Category Archives: GLBT documentary


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“I Always Said Yes: The Many Lives of Wakefield Poole”

Extended Director’s Cut Now Available

Amos Lassen

Wakefield Poole is a man to remember—dancer, choreographer and director; Poole was an early gay liberation worker. He made porn films but he says he was not a pornographer. He was first and foremost a filmmaker, one who used his backgrounds in theater and dance to make other movies that were sensually and erotically beautiful and he challenged both the mind and the status quo. There were those that loved his work and there were those who felt that he was doing little more than “dirty movies”. Now you can see Jim Tushinski’s wonderful documentary on Poole on Vimeo on Demand with exclusive extras or on iTunes or Amazon.


Poole was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1936 and his life certainly was not one that could have been lived in Florida. He felt New York beckoning and in 1957 he joined the company of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.


Jim Tushinski has been working on this film for years and he should be very proud of what he gives us. He shows us a man who was openly gay at a time when not many gay men were out. He has been overlooked as a gay icon and historical figure but he was a pioneer in both of those fields. Poole lived at a strange time in American history and to be open about his homosexuality at a time when the closet was home to so many but he even went a step further and pushed sexuality onto the big screen. At that time, anyone involved in pornography could be put in jail or at the least face a trial and a heavy fine. To become internationally famous for making erotic films was something for a young man from the South. I believe it is fair to say that Poole invented the modern gay porn film but that is just one thing about Wakefield Poole. He was quite a dancer having danced on and choreographed for Broadway. He owned a boutique in San Francisco; he was an avid art collector and a leader.


The year 1971 was a very important year for Poole. His film “Boys in the Sand” was screened at a New York movie house and this caused a revolution. The film was made on a very tight budget with a few friends and a hot new young man, Casey Donovan, who went on be a major person in gay erotica. So what was special about “Boys in the Sand”? First of all it had a bit of a story, good looking actors, a beautiful setting (The Pines) and sex. It was not just porn—it had a wonderful director in Poole.


One of the amazing aspects of this film is the amount of research that director Tushinski did in order to give us a complete picture. Using Poole’s autobiography, “Dirty Poole: A Sensual Memoir”, Tushinski tracked down the people and the events that played important parts in his life. The director also had the plus that his subject was not just alive but a partner in the creation of this film.



As I stated earlier Poole was a man of many faces and had friends and co-workers everywhere and from all classes of people. Some of you may be surprised to learn of his work with such Broadway luminaries as Richard Rodgers, Michael Bennett and Stephen Sondheim. He transitioned from stage to screen after seeing some Andy Warhol’s experimental films. He was well aware that gay porn was of inferior quality and decided that he could make quality gay porn films and thus “Boys in the Sand” was born in 1971. He made a star of Casey Donovan and brought porn to the attention of many. Poole said his porn “challenged the mind”—the quality of the film both artistically and plot wise was certainly a step up from what had been available until then. When we consider that the film was screened in a movie theater, we realize that it was indeed something quite big. This was a revolution for gay porn and for Poole. The film was made on a skimpy budget and featured Donovan and some of Poole’s friends but it created a whole new atmosphere and feelings about erotica. This was the first time that hot gay men had hot gay sex on screen and it became a very hot ticket attracting both gay and straight people.


Poole’s next stop was San Francisco where he and Harvey Milk were close friends but unfortunately Poole became a coke addict and this cost him his art collection and leaving some of his artistic integrity on the side, he began to direct porn that was mass produced for a gay porn studio. Looking back at his life we are lucky to have him and see him get the kind of recognition that he deserves and yes, even though parts of this review is written in the past tense, Poole is very much alive. Even more important, this is not just a film about Wakefield Poole, it is a look at gay history.

“QUEER CITY”— Who We Are

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“Queer City”

Who We Are

Amos Lassen

Ever since the Stonewall riots of almost fifty years ago, life has become dramatically different for LGBTQ people. Before Stonewall we were identified by our oppression but have you stopped to think what identifies us now? But who are we now? 

