May 9, 2019

#41 What It Looks Like

by Reply All

Background show artwork for Reply All

Jamie Keiles is a writer who decided to photograph something that’s usually invisible. Plus, PJ discovers the secret code he’s accidentally been speaking, and learns about the people who created it.

If you’re feeling depressed or want to talk to someone, here are some resources:

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - 1800-273-8255 (1800-273-TALK) The Crisis Text Line 7 Cups of Tea (an anonymous, 24-hour chat with trained professionals) Depression Tribe (a site with blogs, forums, and news)  

Further Reading

Jamie Keiles on her depressiongrams.  

Website of Jennie Livingston, Director of Paris is Burning

#41 What It Looks Like originally aired on October 4, 2015 and #69 Disappeared aired on July 7, 2016.


PJ VOGT: Alex.


PJ: So, this week we are rebroadcasting one of our old favorite episodes. Before we do that, I want to talk about something.

ALEX: That always makes me a little nervous.

PJ: You're not in trouble.

ALEX: Okay, that makes me less nervous.

PJ: I'm in trouble. So do you remember a few years ago, uh, we invented a holiday?

ALEX: Yes (laughs), yes Email Debt Forgiveness Day.

PJ: So, if there was an email that you neglected to send usually because of like uh it was in some way emotionally taxing and you put it off you, put it off, and you felt bad about and you feel like it became too late to send the email and it was just like haunting you.

ALEX: Right.

PJ: There was one day a year where you could send the email and the recipient had to receive it as if it had been a prompt reply.

ALEX: Right, all of the emotional debt that accrued would be wiped away on April 30th.

PJ: For me, it did not completely solve the problem (ALEX: laughs) If anything I just started to dread Email Debt Forgiveness Day because it was like I don't know if this is true or not but in my mind it became a thing where I was like well since I came up with it-

ALEX: You have a special obligation to actually utilize it.

PJ: Yeah, instead of imagining people being angry at me for not sending emails I would imagine them being angry at me for not saying me emails and then additionally angry at me because on Email Debt Forgiveness Day I was also not sending emails so you may have noticed Email Debt Forgiveness Day came and went with not a peep from us

ALEX: And there is a certain type of anxiety that you have that I have learned over our almost decade of working together not to push on (PJ: laughs). Someone said something like maybe we should do an Email Debt Forgiveness Day thing this year and you were like, “ugh no we will not be doing that.”

PJ: Hahaha.

ALEX: It sounded like a person who was petrified.

PJ: Yes. That is what it was. So I have a new idea.

ALEX: Hahaha. Are you canceling your own holiday?

PJ: No, no, and I think this new idea unlike the old idea will solve everything. Here's the new thing. Email Debt Forgiveness Day remains April 30th, but is also the last day of every single month.

ALEX: What is this meant to solve?

PJ: We get so many emails from people who are like- it'll be like May 2nd they're like, “Oh my God.” I missed Email Debt Forgiveness. They got to wait a whole year. I feel like while maybe it's too late for me. This could help other people like trash day can be every week. Like it's just an opportunity to get rid of all the garbage that's haunting you or not.

ALEX: You effectively want to make it like a monthly cleaning?

PJ: Yes.

ALEX: I mean I have no problem with that. So what how do you get the people who are supposed to be forgiving you to buy into this?

PJ: We change the website. Okay. I don't know how to do this. But I feel like you know how to do this. We change the website so that it auto displays the date of email that Email Debt Forgiveness Day as last day of whatever month it is.

ALEX: That's pretty devious.

PJ: Right?

ALEX: That's pretty devious.

PJ: Okay, so then it is ordained.

ALEX: (laughs) I mean, I am nuns forth. I'm not the minister of Email Debt Forgiveness Day.

PJ: Email Debt Forgiveness Day last day of every single month. Okay. So that's you know, Email Debt Forgiveness Day here's the show.

PJ: Hey, uh quick warning before we start the show this episode covers depression and suicide, if that's something you don't want to hear this is a good one to skip.

PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, this is Reply All, I’m PJ Vogt. Jamie Keiles has had depression for most of her life, but it got really bad a couple years ago, when she was in college. She was diagnosed as bipolar, and around that time, she started thinking about suicide. She pictured hanging herself. Jamie’s a writer, and she’s used to processing her life through her work. But when her friends told her to try writing about the depression she was going through, it just made her really mad.

