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paris is burning

Here's why Lena Waithe's MTV Award tribute to LGBTQ trailblazers is a must-see

Ru Paul’s drag race was heavily inspired by these trailblazers.

IF LENA WAITHE isn’t on your radar, you gotta get her on it now.

The MET Gala 2018 - New York PA Wire / PA Images PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

Here she is serving face at the 2018 Met Gala!

Waithe is an extremely talented actress and screenwriter, who earlier this year became the first (openly) gay, female person of colour to win an Emmy for comedy writing.

Lena co-wrote an emotional episode for Aziz Ansari’s show ‘Master of None’ which will give you all the feels. The episode follows Waithe’s character as she comes out as gay to her family over multiple Thanksgiving dinners.

lena Netflix Netflix

If you haven’t seen it already, it’s on Netflix and it’s Season 2 Episode 8.

Anyways, the awards keep coming for Waithe, who this week was honoured with a MTV Trailblazer’s Award and gave an AMAZING speech.

It’s a must-see if you’ve ever used the word ‘shade’ or thrown shade yourself.

MTV / YouTube

Lena humbly began by thanking MTV for honouring her as a trailblazer…

According to the dictionary, [a trailblazer] means to be a pioneer or an innovator, and I’m extremely grateful that you guys see me in that light.

She then continued by saying that she only had been given the space to be honoured because of the LGBTQ people who had come before her and broken down social barriers in the face of barbaric and inhumane discrimination:

But, I believe that the only reason that I’m even allowed to stand here is because of a few other trailblazers that some of you might not be aware of.

2018 MTV Movie and TV Awards - Show Matt Sayles Matt Sayles

The trailblazers Waithe was referencing were the queer and transgender (and mostly non-white) people living (or surviving) in Harlem. Their their hopes, their dreams, and the stark realities of their lives were chronicled on the groundbreaking 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning.

Again, if you haven’t already seen it, you need to RIGHT NOW. It’s on Netflix, so no excuse.

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Filmed by Jennie Livingston, the documentary was in equal parts a heartbreaking and hilarious documentary that humanised people who had been deemed as ‘freaks’ and outcasts in society. Most had been thrown out of their houses by their families for trying to live truly to who they were. Society seemed to have no space for them to exist without confirming to expected gender roles.

So out of bare necessity, they carved out their own families and lived together in support.

They created ‘houses’ – a bit like Game of Thrones – so that the founder of the ‘house’ was the Mother, and those that joined the house were their adopted children. Those children then adopted the surname of their mother, so as to give them a sense of belonging.

So for example there was the House of Xtravaganza and LaBeija, and they became your surnames.

Waithe explained that the documentary:

 …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 to give them the glory and the shine they deserve

These outsiders had been named as perverts because of wanting to dress differently to the gender they had been assigned at birth, or because of their sexual preferences.

paris Miramax Miramax

Paris Is Burning was the first time that they were shown as simply humans and not sick monsters.

Celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner would never have been able to transition without them living true to themselves. Megan Fox and Angelina Jolie, who allow their son and daughter respectively to wear any clothes and sport any haircut that they want to, wouldn’t have been able to do without these trailblazers doing it first.

The Breadwinner Premiere - Hollywood Admedia Admedia

Waithe movingly said of the icons of Paris Is Burning (with an easter egg reference to the Stonewall riots):

They strutted through a brick wall so we wouldn’t have to.

Whilst society is slowly more accepting of people not conforming to expected gender roles, the average life expectancy of transgender individuals is still dangerously low due to suicide and anti-transgender violence. One study put the average life expectancy of a trans women of colour in America at 35 years old.

Waithe also acknowledged that those trailblazers were also creative geniuses and performers who came up with their own language and shows (or ‘balls’ as they called them.)

Every time someone says shade or talks about reading or just decides to serve face for no reason at all — look up to the sky and give thanks.

Throwing or saying ‘shade’ or ‘serving face’, phrases used so ubiquitously by our generation and to hilarious comedic effect, originated in these communities.

sahde Miramax Miramax

If you’ve seen any of RuPaul’s drag race, you’ll instantly see how much inspiration was drawn from Paris Is Burning.

We also have Paris Is Burning to thank for one of the biggest catchphrases of the millennium so far. The documentary also popularized the term Queen as a term of empowerment, and ‘Yaaas’ as a term of encouragement.

Together those two became…

yaaaas queen giphy giphy

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