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The gay movement began in New York City and just we have changed so has the city. “Queer City” looks at those untold stories. It does this through the lives of a highly diverse group of men and women who live there giving us a selection of stories that provide a compelling portrait of new American lives. We also see something about what the future holds for the LGBT community. There are still hateful bigots hanging around and there is still major opposition to who we are and how we live and there are scars we carry with us.

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We see the routine and the special in the film as it attempts to chronicle how we exist during a major time of change in this country. There are times that the documentary is absolutely hilarious and there are times that it is heartbreaking. The film brings the stories together almost like a fictional narrative and while this is set in New York City, the stories are resonant and relevant to every member of our community.


We meet and follow “a tough, cool, working-class Latina from Queens with a gift for storytelling and a knack for falling in love”, an eighty-year-old English painter who grew up in the London Blitz and later sought refuge as a gay man in New York who now teaches art to Alzheimer’s patients, an exuberant bisexual woman who has forged a highly successful career as a director of gay adult film, a young, street-smart Haitian man who grew up gender-identified as female, a Brooklyn lesbian couple who met as undergraduates at Yale 25 years ago, and aNew York City politician who was a major force in passing New York State’s same-sex marriage bill”.


We get to know these people as the movie moves. This is a film that is as important for the “straight” viewer as for “non-straights.” We become aware of the tension between generations in the LGBT community and we see how the term “queer” which we hated so much has become embraced by the younger members of our community. It has become a defining word for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and trans folk. Director Draper Shreeve puts forth his thesis that LGBT folk are much the same and are defined internally by their mutual oppressions instead of accepting the negative definitions by outsiders. We hear and see interviews that are sincere and powerful.


There are surprises throughout the film and it is beautifully photographed. I understand that the people we see here were selected because Draper wanted “People who were truly interesting in themselves; that they had stories we had not heard before. But I also wanted to include as diverse a selection as possible across race, gender, age and class. I knew we could tell only so many stories, and could not represent everyone, but I wanted to catch some of the mix of queer American life in 2015.” We see the people here doing ordinary things and this shows us that gay people are just like everyone else. This is an absolutely fascinating film and if I had to settle on saying what the main point of the film is, I would have to say it how we live and how we have not only accepted ourselves but how we have embraced our sexuality and identity and empowered ourselves.

“CALL ME MARIANNA”— Beginning Life Again

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“Call Me Marianna” (“Mów mi Marianna”)

Beginning Life Again

Amos Lassen

 Marianna Klapczyńska who began life as Wojtek Klapczyński, was married, had children, and at 47 after many, many painful years of reflection underwent a sex-change/gender reassignment surgery (in Poland) to become Marianna.  Polish law requires that a person requesting gender reassignment surgery to sue his/her parents for “bad upbringing” so that someone would be blamed. This proved to be a nightmare to Marianna. Even after her surgery her mother kept calling her Wojtek.   Marianna’s daughters rejected her as well.  The only one in the family who seemed understand (with understandable inner conflict and difficulty) was Wojtek’s/Marianna’s former spouse and she actually helped Marianna.

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The first time we see Marianna she is on her way to court to comply with Polish law. Marianna is an attractive woman in her 40s who lives alone with a cat. She seems to be doing ok and gets the necessary permission and the surgery in Gdansk goes well. She has met a man who accepts her for what she is, but there are unexpected problems coming her way.


The film follows Marianna as she confronts her past. She was married for 25 years and has two children, and is now trying to re-establish contact with Kasia, her ex-wife. However, it seems all of Polish society is ostracizing Marianna, or at least this is the feeling we get from the film. There are no scenes of outright aversion and we see that basically Marianna is on her own.


Just before her surgery, Marianna starts her first relationship with a man, and that seems to now make her completely happy.  When she comes around after the operation she is seen on the phone talking excitedly that she feels that she has been re-born and at peace at last. This happiness doesn’t last very long, as she is quite soon back in the hospital, but this time fighting for her life as an excessive intake of hormones caused her to have a stroke.