JAMIE KEILES: It's like, “Other people who were depressed wrote great novels, but all you do is lay around and like watch “Law & Order.”” I don't know. I guess it’s because I was in college and I was like in a creative writing program. People would be like, “David Foster Wallace should be your icon. Like he was so depressed and he wrote “Infinite Jest” and that's a long-ass book.” Like, I couldn't even like -

PJ: Just be like one of the greatest American writers. That will get you out of it.

JAMIE: Yeah. It's like if you're not producing art you're somehow you're failing at being a fuckup in some way.

PJ: It sucked. Her world felt like it was shrinking. She couldn’t produce art. She didn’t want to see her friends. She was absolutely sure that she was going to kill herself. But for whatever reason, she still found herself able to post mundane Instagram updates.

PJ: Do you mind, can you just turn your phone on and pull up your Instagram and describe a few pictures from this era?

JAMIE: Yeah, yeah, let me grab my phone. Alright. Scrolling, scrolling, scrolling... This is just a picture of me, it's from 78 weeks ago, it's half my face, like it’s like, my face is half in the picture, and I'm really pale and my hair looks really bad and I'm against a white wall. So it's like my skin is almost as pale as the wall and I'm frowning so I look really like, what's the word like, I have like a pallor. And the caption is just, "Can't sleep." And then 19 people liked it so I would say this is a more successful depressiongram.

PJ: Depressiongrams. I find these pictures really fascinating. Because in my experience, when somebody gets depressed, it means they’re feeling this deep pain that is mostly internal and invisible to everyone else. Jamie’s photos are actual pictures of depression in all its brutal monotony. These are not super artful photographs. There’s one depressiongram that’s just a line of prescription bottles arranged on a cluttered formica countertop. And then there are a bunch of photos that are just her computer screen: You see an online order for an anti-depression lamp. Facebook chats about Elliott Smith. There are cheerless selfies, one of them shows the top half of Jamie’s face in a bath, her eyes look blank, she’s floating above gray green water.

PJ: Did you put a filter on that to make it more like, funereal?

JAMIE: Yeah, I mean I think I definitely wanted, I was definitely into things being kind of like dark and obscure or like really like sickly washed out surreal, so I think there's definitely a look I was going for.

PJ: Yeah.

JAMIE: Like, whatever the opposite of like a sun flooded brunch table is, that's like the filter for depression.

PJ: A story starts to emerge from Jamie’s photos. New prescriptions and therapy workbooks appear. She gets a dog, a very cute one, to try and make herself leave the house.

JAMIE: Well then here's kind of like a happier one in a way, it's from 83 weeks ago, and the geotag is IOP because I was in like an intensive outpatient program in Chicago after I got out of the psychiatric hospital. And it's sort of like, I'm in a sweater and I'm wearing a hat, and I look sort of like pajama-y but in a very like cozy way. And I'm just kinda trying to smile but it's not like a smile, it's sort of like a, my eyes are closed, it's sort of like a wacky face. But definitely more on the pleasant side and the caption is, "Therapy all day every day literally," and then the hashtag is "recovery." And then someone commented, "I hope you're okay," and I sent back, "Yeah, I'm okay now, just dealing with #life, thanks for caring, emoji with heart eyes." And then she responded, "Glad to hear you're getting help and taking care of yourself," and the person is like an internet stranger that I guess I've been in touch with… But I went back to the psychiatric hospital after this, but things seemed promising in this moment.

PJ: She's doing a good job of sort of, you're expressing something real with a little bit of irony laced through it, like saying #recovery feels like, at least to me.

JAMIE: Yeah.

PJ: And she's doing a nice job of just hearing the thing you're actually saying. And just like responding to that. You know what I mean, like she's like totally unjokey and straightforwardly like, "I hope you're okay."

JAMIE: Yeah, and it was nice cuz it wasn't so like doting, like I hate when people would be like, "Rooting for you!" or like "You're gonna kill em this time!" Something that’s like too aggressive in its optimism. Like this was just very much like, "Hope you're okay."

