Queer his­to­ry is Amer­i­can history

Leg­endary: 30 Years of Philly Ball­room’ at the Black­Star Film Festival

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‘Legendary’ marks the 30th anniversary of ballroom culture in Philadelphia. (Image courtesy of BlackStar.)
‘Legendary’ marks the 30th anniversary of ballroom culture in Philadelphia. (Image courtesy of BlackStar.)

Last year marked the 30-year anniversary of Philadelphia's Ballroom culture, and the Inquirer celebrated by producing Legendary: 30 Years of Philly Ballroom, a short documentary alongside a special look at the history of Philly’s ballroom world, published last December. The 2020 BlackStar Film Festival screened Legendary as part of its August 22 shorts program.

True history and legacy

The subculture, begun in New York in the 1980s by Black and Latinx LGBTQ youth, spread through the surrounding areas and found a stronghold in the City of Brotherly Love. Over the past three decades, it has grown and evolved to have a diverse international following, thanks in part to hit TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Pose.

However, many do not know ballroom’s true history and legacy. Beneath all the fashion and flair, the glitz and glamour, there’s a touching origin story about how queer youth needed a safe haven to congregate and express themselves. Ballroom culture gave them a sense of safety, family, accomplishment, and acceptance when those things were otherwise denied them. What started as a competition became community, camaraderie, and celebration. Of life. Of creativity. Of survival. Of resilience.

“It is a resistance from the church. It is the resistance from toxic, abusive families who did not accept us. It is the resistance of toxic, abusive neighborhoods that refused to accept us. It is resistance from schools that we know are gonna be traumatic every single day that we went there. It’s a movement,” said former Philly ballroom star Madelyn “Aamina” 007 in the film. She and Renee, "The Mother of Philly Ballroom," are two of the trans women credited in Legendary with helping to start the ballroom scene.

Reaching 30

It seems like no mistake that the film should celebrate reaching 30, or that the film devotes nearly a third of the 19-minute film focuses on the challenges that trans women face, historically and today. While the culture of Philly ballroom made it to 30, many trans and queer people don't. According to GLAAD, the average life expectancy of a trans woman of color is 30 to 35 years, and the very people who built this scene still have to fight for their lives every day. Early this summer, a Black trans woman, Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, was brutally murdered here in Philly at just 27 years old.

Adding to the canon

But this community continues to be a beacon of hope. In the week of the birthday of the late Marsha P. Johnson, a trans icon and pioneer of the Stonewall Riots and Pride, I am reminded how Black queer and trans people have been central to many civil-rights movements. Queer folks are not here merely for your entertainment; they are educating us, guiding us toward a more liberated future through innovation, adaptation, and grit.

In a recent statement following the police killing of Tony McDade, a trans man in Florida, Angela Davis said, “We support the trans community precisely because this community has taught us how to challenge that which is totally accepted as normal. And I don’t think we would be where we are today—encouraging ever larger numbers of people to think within an abolitionist frame—had not the trans community taught us that it is possible to effectively challenge that which is considered the very foundation of our sense of normalcy. So if it is possible to challenge the gender binary, then we can certainly, effectively, resist prisons, and jails, and police.”

Legendary is adding to the canon of film and media, like the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, making the case that queer history is American history and they are here to stay, sashay, and survive.

What, When, Where

Legendary. Directed by Raishad Hardnett, Lauren M. Schneiderman, and Cassie Owens. Screened at the 2020 BlackStar Film Festival on August 22. You can watch it on YouTube.

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