illi Ninja, a legendary figure in our community, and forever immortalized on screen in the film Paris Is Burning has passed away. I never knew him personally, but he was one of those voices in the chorus of my coming-out process that told me it was okay to be who I was; it was okay to want to express myself; it was okay to be queer.
In 1990 I started attending high school at Whitney Young ( get ) High School here in Chicago. It was a time when the word 'gay' was beginning to emerge in more conversations on television and in film than ever before. The seeds planted by the queer community in the '60s, '70s, and '80s were finally starting to take root. Much of my memories before 1990 are in black and white. From 1990 on, they're in crisp color.
Being born and raised in a big city with a thriving queer community has its advantages. I was doubly blessed because I was attending a school with students educated enough not to feel the need to beat the snot out of the 'faggot' at school.
I hung out at cafés where other queer folks congregated. There was this place called Scenes right near Belmont & Clark where I used to drink coffee and smoke cloves. It was Bohemian, it was queer, and it was a taste of the life I wanted. I wasn't formally out yet.
A friend that I knew through the café circuit ( which is what we used to call all the queer non-bar spots ) told me about a movie that was playing about drag queens in New York. It must have been at the Music Box or something. I managed somehow to stay out late enough one night to go see it alone. It was called Paris Is Burning.
And there, before me, on screen, were some of the biggest, gayest, most flaming homosexuals I'd ever laid eyes on. From butch to fem, these boys and girls were so over the top and so comfortable in their lifestyle that I was instantly envious. It was also the first time I'd seen anyone vogue. And I'm not talking about Madonna's Vogue.
Willi Ninja, whom many ( including myself ) call the 'Godfather of Vogue' was dancing across the screen in ways I'd never seen before, but with which I instantly fell in love. He was such a free spirit with his movement. His message, THE message, was right there for me: Be who you are and you will be free. Leaving the theater that night, I decided it was time to come out.
Paris Is Burning changed my life. Willi Ninja changed my life. The producers, director, and entire cast of the film changed my life. I owe every bit of self-confidence I have to seeing those powerfully proud images on the screen. They were people comfortable in their own skin, happy to be alive, and thriving in the world. It didn't matter that they were queer. They were free.
With you in 4/4,