the oblivious straight eye, capable of missing even the most obvious of clues]

or even the trained eye [the queer eye, searching for other queers, comparing themselves to other queers]

and not give away the fact that you’re gay [here “gay” is defined as everything gendered and sexual about a queer person]

that’s when it’s real 

the idea of realness is to look as much as possible like your straight counterpart [the person you once wanted to be]

the realer you look means you look like a real woman [here the language is directed to queer folks who were raised in boys’ clothing and adhered to the Rules of Boys, but who have grown to become women or femmes]

or you look like a real man [here the language is directed to the same people, the ones who live in the realm of anti-realness and who have sacrificed their manhood to become something else, something not-real to others; their manhood which they abandoned is briefly resumed and made real when it is realized onto their flesh]

a straight man [syntactically combining the concept of a real man and of a straight man, not directly saying the unsaid (that’s my job) but acknowledging it in grammar]

it’s not a take-off or a satire [a satire of what, a take-off from what? there something to take, but it is silly to say that straightness is a culture to rip-off… it is silly to say that straightness is a quality even, because gayness is a quality and straightness is the default, the utter assumed]

no, it’s actually being able to be [this] (?) [the question mark demarcating my inability to process audio, delineating my guess at what was said…] 

it’s really a case of going back into the closet [the unseen lips move to the side and upwards here (on “back into the closet”), creating the sonic effect of leaving something unsaid; or giving what was said a glimmer of secrecy]

they give the society they live in what they want to see [a real man; a real woman]

so they won’t be questioned [are you a man? or are you confused? those are the two options.]

rather than having to go through prejudices about your life or your lifestyle

you can walk around confidently [a confidence which only comes from taking power away from the straight eye]

blending in with everybody else [like vibrant paint spreading into water droplets on saturated paper]

you(‘ve) erase(d) all the mistakes [when your self is a mistake your costume can only be a blank sheet of paper]

all the flaws [your broken manhood]

 all the give-aways [your protruding forehead; your growing stubble, your shapely eyebrows and your hairy armpits and your flat breasts and your flatless crotch]

to make your illusion perfect. [“perfect” meaning “passable,” meaning the abandonment of give-aways and adopting the identifiable features of the type of person which you are thought not to be]

Suck on these words like lozenges or let them melt on your tongue. Sip ginger ale and vodka. Bump elbows with the old couple flanked on either side of you, sitting in the middle seat. They watch crime dramas on tiny screens. You find joy in showing these queer bodies on your computer screen, boldly. The subject changes:


when you’re undetectable [not unseen (that doesn’t count), but to be seen and not noticed]

when they can walk out of the ballroom into the sunlight [the sunlight so harsh on your makeup, the shape of your body, the paint on your nails and the smile on your face — isn’t it the moonlight that shares pride in being half-seen, a shadow walking by at nighttime, void of sex + gender + race + distinguishable morphology (did you notice that person who walked by us? oh, it’s alright, they just smelled very nice…no I don’t recognize the cologne… it might have been perfume… it might have been fragrant oils void of sex + gender + race + distinguishable morphology, it must have been, because usually, you know, you can tell…)]

and onto the subway [where the light is harsh, even when the straight humans are drifting through the nighttime above the surface of the earth]

and get home [a tiny apartment filled to the brim with other queers]

and still have all their clothes [blue fabric covering flat breasts, blue fabric covering flatless crotch]

and no blood running off their bodies [blood shed by straight people + cleaned up by gay people]

those are the femme, realness, queens