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Paris is Lurking: The Gay Gothic of the 2010s

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Ben Tolman

In the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, black trans woman and drag performer Dorian Corey summarises her own marginality: "Black people have a hard time getting anywhere. And those that do are usually straight."

On Corey's death in 1993, the preserved body of Bobby Worley, who'd been shot in the head, was discovered in her bedroom closet. Police estimates placed at least 15 years between his death and the body's discovery.

Mystery shrouds the circumstances of Worley's death, but for those understanding the particular vulnerability of black trans women to violence, and in light of Worley's prior convictions for rape and assault, it seems unlikely to have been a straightforward murder. American trans people themselves face a murder epidemic: 25 unlawful killings of trans people were counted in 2019, primarily black women. In this context, the mummified corpse of Bobby Worley embodies a deep-seated societal terror of marginalised communities fighting back.

An awareness of this terror perhaps fuels the recent obsession among LGBT artists with gothic aesthetics. A concept central to the gothic horror genre is the "return of the repressed": unutterable social issues, or marginalised and voiceless groups, rise to the fore in sudden, violent rupture. From the light body horror of Azealia Banks' 'Yung Rapunxel' to Arca's evocations of torture and bondage, to horrify is to force engagement.

Hip-hop, itself fundamentally concerned with giving voice to the oppressed, has long shown an affinity for horror aesthetics. Horrorcore, a prominent strain of nineties gangsta rap, produced such legendary collectives as Three 6 Mafia and Gravediggaz. The modern torchbearers of horrorcore, however, are found in the distinctly less macho LGBT underground.

In the cover art for her 2019 record Milf, drag performer and rapper Big Momma eschews the gore and guts of traditional horror rap in favour of a vampiric giallo glamour. Swathed in technicolour red and blue, eye makeup meticulously applied, she clasps a symbolic apple in a gloved hand. Big Momma's chosen bogeymen are not ghosts and ghouls, but embodiments of racist male violence. On 'Jeffrey Dahmer', she invokes the serial rapist and murderer who targeted black gay men. On 2014's The Plague, the track 'Sodomy' bluntly describes sexual abuse suffered by the rapper as a child. No element of the supernatural is needed to elicit chills; merely recounting the violence gender nonconforming children disproportionately suffer is horrifying enough.

Experimental electronic producers have also embraced gay gothic aesthetics. On the title track of Lotic's Heterocetera (2015), Penderecki-like spirals of strings are constructed from samples of 'The Ha Dance', marrying modernist musical and cinematic horror with echoes of Paris Is Burning's ballroom scene. On Angel-Ho's Ascension(2015), the beats sit somewhere between ballroom and ominous, booming industrial, with vocal samples chopped up and reconstituted as demonic glossolalia.

There's a kind of catharsis in embodying the monster one is portrayed as

The aesthetic is so potent as to have crossed into horror film itself. Gaspar Noé's Climax (2018) centres around a nineties French dance troupe largely populated by LGBT people of colour. The influence of the ballroom scene on their moves is heavy: they duck walk, dip, death drop and dance vogue, the style developed from mimicking the poses of fashion models. In the film's opening dance sequence, the angular shapes of vogue become something more monstrous: the limbs of spiders or the contortions of the demonically possessed. The movements are violent, sexual and unified. As a sequinned French flag hangs in the background, they threaten the resurfacing of forces divided and marginalised by French colonialism, patriarchy and capitalism. The glittering hi-NRG soundtrack, Cerrone's 'Supernature', winks at the presence of a gothic supernatural.

There's a kind of catharsis in embodying the monster one is portrayed as. For women like Dorian Corey, a small degree of monstrosity might be necessary: those vulnerable to violence must be prepared to defend themselves. But as broader society continues to fail LGBT people of colour, so the gay gothic continues to threaten rupture.

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