She must learn how to speak and try and get some movement back into her limbs. the normally very positive Marianna gets very depressed knowing that she now must face the fact that all her plans for the future must now be put on hold permanently.  Her mother adamantly refuses to come visit her on her sickbed, and her daughters will still not even acknowledge her, but her ex-wife Kasia is happy enough to turn up to celebrate Marianna’s birthday.


We learn most of the troubled part of the story when Marianna sits in her wheelchair and participates in a reading of a play that she has written on her life.  This serves as a narration to the movie. Polish filmmaker Karolina Bielawska has been winning awards all over the world for this documentary and deservedly so. This is a very poignant look at transgender issues. And by the way, the new boyfriend has not only stuck around but he acts as both the force propelling Marianna’s wheelchair and the one that is encouraging her to have hope for her future.


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“Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America”

Fighting for Justice and Equality

Amos Lassen

Premiering at Outfest 2016 is the story of Moises Serrano. His parents fled Mexico 23 years old hoping to find a better life. Now Serrano is a gay man and forbidden to live in the United States because he is undocumented. The only choice he has now is fight for justice and demand equality. He faces significant hurdles based on his undocumented status, his sexuality, and the limited resources available living in a rural area.


Moises’ story is one of personal transformation and it leads us to question our government and wonder is there any solution for cases like this. Moises’ battle is a battle for human rights. America is his adopted home—he grew up here and has spent his entire life here but he must leave because even though he feels 100% America, he is not. We see Moises as a passionate and complex young man and his story is certainly relevant to the other 11 million undocumented immigrants that live in the United States today.


Moises is an ideal character for challenging stereotypes about undocumented immigrants and same-sex couples. Viewers can readily connect to his passion, complexity, and all-around likability. His story relates directly to the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S., and LGBTQ individuals fighting for equality and civil rights. “Forbidden” gives a face to those immigrants and as it does, it “humanizes their issues, decriminalizes the adult immigration story and asks us to reconsider what it means to be an American.”


We have seen and heard for the last few months how Donald Trump, has said terrible things that are what he feels about immigrants. “Forbidden” fights back his and others damaging and uninformed ideas. W see here “how a loving family has the power to combat the destructive oppression of entire groups of people”.


Moises’ experience is like so many other gay undocumented youth and shows the need to address bullying and create spaces where people do not have to hide or fear for their lives, nor should they be ashamed of any aspect of their identity.

“THE FREEDOM TO MARRY”— How Marriage Equality Was Won

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“The Freedom to Marry”

How Marriage Equality Was Won

Amos Lassen

The documentary by Eddie Rosenstein, “The Freedom to Marry” is an inside look at the movement that transformed a nation and the law. The film that provides an emotional, behind-the-scenes view of the campaign and strategy that ended marriage discrimination nationwide.

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We hear directly from April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse – two of the courageous plaintiffs who took the fight for the dignity of their family and children all the way to the Supreme Court. We see and hear from Mary Bonauto she prepared to stand before the nine justices of the Supreme Court to make the case for marriage. We go across the country with the “Freedom to Marry” team and see its members working with organizations and allies to rack up the building-block wins and create the climate that allowed for victory.


“The Freedom to Marry” is the behind-the-scenes story of those who did the work and transformed a “preposterous notion” into one of the most successful civil rights campaigns in history.


Evan Wolfson is the founder and president of the now-defunct “Freedom to Marry” organization whose goal was to legalize same-sex marriage. Now after a hard-fought 32-year battle, his mission is over and the campaign that he led is over and the movement has closed its doors. Not only is the  brains behind marriage equality but he also dedicated his entire career to the cause. In 1983, while at Harvard Law School he wrote a paper explaining how the LGBT community could achieve marriage equality. He only got a B on the paper back then but in the thirty years that followed, he changed the world.


“The Freedom to Marry” has its world premier at the Frameline Film Festival   on June 25.

