Notes on Pride

Unsung Icons: Junior LaBeija's Opulent Legacy

June 26th, 2021

"James Goode Jr./Junior LaBeija was photographed May 24 at St. Nicholas Park in Harlem."

Photographed by David Needleman in The Hollywood Reporter

"O-P-U-L-E-N-C-E. Opulence. You own everything. Everything is yours" (Junior Labeija in Jennie Livingston's Paris is Burning, 1990)
"After the film won a Jury Prize at Sundance and was bought by Miramax, Livingston “made the decision to share a portion of that sale with the main speakers in the film, not because we’d said we would, but because it felt right to do,” she continues. And so she offered to divide $55,000 from the movie’s $250,000 sale among the 13 main participants; several accepted, but LaBeija declined — he felt he deserved more" (Abramovitch 2021, "Paris Is Burning’ Emcee Junior LaBeija on ‘Pose,’ RuPaul and Why He Never Let Hollywood Tell His Story")
"This was the dilemma I was having,” LaBeija explains. “Pose is a Black experience conducted by white leadership.” (That’s only partly true: Murphy and Falchuk are white; Steven Canals, who wrote the pilot and also serves as executive producer, grew up in the Bronx and is Black and Puerto Rican.) Continues LaBeija, “It wasn’t that I didn’t agree with Pose — because it was an opportunity for the trans and ballroom community to come up front and center. But for me, I cannot accept someone else telling my story that I lived.” Nevertheless, he sees his influence all over the show. “That is the essence of me,” he says of Billy Porter’s emcee character, Pray Tell. “Openly gay, Black, male, dark, flamboyant, articulate, witty, shady, all that. ‘The category is …’ Everybody knew right there that’s mine” (Abramovitch 2021, "Paris Is Burning’ Emcee Junior LaBeija on ‘Pose,’ RuPaul and Why He Never Let Hollywood Tell His Story").

I wasn’t sure whether or even how to approach Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. Set in the ballrooms of New York amid the beginnings of the HIV/AIDS crisis, Paris is Burning has been a central (perhaps even foundational) text for queer theory (e.g Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter) as well as queer culture more broadly (Rupaul’s Drag Race, Pose, and perhaps queer language itself). The foundational role of Paris is Burning is less a credit to Livingston and more so to the people they documented across their travels within ballroom subculture. Watching Paris is Burning, you cannot help but feek cheated by how little screen time Juniopr LaBeija, the emcee, gets. There’s something so unapologetically Black, queer, and shady about Junior LaBeija that is infectious. She tells it like it is, still. And at 63, I’m also struck by her caution about what it means for people outside her world to tell the story of Ballroom. While thre has been so much celebration for shows like Pose, I am often, like LaBeija, ambivalent about the fact that folks like Ryan Murphy not only have creative control, but reap the benefits of stories they have never lived (see Janet Mock’s recent missive about Hollywood). LaBeija’s own obscurity even as Billy Porter continues to collect torphies for playing a role based on her, is also a haunting reminder of how easily real people can become replaced by their fictionalization. Seth Abramovitch’s 2021 profile of Junior LaBeija, especiall for those unfamiliar with LaBeija, is an excellent entree into learning about someone who has been so pivotal to the culture. It’s also a reminder that not all heroes get the accolades they deserve.