Celebrate Brooklyn fest fails to celebrate trans people of color

Celebrate Brooklyn fest fails to celebrate trans people of color

It is a Bric Arts Media-culpa.

A Fort Greene arts organization has promised to completely revise its entertainment lineup for a screening next month of the documentary “Paris is Burning” — which heavily featured transgender people of color as members of Harlem’s ballroom community in the late 1980s — after protesters launched an online campaign objecting to the fact that the event did not include any transgender people, people of color, nor members of the actual ballroom community. The organization openly admitted it screwed up, and promised to do better on its second attempt.

“We have now done what we should have done when we initially planned the event: reached out to [queer and trans people of color] organizations and individuals, and members of the ballroom community, to gain their insights and hear their ideas for the program,” said Bric Arts Media on the Facebook page for the event. “We apologize for not having done so earlier.”

Bric arranged the June 26 screening of the doc as part of its annual Celebrate Brooklyn series of free concerts and films in Prospect Park. The original lineup for the event, set to coincide with Pride Week and the 25th anniversary of the film, was slated to include an introduction by the film’s director Jennie Livingston and a performance by musician JD Samson, both of whom are white and cisgendered. Protestors subsequently inundated the Facebook event page with objections and calls for the screening to be cancelled, and earlier this week, someone launched an online petition demanding that Bric immediately nix the event and apologize to the communities affected, garnering more than 1,000 signatures.

“This is an erasure of our communities which this documentary purports to be representing,” said the lengthy petition on Change.org.

Bric’s inclusion of Samson, best-known as a member of electro-clash band Le Tigre, particularly rankled some protesters, who allege that the she has used language that is offensive to trans people in the past and also performed at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which had a policy of excluding trans women.

“Bric’s descriptor of the event … mixed with JD Samson’s usage of anti-trans-feminine slurs and performing in trans-feminine-phobic music festivals … led to discussions concerning trans-misogyny, misgendering, and marginalization,” said Ashley Love, a trans woman who helped launch the online petition.

Samson announced last Saturday that she was dropping out of the show, claiming that Bric had not told her it was an event for “Paris is Burning.”

“When I found out, I immediately started thinking about the space that I would be taking up and the importance of highlighting the work of queer people of color in the program that night,” Samson wrote in a Facebook post.

Samson wasn’t the only one to distance herself from the tone-deaf lineup. In a Facebook post on Sunday, Livingston claimed she was not involved in the programming — though she said she had previously asked two people who appeared in the film to appear with her on stage, but neither had responded. But she apologized for not making more of an effort to get involved.

“I have heard what many of you have written and realize now that, if they wanted an opening act, it was wrong of me to not to get more involved and make sure the opening act reflected the needs and feelings of the communities the film documents. And to make efforts to reach out to the communities to see what would feel right, or to get Bric to engage in that process,” she wrote in the post. “I truly regret and apologize for not considering how Bric’s final decision could feel to people.”

Bric issued its apology on Wednesday, and said that it would announce a new lineup soon that will include queer and transgender people of color and members of the ballroom community.

“We have continued to learn through our conversations, and we hope that new relationships and partnerships have been seeded and will flourish,” said the organization.

“Paris is Burning” has been the source of plenty of controversy in the past. Livingston released the film in 1990 after spending years documenting New York City’s underground ballroom scene, in which mostly queer black and Latino people compete in dancing and modeling competitions. Some critics have charged Livingston with launching her career off the backs of poor people of color, who they say were not properly compensated for their participation, and were used as titillation for a white, non-queer audience. Several of the film’s subjects planned on suing Livingston, but ultimately couldn’t mount cases because they had signed release forms, according to the New York Times. Livingston, who won numerous awards for her doc including the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, eventually split $55,000 among 13 of the performers, which she said was the plan all along.

Celebrate Brooklyn kicks off on June 3 with a performance by funk legend Chaka Khan.

Reach reporter Danielle Furfaro at dfurfaro@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2511. Follow her at twitter.com/DanielleFurfaro.