I first learned of ballroom from the documentary “Paris Is Burning.” I was in my senior year of high school. Already closeted and afraid, and then the first guy I dated outed me to one of my teachers. Thankfully she handled the situation with humanity, but his betrayal did little to help my already-shaky self-esteem.
I started skipping school to hide from the world, my grades slipped into an abyss, and I found myself needing to go to summer school to get my diploma. To be honest with you, at that point in my life I really didn’t think I would make it to 30. That’s where I was when “Paris” found me, three decades ago. The documentary — shining a spotlight on queer communities of color and drag balls in New York City — did not make me gay. It made me feel that it was OK that I was.
Seeing yourself reflected positively has a way of doing that to people.
I thought about those darker periods of my coming-out process recently while attending a ball in downtown Los Angeles with George M. Johnson, author of “All Boys Aren’t Blue.” Johnson is one of the most banned authors in the country. True story. The American Library Assn. tracked 729 book challenges in 2021 and found the “most targeted books were by or about Black or LGBTQIA+ persons.” Johnson’s “Blue” ranked third, behind Jonathan Evison’s “Lawn Boy” and Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer.”
All have been banned at least in part for containing LGBTQ content.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis may be hogging all the attention for starting the flood of so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bills across the country (we’re up to 12 and counting), but don’t sleep on the “don’t read gay” effort that’s been working in the shadows.
The association said that last year had the largest number of book challenges since it began tracking them 20 years ago. It would seem the old Pat Buchanan-style fearmongering still has some pop to it. Only difference is instead of saying “family values,” it’s “parental rights,” you know, because queer people didn’t come from families or worry about their children.
It's not like I thought the fight was over when marriage equality was achieved, but the reemergence of the culture war is downright chilling. In 2018, there were only 41 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in state legislatures nationwide. So far in 2022, we have already seen nearly 240, according to an NBC News analysis. And that’s not including some of the “Don’t Say Gay” copycat bills that have followed since the network published its findings in March.
Don’t say it. Don’t read about it. And throughout history, queer minors have been told not to be it. Not just anecdotally.
Electroshock therapy. Lobotomies. “Ex-gay” religious cults like Exodus International. A United Nations expert likened conversion therapy — the disproven practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity — to torture and called for a global ban. Today, nearly half the country still allows it to happen to kids.
But lawmakers like DeSantis don’t like to talk about that part much — the suffering that can come when elected officials spray perfume on a stinking pile of prejudice. No, they tell you that they are “protecting the rights of parents.” But when DeSantis’ press secretary tweeted that anyone who opposed the bill was “probably a groomer,” all she was doing was saying the loud part even louder.
Now there is a chorus.
Tennessee’s HB 800 would ban learning materials that “promote, normalize, support or address lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender issues or lifestyle.”
My God. They still refer to it as a “lifestyle,” as if talking about my husband were akin to talking about coastal living. And be not mistaken: The vague wording of that bill could potentially criminalize a family photo sitting on a gay teacher’s desk if that family doesn’t look the way Tennessee lawmakers think that it should.
Meanwhile, seeing that family photo could be the very thing a queer child in Tennessee needs to feel worthy of love.
I don’t know what kind of person hungers to take that away from children. I do know that such people have no business commenting on what’s best for kids. But the anti-LGBTQ bills targeting trans children keep coming. The book banning in libraries keeps happening. The tropes about pedophilia have returned.
That’s why I’ve always loved the inherent defiance of ballroom — a community deprived, yet had the audacity to grow anyway; petals battered and beautiful, like the rose in Tupac’s manuscript.
Let the bills and bans come. It’s not the first time anti-LGBTQ lawmakers have tried to silence us.
And ballroom — scenes from the late ’80s and today — reminds me of their failure.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.