OCTAVIA ST. LAURENT has been written in history as not only one of the pioneers of the Ballroom community, but also as a transgender individual whose activism in the LGBT community helped to pave a way for our generation to stand in the light.
Octavia began her reign when she was born on March 16, 1964. She allowed her life to represent the existence of human nature; the ability to be recognized beyond race, class, gender or sexuality. It was her internal passion and external beauty that secured her position as one of the leading stars in Jennie Livingston’s seminal, 1990 ballroom documentary, Paris Is Burning. Octavia easily became the central focus of the film, as she declared to live a life that was framed by love and painted with opportunity. Octavia aspired to become a mainstream model. She wanted to conquer the obstacles and struggles that were placed upon gay blacks during the 1970’s, 1980’s and early 1990’s. In many of the Paris Is Burning clips that focused on her life journey between 1987 and 1989, Octavia challenged herself to become what she labeled, ‘a rich somebody’. Being a victim of the prejudice and persecution that existed heavily during her young, adult life, Octavia declared that it wasn’t necessarily the money she desired, as it was the comforts and opportunities that came with being wealthy.
I began studying the life of Octavia St. Laurent in the fall of 2008. I had become familiar with her through my viewings of Paris Is Burning in the spring of 2004.
However, it wasn’t until I listened to Octavia’s final interview with Tom Blumenthal in November 2008, that I realized just how significant Octavia is to the LGBT experience. I listened to the interview on my cell phone during a chilly, evening in Los Angeles, California. I was walking from my job in Santa Monica to catch the subway on Hollywood Blvd.
LISTEN TO OCTAVIA’S FINAL INTERVIEW BELOW:
It was a little after 6pm on the west coast, as Tom Blumenthal’s online radio show aired on the east coast from 9pm-11pm. Octavia was scheduled as the first guest of the evening, for she was battling brain and lung cancer. She had to go to bed at a certain hour, but still agreed to appear and share her struggles and triumphs with all of Tom’s listeners. No one knew that November 17, 2008 would be the final time that Octavia would be granted an opportunity to share her life publicly. She passed away six months later on May 17, 2009. Octavia was only 45 years old.
I had just sat in front of my computer to begin my daily blogging regime when I received the news of her death. The New York Times released a story about Octavia’s passing, that was then picked up by all of the veteran, LGBT bloggers, as well as the ballroom press circuit. I was deeply saddened and rather shocked, for I had just begun at this point to read about this woman’s journey, as well as watch her in every piece of archived footage that I could find. I had become rather fixated on the fact that a transgender woman had become this larger-than-life figure who everyone seemed to love and adore. I focused so intensely on Octavia for several reasons.
Octavia, just like the popular transgender, Amiyah Scott, wasn’t shy about acknowledging the fact that she was born as a male. Octavia, unlike many transgender women, also shared her childhood pictures publicly. Additionally, Octavia acknowledged her birth name; Jeffrey. When Octavia started walking balls in 1982, she became a part of a community that descended from the Harlem Drag Scene. That era was heavily populated by white men dressed in women’s garb. They are the ones who received the trophies, cash and accolades for their on stage performances. Blacks weren’t given the credit or fair opportunities to showcase their talents and stand center stage as the winner or top prize recipient during these years. As a result, Legendary Mother, Crystal Labeija, started the House Of Labeija; opening the door for young, transgender women like Octavia to exist in the spotlight.
Octavia rose to national stardom at the age of 26 when Paris Is Burning was released. However, she also went on to appear alongside Danny Glover and Matt Dillon in the box office smash, The Saint Of Fort Washington. Octavia starred as a prostitute in the 1993 feature. She was 29 years old at the time. Years later, Octavia appeared on The Maury Povich Show to shed light on the presence of transgender women in mainstream society. She spoke candidly about who she was and the challenges she faced dating heterosexual men, as well as interacting with other, heterosexual women. Before succumbing to her illness in the spring of 2009, Octavia completed production for Wolfgang Busch’s follow up to Paris Is Burning; How Do I Look? In the contemporary film that highlights modern, ballroom culture, Octavia openly shares her battle with drugs, escorting and fighting the demons of her life.
Yesterday, for the first time since 2008, I listened to Octavia’s interview with Tom Blumenthal. During the interview she says that part of the reason why she speaks so openly is because she doesn’t want the younger generation to make the same mistakes that she made. She says that it became so easy for people to not recognize her pains or struggles because of ‘how she looked.’ Amongst the LGBT community, ballroom and non-ballroom associated, each of us fixates on external appearance. We make the mistake of thinking that because someone is physically attractive or always seems happy, their lives are just as fulfilled. In her later years, Octavia owned the fact that she was a drug addict for 20 of the 45 years she lived. Octavia shared the fact that she did what she thought she needed to do in order to mask and handle the internal pains.
People easily forget that during Octavia’s time, medications, steady employment, health education and family structure were all unsteady. Octavia experienced the death of countless friends who weren’t able to walk into a clinic and receive treatment for the HIV virus. In fact, Octavia lived longer than statistics suggested an individual in her position should. Octavia walked balls to feel celebrated. She wanted to exist in a world where she felt special, loved and praised for being who she was. As many people in the world yearn for the same feeling and opportunity, Octavia so happen to be one who joined a house to fill the family void and walked ballroom categories for the adoration and sense of acceptance.
Octavia St. Laurent is one of those rare individuals who has made a significant impact on the world at large. We live in a day and time where so much has already been said or done. Octavia lived during a time where she and her friends were the ones who were introducing certain realities to the world. It’s easy to follow a path that has already been carved out. It’s more difficult to stand in the middle of nowhere and create one. Octavia St. Laurent is one of the individuals who made it possible for me to even sit here behind a computer and speak openly about certain aspects of my life. Beyond the face, style and glamour of the people you most admire, exists a story that isn’t necessarily as fancy or beautiful. Be sure to know and understand someone’s total struggle before passing judgement or forming a solid opinion.
Let this woman’s life encourage you to create a path for others of the next generation to follow.