“OUT RUN”— An LGBTQ Political Party

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An LGBTQ Political Party

Amos Lassen

The Philippines has the only LGBTQ political party in the world. What makes this fact so interesting is that the Roman Catholic church Wrong! It’s the Philippines, where the Roman Catholic Church rules society. There is, however, a “wary tolerance for “baklas” (gay men)” and transgender people—as long as they stay in their “accepted” places. The places are the entertainment world where there are transgender beauty pageants, beauty salons, where transwomen can do business and build community; and sex work. LGBTQ Filipinos by and large are subject to discrimination, extortion, forced separation, and hate crimes. The party system in the Philippines allows groups that are marginalized in society system in the Philippines allows marginalized groups to run for seats in 20 percent of the House of Representatives. In 2013, trans activist Bemz Benedito and the Ladlad (“Be true to your nature”) Party made a historic attempt to place three LGBTQ candidates in congressional seats. The platform contained filing an anti-discrimination Bill and setting up homes for elderly gay men who had been abandoned by their families. We see here the Philippines’ of-the-people political world. It is a place where beauty salons become campaign chapters and dubious party alliances are the norm.

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When the issue of same-sex marriage there was a division among the troops. Loss of confidence became bitter resolve when just a few weeks before the election, a transwoman was beaten to death for using a women’s restroom. Emmy-nominated Bay Area documentarians S. Leo Chiang and Johnny Symons directed as give us a look at international LGBTQ grassroots organizing and coalition building.

“OUT OF IRAQ”— Love in Wartime

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Out Of Iraq”

Love in Wartime

Amos Lassen

“Out of Iraq” is a documentary about a heartbreaking love story between an Iraqi soldier and an Iraqi military translator. We get the impression that it could end at any moment and end badly. Either of the two men could be killed simply because they are gay and love each other. We have heard of this time and again on the news— honor killings are a way of life in the Middle East. In many cases, family and neighborhoods take the law into their own hands and unmercifully kill any LGBT person they can catch. It takes a few moments to realize that this could very well happen to the guys we see in this film. Many of us may be aware that Israel has become the most tolerant and accepting country of homosexuals in the Middle East but I want you to now that it was not always like that. Things began to change in the late 80s and I, while living there, had been arrested many times simply because of my sexuality.

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The war in Iraq was at its height in 2004 when Ramadi was one of the most dangerous places in the world to be in.  This is where Nayyef Hrebrid (known as David for his own safety) worked as a translator with the US Ground Forces, and where he first caught saw Btoo, a soldier with the new Iraq Army. They were attracted to each other and were immediately drawn to one another. They spent as much time together as possible and did so platonically since both of them were terrified to reveal their sexuality. That is until one night Btoo finally had the courage to tell Nayyef that he loved him, and from that point on there was no turning back.

Some five years later, Nayyef’s safety was in danger because of his work with the US Forces and he was granted a Special Visa to go and live in the US. He accepted and moved to Seattle thinking that once he was there it would be easy to get one from Btoo as well. After his first Applications were rejected, there did not seem to be much hope, a friendly American Refugee Activist recommend that he desert the Army and flee to Lebanon.  It was not the safest place but now that his family was aware of his relationship with Nayyar, staying at home was very, very dangerous.


Here began a separation that would last over four years and each single step of the frustrating process was filled with both danger and disappointment.   Btoo was illegally living in Lebanon and if he was caught without papers he would be immediately deported back home where death awaited him. Yet with the fear, the tension and the not knowing their love kept the two men strong. But do not worry—it all works out for them. They were able to survive this entire ordeal but there are many others who must hide who they are and even pay the ultimate price because of loving someone of the same sex.

Nayeff made local news in Seattle, Washington when he escaped his home country in 2009 and became a United States citizen. As a translator for American forces in Iraq, Hrebid’s job put his life in danger and collaborators with the military have been prime targets for anti-American forces and terrorist groups ever since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. His years of service made Nayeff an unquestionable candidate for refugee status and, eventually, U.S. citizenship. The same could not be said for his partner, Btoo, an Iraqi civilian who had to remain behind in Baghdad for years. Today, Iraqi refugees Nayeff and Btoo live together as spouses in Seattle, though it was a long and dangerous path for Btoo between his war-torn home and his future husband. He was on a harrowing, five-year journey that helped reshape United Nations refugee policy and stands as a prime example of the horrors that LGBT people still face in many parts of the world. Documentarian Eva Orner learned of Btoo’s story and set out to capture it in “Out of Iraq”, which is scheduled to debut on HBO and through other distributors this year (2016).