PJ: One of the depressiongrams I keep looking at is just a close-up shot Jamie took of the weekly schedule that her Mom printed out for her. The photo’s framed pretty haphazardly, you feel like you’re kind of taking a sidelong glance at something, you can’t even see the whole piece of paper. But in Times New Roman it lays out a very simple Tuesday. Shower. Put on Clean Clothes. Take Medicine. Walk Dog. Walk Dog. Walk Dog. I look at it and I feel the thing that depression does to people, how it drains you of your energy, how it makes simple things like getting out of bed feel ambitious bordering on impossible. Jamie’s dog eventually stops appearing in the pictures. She couldn’t take care of it, she had to give it away..

JAMIE: When we tell stories about depression in general, we always try to fit them into this formulaic triumph narrative, where it's like I was sad and I got better and my life is so much better and then I won a prize for a thing that I cared about or something like that. My thoughts on this are really just to say that people are sad and they don't disappear from life.

PJ: It can feel like depressed people disappear. The people who experience depression often don’t talk about it, often they can’t. And not everyone who sees that world survives. When I was 18, my strongest, smartest friend, the one everybody I knew in high school most admired, she got depressed. Her depression got worse in college, just like Jamie’s did. My friend took some time off from school, went home to Philly. I saw her in October, and I remember just looking for some sign that she wasn’t herself anymore, but she seemed OK. She seemed like her. And then, on December 6th, she hanged herself. I found out on the phone that night, and I flew home the next day. I made it to the hospital a little bit before midnight and I said goodbye just before they took her off life support.

My friend left a suicide note and I copied the note down, word for word, because it felt like it was a code I could solve. The note was about the day we’d graduated high school. I had been with her that day and I remembered it because we’d driven by the scene of a car accident together. My friend kept a pair of surgical gloves in her purse, because earlier that year she’d skipped our senior prom in order to take a first responder class, and she always wanted to be ready, in case there was somebody who was hurt who she could help. So we stopped the car, and she got out, and she tended to the two boys who had crashed. They were alright, they were just in shock. When the paramedics showed up, they complimented my friend, and then that was it. We drove off. But in her suicide note, she wrote about how that day had stuck with her. She said that she couldn’t help anyone as much as she wanted to, and that she’d gotten lost in her head. She expected we’d all be mad at her, and she said she was sorry. And that was it.

I remember sitting in her bedroom after she died. I felt like there should be some evidence of how she’d felt, of what had gone wrong, but there was nothing. It was so tidy. I went online and found what little pieces of her existed on the internet and I saved them on a folder on my computer. And then I would return to that folder over and over again, late at night when I couldn’t sleep. I don’t know what I was doing. I know that I spent a long time feeling numb, and very gray, and when I would open the folder, if nothing else I would feel sad, and feeling sad felt better. It was a sharp feeling that cut through the numbness. Whatever I was doing, it felt important, even if I didn’t know why. In retrospect, it seems clear that I was just compulsively returning over and over to the saddest thing I knew, which is something depressed people often do.

JAMIE: You kind of ruminate in a circle where you think if you can think about your depression hard enough, that you could some way think your way out of it. So then you're in this constant thing where you're like thinking through the same cycle of ideas, and even if you recognize that there's like, some chemical element to it, or that maybe getting out of your depression would require some lifestyle changes, I think part of the disease of depression is that you just ruminate in a circle like, if I could just figure out why I'm sad then I could become less sad, then I would be happier but I have to keep thinking about why I'm sad, and it just like, you get more entrenched in the depression which makes it harder to get less depressed.

PJ: For most of my twenties, I thought about killing myself. Often. Had I told anybody, they would have told me that that symptom of depression. But I never made that connection. I was hunting this thing that had taken my friend away, Depression, and I was wondering what it looked like, how I could understand it, completely unaware that it was in me. For all that time I just thought that everyone’s brain was like that. The same way I genuinely can’t imagine that anyone doesn’t always kinda want to be eating potato chips, I also just thought that anybody’s brain, faced with a sufficiently difficult problem, would suggest that one easy solution would be just dying. I just figured people learned to ignore that voice, no matter how insistent it got, no matter how loud. And then a friend of mine gently suggested that this was actually unusual, and I got a therapist, and I got medication, and now that does seem unusual. It seems hard to imagine. Which is really nice.

JAMIE: When I was depressed, and I think a lot of depressed people share this, I really didn't believe that anyone was happy.

PJ: Yeah.

JAMIE: And I believed that people that were happy were faking it for attention.

