''Paris Is Burning,'' a prize-winning documentary by Jennie Livingston, visits the world of the drag queens, as New York knows them. Most of the participants belong to ''houses,'' loose associations of men who dress as women.
The names of the houses are taken from designers and media fads. The houses of Saint Laurent, Ninja and Chanel are some of them, and the houses compete with each other at a succession of balls, affairs that are divided into categories, among them, Town and Country, Executive Realness, Realness and Pretty Girl.
Realness may be the most distinctive category. Here, the boys play girls and many of them get away with it.
The film, which runs for 78 minutes, becomes repetitious after a bit, but there is both humor and pathos in the package. The ''ladies'' laugh at themselves, camp all over the place and do a kind of dance called ''vogueing,'' an exaggeration of the poses models assume on the runway.
Some of the ''ladies'' speak of operations, others say they would never do such a thing, and some say they want recognition, more than anything in the world. One wants to have what many women want, a home in the suburbs and a husband.
The film is, by turn, sad and joyous. Some of the ''women'' know who they are, what they are and don't ask for pity. All they want is to live and let live.
The houses and balls began in Harlem, then moved downtown, and most of the participants are black. Some go on and on about their lives as drag queens. One, looking very womanly, details the operations that made her that way.
Perhaps the saddest participant is the young man-woman who would love to lead a normal life, eventually, but is never going to achieve that goal. ''Paris Is Burning'' opens today at the Charles. It will remain there though Sept. 11.
''Paris Is Burning''
** A visit with some of New York's drag queens.
CAST: Pepper Lebeija, Willi Ninja, Octavia Saint Laurent
DIRECTOR: Jennie Livingston
RATING: No rating (language, nudity)
RUNNING TIME: 78 minutes