Btoo’s story doesn’t begin with Orner’s documentary, though. Rather, it begins with the efforts of refugee advocate and Universal Life Church minister Michael Failla. Dr. Failla has personally spearheaded the rescue of struggling refugees hailing from such places as Cambodia, Ethiopia, Somalia, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, many of them gay men who faced death for their sexual identities in their home countries. Btoo’s family were shopkeepers in Baghdad and Btoo himself served in the Iraqi Armed Forces. When his family became aware of his sexual identity, Btoo had no choice but to desert the military and go to Lebanon.

We cannot allow ourselves to forget that in some parts of the world, including the most traditional corners of Iraq, homosexuality is answered with murder, often by members of a person’s own family. Btoo’s killers would have been his own brothers. Because these honor-killings are perpetrated by civilians and rarely talked about even in their own communities, the international community hears little about them. With this film, perhaps this message will reach a wider audience.


Btoo’s escape into Lebanon was only the beginning of his journey. By law, he was only allowed to stay in Lebanon for thirty days, and at a steep price. With Failla’s financial assistance, Btoo achieved the mandatory thirty-day reservation at a Beirut hotel and the equivalent of one-thousand dollars cash on-hand. His process with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees took much longer than thirty days, though. Btoo lived and worked in Beirut from late 2010 until 2013 and did so in hiding as an illegal immigrant. He received support from advocates during this time, including members of the Universal Life Church, based out of Seattle, Washington. In order to even apply for refugee status with the UNHCR, an individual must go through an extensive interview process. Btoo was interviewed and indeed interrogated several times while in Beirut, often having to sneak through the chaotic streets to make his meetings. At that time, existential threat for homosexual identity was not considered a valid reason for refugee status, so Btoo’s application was postponed or rejected several times. On two occasions, Michael Failla flew to Beirut to be Btoo’s advocate in-person. On his second visit, he brought his own translator. This proved to be a policy-changing decision. Private translation revealed inaccuracies, biases, and other questionable elements of the UN translation record, which would ultimately get Btoo’s application for refugee status approved and would, at long last, set a precedence for sexual orientation as a valid reason for refugee designation.

While waiting for his UNHCR approval, Btoo escaped to Canada through Failla’s private advocacy organization, New Life. Then, in March of 2015, Btoo was allowed to move to the United States and reunite with the love of his life, Nayeff. They married that summer with the help of a presiding Universal Life Church minister.


Nayeff and Btoo are still taking a great risk by allowing their names and likenesses to be used for “Out of Iraq” but they are strong and believe that the plight of LGBT people living in Iraq and other dangerous places needs to have a human face if change is come about. This is a very emotional film so be prepared with tissue—you not only will weep through it but afterwards as well as that is when you sense the difference between tears of worry and tears of joy.

“Out of Iraq” is a World of Wonder film produced by Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato, Eva Orner and Chris McKim; co-Directed by Academy Award-winner Eva Orner (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) and Chris McKim.

“FROM TRAUMA TO ACTIVISM”— A Film You Do Not Want to Miss

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“From Trauma to Activism”


The narratives in the film, “From Trauma to Activism” unpack our history with stories from audacious pathfinders and academics, gay liberationists and transgender militants, dykes and lesbian separatists, feminists and radical fairies, queers and queens. 

These trailblazers came out-of-the-closet: suffering familial estrangement and shunning; risking their livelihood; and chanced harm during hostile demonstrations. Determined to transform the world by living openly despite reprisals, they were committed to social change and making the planet a more just and safer place. They formulated a daring politics with insights about human existence; trans-and gender identity; and sexual orientation that has inspired generations of post-Stonewall Rebellion activists and change-agents; academics and historians; and artists, filmmakers, and writers. 

Trauma and activism appear to be in contradistinction—the former defined by elusivity and concealment, being hidden and out-of-sight; and the latter by action, out-in-the-open, in public. However, the evolution of activism for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) people begins with, and is inseparable from, psychological reclamation and regeneration.