PJ: Yeah.

JAMIE: So when someone would post like a picture of a sunset and be like, "So grateful for this day," I would be like, "So grateful I'm not you, ugh." So sometimes I think, like I'll be walking down the street and I'll see a flower and I'll be like, "Man, I should Instagram this flower and be like, “Grateful for this lovely morning,”" but then I think, "Ugh, a person that was like how I used to be would see that and be like you sack of shit, get off Instagram."

PJ: Yeah.

JAMIE: It just sounds like so corny, or just like delusional, I don't know.

PJ: So instead of looking at pictures of other people’s brunches, Jamie says when she was depressed, she’d go online and find really sad stuff to look at. She’d lurk Instagram hashtags populated by teenagers who had accidentally gotten pregnant. Or she’d search this one called junkie fam--

JAMIE: It was like people in active heroin addiction that would post pictures of heroin but also pictures of themselves going to rehab, I definitely followed it for like a full year.

PJ: One of the things I realized with you talking about that is that, kind of the world of depressed people and the world of not depressed people, they don't have a lot to say to each other. Depressed people can make undepressed people feel like kind of put upon and exhausted, and undepressed people can make depressed people feel exasperated, and like they're phony and annoying, and part of the problem of, sort of for lack of a better way to put this, how to be depressed online is that those worlds don't mix well.

JAMIE: Yeah, no I totally agree, as someone that's happy now and was once very sad, I can't have any of my feeds populated with people that are just like chronically unhappy. And when I was depressed, I really couldn't have my feeds populated with people who were like chronically happy. Like, I think there is something to be said about like, building the online universe that serves your needs in the moment. To some degree it's like, you gotta let in, you have to let people into your life that bring out the things that you want to be brought out in you. So when you're depressed, you want sad people in your life, when you're happy, you want happy people in your life.

PJ: I think it actually goes even deeper than that. I can barely remember what being depressed felt like, or what I did when I was depressed. It’s just this gray streak. I could tell you I remember wanting to be in bed a lot. I didn’t sleep much. And the song “Long December” sounded better than it does now. And that’s pretty much it. Which is good—forgetting pain is what lets people move on. But that forgetting means that once you leave depression, it immediately becomes clouded over and hard to see. Jamie’s pictures help see it, and it still feels really important to try to see it. When my friend died, she left me with a lot of memories, but there’s 3 I still obsess over. The car accident in June, the time I saw her happy, in October, and then the hospital bed in December. A lot happened in between that that I’m never going to understand. Instead, I get older, and life keeps happening, and I think about everything she’s missing out on. There is so much of life that is just unimaginable where you’re 18. And it makes me furious.

But that is the last really good thing about Jamie’s feed. Because Jamie’s feed also shows you how life can turn out for someone when things get better and they stick around. She’s 23 now, and she’s on a road trip. She wants to report on one of the last Blockbuster video stores in America, so she’s driving from New York to El Paso to do it. And the world that Jamie shows you in her feed post-depression looks completely different. Like the photos look different. They’re bright. They’re outside. They have colors in them. They have other people in them. A few days ago she posted one from Nickelodeon Studios, where her and her friend were covered in that green nickelodeon slime, wearing goggles and just mugging with cheesy abandon. Then it’s nighttime, and she’s in Alabama, under a palm tree in a parking lot. Last time I checked, she was in in New Orleans. She says she still has 1,092 miles to go.

ALEX GOLDMAN: If you’re feeling depressed or you just wanna talk to someone, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. That number will be on our website, along with other resources, like the Crisis Textline, and some online communities that have more people you can talk to. There’s more after the break, so stick around.


PJ: So, uh, regular listeners to the show know that we have this segment called Yes Yes No where we explain confusing things from the internet to our boss Alex Blumberg. And the unspoken premise, of course, of Yes Yes No, is that Alex Goldman and I are, like, extremely with it people who are smart and relevant and know everything there is to know about culture. Otherwise, why would we be experts?

OK. So, last episode, Yes Yes No, we were looking at a tweet that Blumberg didn’t understand, and he was specifically confused by this word he didn’t recognize, “Yas.”

ALEX GOLDMAN: So, then, “Yas,” Y-a-s ... Do you want to take this one?

PJ: It’s just like, an emphatic--

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, it’s just like--

PJ: Yeah.


