Amplifying underrepresented voices

Identity Is Burning

I am seeking to do a comparative analysis of Disidentifications, Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, written by Jose Esteban Munoz and Paris is Burning, which chronicles the ball room culture of the African American, Latino, Gay, and Transgender communities in 1980’s New York City.

Anthony Whidbee is a Social Problems and Policy/Women and Gender Studies undergraduate based in North Carolina. Instagram: @definitionof


I seek to reference the commonality between the concept of disidentification, as it pertains to the mimicry and performances executed by individuals based on the interpretive categories of the ballroom scene. I am also examining the main concepts of dominant ideology, while applying a reverse perspective. I have chosen to include the oppression of the heteronormative society that we currently live in, prompting minorities to apply the concept of disidentification.

Identity can be interpreted as the conception, qualities, beliefs, and expressions that make a person or group different from others. The concept of cultural identity allows for a person or groups of persons, to build characteristics of the individual. Cultural identity is the identity or feeling of belonging to a group. It is part of a person’s self-conception and self-perception and is related to nationality, ethnicity, religion, social class, generation, locality or any kind of social group that is perceived to have its own distinct culture.

Disidentification is meant to be descriptive of the survival strategies the minority subject practices in order to negotiate a phobic majoritarian public sphere that continuously elides or punishes the existence of subjects who do not conform to the phantasm of normative citizenship. A disidentifying subject is unable to fully identify or to form what is referred to by Sigmund Freud as the “just-as-if.” For some, disidentification is a survival strategy that works within and outside the dominant public sphere simultaneously. Disidentification concerns subjects whose identities are formed in response to the cultural logics of heteronormativity, white supremacy, and misogyny. We thus disidentify with the white ideal. We desire it but we desire it with a difference. The negotiations between desire, identification, and ideology are a part of the important work of disidentificatinon. Disidentification negotiates strategies of resistance within the flux of discourse and power.

Paris is Burning is a 1990 American documentary filmed in the mid to late 1980s. Paris is Burning chronicles the ball room culture of the African America, Latino, Gay, and Transgender communities involved in it, and is a thoughtful exploration of race, class, gender and sexuality in America. The Ballroom scene was born out of queer culture in New York City, and began as drag pageants, which expanded to include categories for various performative performances. Ballroom features elaborately structured ball competitions in which contestants, adhering to a very specific category or theme, are then judged based on the “realness” of their performance.

The events and participation of the ballroom scene offered an escape to everyday life. Queers who represented the minority were not allotted the same progression of their heteronormative counter parts. Queers also needed a place to feel included, a place to feel on top, a place to win, and a place that would recognize and applaud their efforts. I feel as if queers who sought out the ballroom scene chose so, to disidentify themselves from the struggles of everyday society. They weren’t seen as equals at home, work, or dealing with everyday trials and tribulations so they created a place to escape. Disidentification can be understood as a way of shuffling back and forth between reception and production. Disidentification is the branch of knowledge that deals with the interpretational performance of decoding mass, high, or any other cultural field from the perspective of a minority subject who is disempowered in such a representational hierarchy. The performance, mimicry, and interpretation of specific categories brought forth by the ballroom scene equates to the Pecheuxian Paradigm of ideology.

Ideology is the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence. Disidentification is the third mode of dealing with dominant ideology, one that neither opts to assimilate within such a structure nor strictly opposes it, rather, disidentification is a strategy that works on and against dominant ideology. By properly mimicking, performing and executing ones role in a specific category during a ballroom competition, one chooses not to buckle under the pressures of dominant identification or attempt to break free from its inescapable sphere.

Through executing ones performance you offer a strategy that tries to transform a cultural logic from within. “The category is Executive Realness.” In real life, you can’t get a job as an executive unless you have the educational background and the opportunity. The fact that you are not an executive is merely because of the social standing of life. You’re not really an executive, but you’re looking like an executive. Therefore, you’re showing the straight world that I can be an executive. If I was offered the opportunity, I could be an executive, which is a fulfillment.

Dorian Pepper Labeija, Legendary Mother of the House of Labeija describes a day in his shoes in this society. “When you’re a man and a woman, you can do anything. You can…. You can almost have sex on the streets if you want to. The most somebody’s gonna say is, ‘Hey, get a hump for me,’ You know? But when you’re gay, you monitor everything you do. You monitor how you look, how you dress, how you talk, how you act. Do they see me? What do they think of me?” Disidentification is a performative mode of tactical recognition that various  minoritarian subjects employ in an effort to resist the oppressive and normalizing discourse of dominant ideology. It is a reforming of self within the social. It is a third term that resists the binary of identification. “The category is Realness.” This idea of disidentification registers to me as the art of passing, and or the idea of realness. Passing is the ability of a person to be regarded as a member of any identity group or category that differs from their own. To be able to blend, that’s what realness is – if you can pass the untrained eye, or even the trained eye, and not give away the fact that you are gay.

The idea of realness is to look as much as possible like your straight counterpart. A person who can pass gives the society they live in what they want to see, without any questions asked. Passing allows you to push past the prejudices that correlate with your life and your lifestyle. You are able to walk around comfortably, blending in with everybody else. You’ve erased all the mistakes, all the flaws, all the giveaways, to make your illusion perfect.

There was a statement made by Pepper Labeija that immediately brought my attention back to one of the three modes of subject construction by ideological practices. The statement of the dream that Pepper and so many other characters were searching for prompted me to think: are hopes and dreams classified as “Bad Subject” of ideology? “I’d always see the way people lived and I’d feel it more, you know, it would slap me in the face. I’d say “I have to have that.” “I never felt comfortable being poor. I just don’t, even middle class doesn’t suit me.” This statement brought my attention to a young transgender woman whom was depicted later on in the film. This character was very passable, she knew the life she was living wasn’t for her and she dreamed of becoming a model. Her room was covered with magazine clippings of models that were being used for decoration. She even attended a model casting call and it honestly seemed as if no one knew. A “Bad Subject,” resists and attempts to reject the images and identificatory sites offered by dominant ideology and proceeds to rebel, to counter identify. A structure that validates the dominant ideology by reinforcing its dominance. Should one who wishes to live the normative lifestyle (even though they have disidentified themselves from the normative society) continue to disidentify themselves? Being transgender means you do not portray the identity that is within, so naturally you will disidentify yourself. But should one still be classified as a “Bad Subject,” once they have become the normative? In the perspective of the transgender community once you have transitioned you are no longer the “Bad Subject,” who imagines themselves outside of ideology. You now have transformed into the “Good Subject,” whom has an easy or magical identification with the dominant culture. Transitioning could be interpreted as finding ones utopia.


Click here to watch Paris Is Burning on Youtube.