Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the “unbought and unbossed” Shirley Chisholm to Saturday night’s MTV Movie & TV Awards, Trailblazer Award honoree Lena Waithe proved that she will always use her platform to elevate the marginalized, transforming her moment at the podium into a tribute to the gay and transgender icons and culture immortalized in the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning.
I was so elated when I heard I was going to get the Trailblazer Award that I decided to look up what the word actually means. It means to be a pioneer or an innovator, and I am truly grateful that you guys see me in that light.
But I believe the only reason why I’m even allowed to stand here is because of a few other trailblazers that some of you might not be aware of. And I discovered these trailblazers when I watched a brilliant documentary I saw many years ago called Paris Is Burning.
This movie was released in 1990, and it documents the lives of some of the bravest human beings to ever walk the face of this earth. Jenny Livingston’s film takes an intimate look at ball culture in Harlem, New York in the 1980s, and it introduced me to trailblazers such as Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, Angie Xtravaganza and Willi Ninja, just to name a few.
Tonight, I want to share this award with them. I want to do what we as a society should’ve done a long time ago, and that’s give them the glory and the shine they deserve.
A lot of people featured in this film are no longer with us, but their legacies will never die because they live on in all of us. And every time someone says “shade” or talks about “reading,” or just decides to “serve face” for no reason at all, please look up to the sky and give thanks, because we owe them a huge debt of gratitude. They strutted through a brick wall so we wouldn’t have to.
For those unfamiliar with the documentary (which is available in full on YouTube), it chronicles several years of late-1980s ball culture in New York City, focusing on the lives of several prominent competitors and members of the community—at least one of whom, 23-year-old Venus Xtravanganza, would be murdered before the film even finished shooting.
Paris Is Burning is, unfortunately, also a time capsule of the explosion of the AIDS epidemic, which would sadly claim most of the film’s cast within a decade of the premiere (as of 2017, only two cast members were still known to be living).
With that in mind, Waithe’s tribute to the film and its cast was especially poignant, especially considering the ongoing risks posed to transgender women of color in this country, ironically juxtaposed with the recent success of Ryan Murphy’s FX-channel homage to ball culture, Pose.
Viewers familiar with the documentary will recognize that much of Pose’s dialogue, characters and scenarios is seemingly ripped (albeit reverently) from the real lives of those featured in Paris Is Burning, proving Waithe’s point that we do indeed owe a debt of gratitude to these trailblazers who went largely ignored in life but who have now been immortalized for our Sunday-night entertainment.
But here is where Waithe’s point rings especially true: Black culture in particular, which is so often mined and appropriated by mainstream culture, owes no small part of its richness to our gay and transgender communities. From them we have assumed language, culture and style—and for the transphobic among us, they have become a target for vitriol (because the oppressed often desire nothing more than someone else to oppress).
No doubt Waithe is well aware that her well-deserved wins often feel like wins-by-proxy for many, including black people, black women and, significantly, black gay women. But on Saturday night, her decision to make the moment about more than herself—highlighting the most marginalized among us—was the real mark of a trailblazer, recognizing that no trail is ever blazed alone.