PJ: Yasss!

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh-huh. Right.

PJ: And then we moved on. We just missed this huge story about where the word came from. We were three straight white guys sitting in a room talking about something that, it turns out, we knew basically nothing about.

To everybody who heard this and cringed and wanted to their punch their iPhones, I’m sorry. For people who are just as ignorant about where the word "yas" comes from as I was, good news--the story of how this word got here is so fascinating.

Alright, so let’s work backwards. So, probably the biggest reason that mainstream culture knows yas right now is because on the show Broad City, they say it all the time. There’s actually a scene where Ilana Glazer teaches her best friend how to say it.

ILANA GLAZER: Yas queen.



ABBY: Yes, queen?


ABBY: Yas queen!



ILANA: (slaps Abby) Again!

ABBY: Oww!


ABBY: YAS queen!

PJ: But yas isn’t from Broad City. Ilana Glazer says she got it from this viral video of a 22-year-old Lady Gaga fan.

[Audio from Instagram video from user johnnyversayce. Lots of people are yelling in the background]


PJ: So Ilana gives THAT guy credit for "yas." And so do a lot of people. But ... the website interviewed him, and he went out of his way to say that it wasn’t his. He said quote, "It's something we just said naturally, I was saying yaaass with everyone else." So that “we” there is really important. Because that “we” is gay people. "Yas" comes from Gay culture. Which still isn’t an answer--like, when, who, how? Where, specifically, did this thing start?

So when I got home from work, my girlfriend was just like, “You idiot, I can not believe you don’t where ‘yas’ is from.” She told me, just go watch this documentary filmed in the 80s called Paris is Burning, and I’d see. So I watched it. And holy crap, I saw.

[Paris is Burning clip: dance music, cheering]

PJ: So, "yas" is literally right there in the opening scene. This beautiful, golden drag queen struts out in front of an adoring crowd and they’re all yelling it.

So I went in with, basically, a trivia question. And instead, I found a story about people. People who were in an extremely dire situation. And who responded to that situation by making something very beautiful. And weirdly, the fact that a lot of us don’t know this, that's part of the story--it's actually part of the tragedy of the story.

So, to understand what you’re about to hear, you just need to know a little bit about Paris Is Burning, this documentary. Here’s the setup for the movie.

It’s the 1980s, and there are these late-night parties happening in Harlem. The parties are thrown by young, queer black & latinx people. And they’re called balls. At the balls, there were prizes given to the most fabulous drag queens. But there’re also these other prizes.

People competed to see who could dress up and do the best impression of just like normal, archetypical people who they’d see on the street. Like who- who’s the best, like, “cute girl who picks up her brother from school,” or the best, like, “tough guy outside the party who’s gonna mug you when you leave”? Or the best, like, “Wall Street guys”?

[Paris is Burning clip: dance music]

FILM MC: Get into their suits, I said. The well-dressed men of the 80’s--get into the suits and get into the pumps.

PJ: So, the MC does this big announcement, and out walks this man who is just dressed like a lawyer. He’s got a three-piece grey suit, he’s got a briefcase. He walks to one side of the room, he walks to the other. And there’s an audience of people studying him.

And the goal for this guy is to be “real.” And if he’s “real,” it means he “passes.” He could walk around in straight society and nobody would know that he was queer. Like, he could get on the subway and nobody would beat him up. But that’s not exactly why they do it. In the movie, this drag queen named Dorian Corey explains.

DORIAN COREY: Black people have a hard time getting anywhere ... and those that do are usually straight. In a ballroom, you can be anything you want. You’re not really an executive but you’re looking like an executive. And therefore, you’re showing the straight world that, “I can be an executive.”

PJ: I actually got to talk to somebody who was there back then. His name’s Jose Xtravaganza, He’s 44 now. He came by the studio and he told me about the first time he ever went to a ball.

JOSE XTRAVAGANZA: I was 15 years old, and I was jus- I stood there the whole time with my mou- mouth open. The cheering and ... all this creativeness--making something out of nothing. You know? It’s like, “How did you do that? What…" All the time and energy they put into these things just to go there and get a--acknowledged, t- a- for someone to tell me, “Oh, yes, you are fabulous.” That’s it, that’s all you get. You weren’t getting a big prize, you know?

PJ: Yeah.

