There’s a popular misconception that the gay rights movement sprang into existence, practically fully formed, after the Stonewall Riots in 1969. Sure, Stonewall helped; it was one of the first major LGBTQ+ uprisings to receive national news attention, and it may certainly have lit the spark for the decades of social change to follow. But Queer people have, of course, always existed, and Queer people were living their lives loudly and proudly in the decades leading up to Stonewall. We just don’t often hear their stories. The new documentary P.S. Burn This Letter Please, playing April 8-18th at the Wicked Queer Film Festival, aims to change that.
Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera‘s film chronicles the lives of a group of Queer friends living and working as drag queens and female impersonators in New York City in the 1950s. The doc was inspired by a box of letters discovered in a Los Angeles storage facility, all written from Queer people in NYC to a friend named Reno Martin. The film is about the attempt to piece together the social circle the letters described, interviewing the letter-writers who were still alive and learning about the people who are no longer with us.
The resulting film is a must-watch.
PS. Burn This Letter Please begins with a disclaimer…
At the start of the film, P.S. Burn This Letter Please includes an interesting disclaimer: Archival imagery in this film depicts homosexuals, drag queens and straight people in public and private settings. It should not be inferred by the viewer that all persons shown in these images are homosexuals or drag queens — even if they are in gay clubs, at gay parties or other apparently gay locations and events. They may, in fact, be fabulously heterosexual.
Too often, when we look at historical footage and photographs, there is a presumption of straightness because we don’t often hear an admission of being Queer directly from the people depicted. As Robert Corber, a Professor of American Institutions and Values at Trinity College, says in the documentary of the difficulty of reconstructing Queer history, “We don’t have archives of letters, archives of diaries. What we have are archives of arrest records.” With this disclaimer at the start of the film, P.S. Burn This Letter Please inverts the normal historical process of assuming everyone was straight; here, they want us to keep in mind that it’s going to be easy to presume everyone gay, but there may, in fact, be straight people lurking among them!
It’s a fun, winking opener that sets the tone for the irreverent film to follow.
Changing terms, changing times…
One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is the letters themselves, each offering a small peek into the past. The film uses the letters as interstitials, supplementing the narration provided by the now-elderly former drag queens with in-the-moment reflections on topics like early drag balls and a news-making wig heist from the Metropolitan Opera. By bringing the words of the letter-writers to life, the film provides a glimpse of the Queer subculture of the 1950s and how the people who lived it talked about it then.
And our language has changed since that time! It’s fun to hear how Queer people used to say “it was a camp” rather than “it was campy,” as we would today.
In addition, it’s interesting to listen as the queens discuss the difference between a drag queen, a female mimic, and a female impersonator and why they may have preferred one term over another. All of these things have become somewhat conflated today, but back in the day, according to drag historian Joe E. Jeffreys, “A drag queen was someone who walked the streets in a dress and may have been turning tricks.” Female impersonators, on the other hand, “were artists.”
P.S. Burn This Letter Please is a very funny film, thanks in no small part to the colorful personalities interviewed about the letters they wrote a lifetime ago. However, it’s also a poignant watch; many interviewees become quite emotional when reminiscing about how their lives have changed since they were young and carefree. “We didn’t have any civil rights,” says Henry Arango, who performed as the gorgeous ‘Adrian.’ “But who needed it?”
Then there is, of course, the fact that not all of the letter-writers are still around. In celebrating these still-living pioneers, these living reminders of a Queer history that would be lost if not for the rediscovery of these letters, P.S. Burn This Letter Please takes time to remember those who aren’t still around to interview. In the intervening years since the 1950s, the Queer community has faced a number of trials and tribulations, not least of which was the AIDS epidemic. In many cases, the photographs, letters, and videos provided by the filmmakers are the first time in decades that the queens see their friends who have passed, and it’s a very moving experience.
How to watch P.S. Burn This Letter Please
Boston’s 37th Annual Wicked Queer Film Festival is virtual this year, accessible around the United States. The feature films available during their #GAYPRIL event are streaming from April 8-18th; tickets are available here.