'Paris is Burning' Inspired LGBTQ Culture in America

Words like 'yas' and 'shade' have literally taken over the world thanks to the legendary LGBTQ documentary 'Paris is Burning.'

'Paris is Burning' Inspired LGBTQ Culture in America

Recently certain words like “yas” or “queen”, “shade”, “read” and “realness” have become popular sayings in everyday life-speak of most millennials. It’s on our favorite TV shows, strewn throughout social media, on podcasts - you name it, these words all over the place. Most people think this slang came from TV shows like Broad City and Real House Wives of Atlanta or a certain viral YouTube video of a girl screaming “YAAASSS GAGA you look so good!” but sorry people, they did not! Those words originated from one of the most influential LGBTQ documentaries from 1990 called Paris is Burning directed by Jennie Livingston. Thanks to this cutting edge and way before its time film, today many people, including young LGBTQ and heterosexual people alike, are able to embrace and learn about Queer culture in its most rawest form. The documentary exists as a relic of the ballroom scene, which today very much still exists, just not in the same way as it once did.

The Golden Age of LGBTQ Culture

Years before reality TV, Paris is Burning chronicled real people during the “Golden Age” of Drag Ballroom culture in New York City from the mid to late 1980’s. It centered around the LGBTQ community, mostly gay and transgendered people of color. Many cultural historians believe Paris is Burning was an invaluable documentary that portrayed a thoughtful and realistic exploration of race, class, gender, and sexuality in America.

What were Drag Balls?

Drag Balls were known for where a underground subculture of LGBTQ people in which people would "walk" (i.e., compete) for trophies and prizes. During their “walk”, some would dance and while others would dress in drag trying to “pass as a gender”. Passing as a gender included a collection of different categories of gender and sexual subjectivities that extended beyond binary male or female. There were seven categories in where each person had to identify with during their performance as: Butch Queens, Femme Queens, Butch Queens up in Drag, Butches, Women, Men and house parents. Although most competitive walks involved crossdressing, in some other cases the goal was to accentuate a male participant's masculinity or a female participant's femininity as a parody of heterosexuality.

You're Being Judged

Most participants in ballroom culture belonged to groups known as “houses". These “houses” we also called families. These houses were basically a team and they all performed for the house. The houses were ran by “House Parents called “House Mothers” (usually Drag Queens or Transgendered women) or “House Fathers”. The purpose of house parents was to provide guidance for their ‘children' (team members) of various ages, race, and ethnic background. Many houses became famous within LGBTQ culture like House Of Infiniti, House of Mizrahi, House of Avianceand House of Overness. If you mentioned these names most LGBTQ people in the late 1980’s and 1990’s knew what you were talking about.

World Domination

As a countercultural phenomenon, ballroom culture is rooted in necessity and defiance. The ballroom culture has existed for at least since the 1920’s. However, it remains a largely underground and unknown genre for this particular sub-community of LGBTQ African American and Latinos. But thanks to TV shows like RuPaul's Drag Race and Broad City that sub culture has been catapulted to the mainstream.

So where did “Yas” come from?

The phrase “Yas” was a cheer usually exclaimed from onlookers watching the runway. They would scream “Yas!” or “Yas Queen, Work!” when a walker was killing it on the runway. It was an exclamation that acted as an encouragement, a message of support and inclusion.

Strike a Pose, Vogue!

During the “walks”, participants would be judged on their Voguing, Reading and Shade to name a few performances. Yes this is where the term “vogue” came from that cemented itself into pop culture. Certain voguing elements included hands, catwalk, duckwalk, floor performance, spins and dips during the walk. And yes everything you saw on Madonna’s “Vogue” video was inspired by these performances.

A “reading” is basically like a one sided rap battle. The reader trys to highlight and exaggerate all of the flaws of the readee about their ridiculous clothes to their flawed makeup to a gap tooth and anything else in between. It is a battle of wit, in which the winner is one who gets the crowd to laugh the most.

Throwing Shade

Shade, like reading developed from reading a person. Rather than the aim to insult, shade involves the medium of backhanded compliments. An example is to suggest that someone's beautiful dress makes people almost forget that she has a five o'clock shadow. Oh girl, the Shade of It All!!

Serving You Face

Serving you face is that look on your face when you pose on the runway. You know the look, that face that says to everyone you da bitch and they know it. It could be a raised eyebrow or resting bitch face. Its completely up to the server!

Continuing the Legacy

Since its roots in Harlem more than 50 years ago and its expansion into other major cities such as Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore, Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, and Philadelphia it has become a worldwide phenomenon. With the advancements of social media, Ballroom Culture has exploded into other countries such as Canada, Japan, and the UK. More recently, like groups like House of LaDosha, a dance-rap and performance group in Brooklyn, they showcases fringe artists from almost every type of genre. Classic Ballroom members and House of LaDosha have a few things in common: they are wildly flamboyant, mostly dressed in drag, and determined to keep up the high energy of Ballroom culture all night. Embracing influences like Paris is Burning and Drag culture and infusing it with modern day Hip-hop, they seem to be killing it on the runway once again and more than ever.

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George Gott

Writer & Social Media Editor for Jerrickmedia who is an avid reader of sci-fi and a fierce defender of women, minority, and LGBTQ rights.

See all posts by George Gott