JOSE: You weren’t going to be able to use it as a school credit.

PJ: (laughs)

JOSE: You know, as a class credit. You know? It was your 15 minutes to feel good.

PJ: All this work and all this creativity just for the benefit of the people who were there that night.

But a lot of this culture has stuck around, particularly the language. So, obviously at the balls, you hear a lot of people saying “YAS,” but there’s also these other words that I’m used to thinking of as internet language that COMES from there. That you hear in the movie. So for instance, “reading.” See it on the internet all the time. If someone gets “read,” it means they got criticized. If somebody’s “reading” somebody, they’re, like, criticizing them in very fine detail. That comes from the balls.

[Paris is Burning clip]

VENUS XTRAVAGANZA: Now, you want to talk about reading...let’s talk about reading.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That's just [indistinct]

FREDDY PENDAVIS: What? She wears more makeup than my mother did.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (sound of loud disagreement)

PJ: Or “shade.” Everybody on the internet is always “throwing shade,” “being shady,” getting “shaded.”

[Paris is Burning clip]

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON 2: Oo, they're shady! They're throwing shade at him! I can't believe this!

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON 3: Wait a minute, wait a minute…)

PJ: I thought I knew what that meant. I thought it was one more synonym for criticizing somebody. But in the movie, Dorian Corey explains that "shading"s more subtle than that.

[Paris is Burning clip]

DORIAN COREY: Shade is, "I don't tell you you're ugly, but ... I don't have to tell you because you know you're ugly." And that's shade.

PJ: Another thing that straight culture took from the ball scene was vogueing. Jose actually became really famous because Madonna hired him to teach her how to vogue and to go on tour with her and be one of her dancers. Actually, the very first time he competed at a ball, it was in the vogue category, because that was his thing.

JOSE: I went, and I went with a group of friends. And ... I wanted to walk. I didn’t tell anybody though that I was gonna compete. I was so afraid. And when they called the category, I remember that … going out there and just voguing at the speed of light.

PJ: (laughs)

JOSE: And you see that a bit in Paris is Burning. There’s a clip of it.

PJ: Yeah.

JOSE: Yeah.

PJ: Wait, that’s your first one?

JOSE: That’s my first ball--yeah, the little kid that’s, like, moving on the floor.

PJ: Oh my gosh!

JOSE: Yeah, and they’re asking him, “What is your name? What is your--” I didn’t even hear that. I didn’t even hear nothing. And that was my first ball and I won. And that night, they asked me to be part of the House of Xtravaganza.

PJ: The House of Xtravaganza. So, houses were like families, but like non-biological families. And getting asked to join a House was a big deal. Because a lot of the kids who showed up at these balls were homeless. They’d left or they’d been kicked out of abusive homes. And so they were just sleeping outside on the piers in New York.

But if you went to the ball and you were good, somebody would ask you to join their House. Your last name became your house’s name--that’s why Jose is Jose Xtravaganaza. And the people in the House would actually take care of you. Like, you had a place to sleep if you needed it, you had food--Jose actually got an allowance from his House. The House even had people who were like, the mother of the House and the father of the House. Jose is now the father of House Xtravganza, but back then the father was this guy named Danny.

JOSE: I remember going over to, uh, Danny Xtravaganza, who uh, may he rest--he passed away early on. And I remember I would just go to his house every day, and I would--every time I would come visit, there would be, like, sleeping bags, and, like, people on the floor. And- and, like, people waking up and somebody coming out of the bathroom. And I’m like, “Who are these people? I want to be here. I want a sleeping bag too.”

PJ: Ohh…

JOSE: You know? Yeah, it was the best feeling. That feeling of like, a un- a unit. It was a unit. And, um, yeah. And then, of course, like, I lost a lot of them to, you know, AIDS and stuff like that, you know? But … they’re with me. So.

PJ: Do you have people, like, do you have people on your floor right now? Like, do you have kids in sleeping bags and stuff like that?

JOSE: (laughing) No ... not at the moment. But I had - I had a k- uh, a girl who just had a sex change, a little one. Yeah. She just went through a very big transition. And didn’t know how to feel. So she came over my house. (inhales) Yeah, and just--can you imagine? Just having this big procedure done, no parents, parents, you know, because … and no one there to be like--to hold your hand ...That’s horrible!

