"Paramus Is Burning"

One of my favorite films is Paris Is Burning, a documentary about the ball culture in New York. (If you're unfamiliar with "ball culture," you should watch the movie, or the Netflix series Pose, or the HBOMax series Legendary, all of which cover similar territory, though the two series are fictional and have glitzy production values, where the "realness" of Paris Is Burning comes from its actually being real, and the production values are grainy and gritty.)

My stories usually start with a title, and in 2019 I decided to write a story titled "Paramus Is Burning," which would obviously be about a murder within the ball culture in Paramus, New Jersey. I've never attended a ball -- I've never even been to Paramus -- so I had to do a lot of research. Researching Paramus was easy, but given the times, I wanted to make as sure as I could that I wouldn't be guilty of cultural misappropriation or offend the "Own Voices" movement. With that in mind, I decided for the first time in more than fifty years of writing crime fiction professionally to run a story past several "sensitivity readers." (When I started out -- and up to fairly recently -- "sensitivity readers" weren't even a thing.) I asked three out gay men friends who write crime fiction -- John Copenhaver, Greg Herren, and Jeffrey Marks -- to read a draft of the story with two questions in mind: First, as a middle-aged cisgendered straight white male, am I even allowed to write a story about young gay black and Latinx men? And second, would this story be offensive to members of communities I respect and have no desire to offend?

John, Greg, and Jeff all agreed that the story was respectful, and it was okay for a person like me to write it and offer it for publication. They all had suggestions for making it more sensitive to LGBTQ issues in general and the ball culture in particular, and I incorporated almost everything they proposed ... and their suggestions definitely made it not only a more sensitive but a better story.

I knew that the subject matter would make "Paramus Is Burning" not right for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, but they're the folks who gave me my start in the mystery field half a century ago, and I felt that the story was good enough that I should at least try it with them. As I expected, they turned it down, and I decided to send it to Mystery Tribune next. I'd never submitted to MT before, but they have a great reputation for putting out a high-quality, slick magazine, and they seemed cutting-edge enough to consider the story's subject matter a plus rather than a minus.

Editor Ehsan Ehsani bought it, and included it in the June/July 2020 issue -- which apparently didn't actually appear in print until mid-August. I love the two-page introductory photograph they selected, and was delighted to find that Greg Herren has a story in the same issue. You can buy a digital or print copy here.

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