If black culture is the epicenter of popular culture in America, vogue culture is the hypocenter. Having been jacked almost from jump—Madonna is the queen of cultural interloping, and “Vogue,” with its premise scrubbed-clean, may have been her interlopingest moment—it’s easy to see why, despite the scene’s survival for over two decades, the culture has largely remained underground. There is the spectre of homophobia, to be sure, but there’s also an inherent desire for the scene to remain exclusive. It’s difficult to get people to even discuss it; while reporting this story, interviews were repeatedly cancelled, day trips undone. But Lopez and Oliver, who initially had concerns about being misrepresented, also recognize their influence on the mainstream. “Boys that are in the ballroom scene have influenced hip-hop culture in an immense way,” says Lopez. “Things that [straight] boys do now, the queens were doing way back, but they never get credit for it.” And, as usual, it’s the younger generation that has kept ball culture fresh. As hip-hop and street culture begins to glom onto ’90s fashion, borrowing style, ideas and slang from the era, the voguers, with their roots in the actual ’90s, have been developing their own language (“white woman” is a verb that means “doing something a bourgie white woman would do,” “fierce” means “dead” or “not hot,” “done” means “hot”), creating their own music (clanging, dramatic house with a slight Bmore club influence) and innovating the very idea of what gender could, and should, mean.
Being gay and banjee in 2008 is a very different experience than being gay and banjee in 1988, and vogue culture has evolved accordingly. “A lot of people treat Paris is Burning as like, an archetype of gay culture in the same stereotypical way as if you looked at a blaxploitation film and tried to say it was the epitome of all black culture brings to the table,” says Lopez. “It should be credited as the first media that showed it, but like any culture, it metamorphosizes. Culture has changed and it’s not, like, everything. It’s not the only thing that represents a gay male.”