PJ: It’s so much responsibility.

JOSE: Yeah, it is, but it’s responsibility that you feel is - is--is good responsibility. It’s - it’s like I know that I’ve made a difference in this young girl’s life. She really looks to me like a father. I see it in her eyes.

PJ: Yeah.

JOSE: And I’ve given you nothing, 'cause I really don’t have anything.

PJ: It’s also, I don’t know, like, as someone whose outside of it, the fact that you can like ... just make family, is--you know what I mean?

JOSE: Mmm. It’s the best.

PJ: It’s just like, "You have a bad family, fuck it." Like ...

JOSE: Exactly that. (tearing up) And it feels so good and … I’m just an emotional dude, that’s all.

PJ: No …

JOSE: (laughing) I’m sorry.

PJ: No, that’s fine.

JOSE: Yeah. (gently crying) And when I got asked to be the father, it was in a very ... hard time. You know? I’m 18, 19 years old, you know? All my friends are dying. And it’s funny, 'cause I’d never met anyone else like them. You know how you always meet people, “Oh you remind me of this person.” These guys were so ahead of everything ... geniuses. I miss them every day, it’s crazy.

PJ: So that’s where "yas" comes from. Those people who are gone, they’re the ones who came up with it. So what does it mean then? What does it mean to take something from them and not know it?

A lot of the people from Paris is Burning are now dead.

The places they used to dance are gone. The piers where they used to sleep, there’s a golf course there now. And the really bitter irony is that while they’re gone, their language is so present, their fashion is so present. And that means that people like me, straight people, we use the things they invented without knowing the story of the people who invented them.

Sruthi was producing this interview, so she was sitting in the room.

SRUTHI PINNAMANENI: I- I think it also makes so much more sense, like, hearing this, that - that y- you feel that anger or frustration when you see words like “shady”--

JOSE: Uh-huh.

SRUTHI: --being thrown around, because it’s not just words that are being taken, it’s like--

JOSE: It’s a culture--

SRUTHI --these are

JOSE: --feelings and, yeah.

SRUTHI: --the people who made these words.

JOSE: Mhmm.

SRUTHI: Like, the people you’re talking about, the people you miss.

JOSE: Mhmm.

SRUTHI: It’s like, it’s them.

JOSE: A-huh and it was kind of like code. It was--we were speaking code. You know? For no one else to understand us, just us. You know? It was our code against society, so to speak, you know? (sniffs) … Ah. Have you ever been to a ball?

PJ: No.

JOSE: You have to go.

PJ: What--

JOSE: July 30th. We have to go, they’re giving me an award.

PJ: I’ll- absolutely!

JOSE: Yeah.

PJ: What--

JOSE: The Latex Ball.

PJ: What’s that?

JOSE: The Latex Ball.

PJ: The Latex Ball. Where is it?

JOSE: They’re having it at, uh, Stage 48.


JOSE: Yeah.

PJ: How do we dress?

SRUTHI: (laughs)

JOSE: However you want.


JOSE: Unless you want to come--you want to come in a fabulous, bizarre outfit.

PJ: I jus--

JOSE: And we bring you out to the stage.

PJ: I want to fit in and not stand out.

JOSE: You’ll fit in just fine. You’ll--


JOSE: --be fine. It’ll be fun. Yeah.

PJ: Absolutely.

PJ: Jose Xtravaganza. Father of the House of Xtravaganza.

Reply All is me, PJ Vogt, and Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Chloe Prasinos, and Damiano Marchetti. Our executive producer is Tim Howard. He's on vacation this week, so he can't tell me not to tell you to go listen to his band Soltero. My favorite song is "Fight Song for True Love." Production assistance from Thom Cote. We were edited by Peter Clowney and mixed by Rick Kwan.

Special thanks to Jennie Livingston for letting us use clips from her documentary Paris is Burning. You can find out about 25th anniversary screenings of the film at her website There's also information about her new film project Earth Camp One. Thank you Lola Pellegrino for telling me I was dumb and made me watch it.

Our theme music is from the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings.

Matt Lieber is the smoke from fireworks.

And finally, thank you so much to every person who emailed or tweeted or just got in touch with us and told us that we screwed up.

Please always tell us when we screw up. We really appreciate it. Thanks for listening to show will have a new episode for you guys in two weeks.