After the film, Dansky will discuss saving our history through the project OUTSpoken: Oral History from LGBTQ Pioneers, conducting interviews from New York City to Portland; Durham to Los Angeles; from the rural communities of Columbia County, New York, to San Francisco; and globally via Skype in Bangkok, Buenos Aires, and Melbourne”. 


“TWO SOFT THINGS, TWO HARD THINGS”— Colonialism, Christianity and Queer

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“Two Soft things, Two Hard Things”

Colonialism, Christianity and Queer

Amos Lassen

We do not really hear anything about queer Inuits. I am not sure why this is true but we know that there must be some. This is what we see in the new documentary “Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things”. The influence of the church and of capitalism has changed family structures and sexual dynamics in Nunavut and this dates back to the 1700’s. Before that , queer individuals would’ve been viewed as completely acceptable in the past however today many Inuit elders and youth look down on these gender and sexual nonconformists.


We meet some of them here and it is not surprising that some talk about a sense of alienation. This is quite worrisome because Nunavut presently has a high suicide rate and experts believe those numbers represent more LGBT youth than are accounted for. However, we also learn that things are changing.

The territory of Nunavut was built upon decades of relocation, re-education, and Christianization of nomadic Inuit people. Colonization and shame have shadowed the community, hitting LGBTQ people especially hard, as the systematic destruction of native culture has driven the Inuit’s original complex, inclusive sense of sexual orientation and family structure underground. Directors Mark Kenneth Woods and Michael Yerxa trace colonization from the 1950s, through the a gradual thaw that has led to LGBTQ protections in the Nunavut human rights act in 2003. We see members of the LGBT community who bring life to the story here—gay Inuit adults and the youth; tribal elders reviving ancient inclusiveness. There are those who want the world to know what is going on there. As indigenous values and contemporary mores come together, a door opens for Inuit people to experience a continuing and exciting journey.


This is the story of LGBTQ Inuit folks on their journey to acceptance as they struggle to grasp their identity and reclaim their roots amidst societal, religious and racist pressure in Nunavut. As they work to honor and celebrate who they are against the backdrop of the LGBTQ Pride celebration in Nunavut, the film documents it. The tone is established right from the beginning, with an elder who shares wisdom from the Inuit that speaks to the LGBTQ struggle. The film is, therefore, a haunting narrative of how LGBTQ rights have been shaped in Nunavut through the pervasive effects of colonialism and Christianity. We hear recollections about the devastating ways in which these structures were enforced upon the Inuit people and these are seen against the stark contrast of the harshness of the land and extreme weather. We go into the hearts and homes of those who courageously deal with the complexity of their identity every day. They tell their stories with a vulnerability that can only emerge from incredible strength. The film throws out the homophobic myths and stereotypes about “gay Eskimos” and replaces them with images of LGBTQ Inuit who not only survive but have fun doing so.


The word “inuit” means “the people” in the Inuktitut language. It is commonly believed that homosexuality does not exist in Inuit society, but documentary filmmakers Mark Kenneth Woods and Michael Yerxa set out to prove this is not true. The title of the film comes from the Inuit word for homosexuals—the word for lesbians means “two soft things rubbing against each other” and the word for gay men means “two hard things rubbing against each other.”

When a rainbow flag was flown outside of the city hall in Iqaluit in 2014, a debate ensued in the Inuit community about whether or not homosexuality was a part of their society and if should be accepted.


Pride picnics have been held in Iqaluit from 2000 to 2006, and a larger Pride event was held in 2014, yet the subject of homosexuality is still taboo among the Inuit people.

“CHECK IT”— The Only Documented Gay Gang in America

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“Check It”

The Only Documented Gay Gang in America

Amos Lassen

Just a few blocks from the White House on K Street in Washington D.C. is one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods yet it is there that a group of kids who have found family.  Washington has one of the highest reported rates of anti-gay hate crimes in America.  Because of poverty and misunderstanding many youths have been forced out of their homes and/or being disowned by their families.  Many have experienced violence just for being who they are.  A group of these kids began a gang, The Check It, designed to protect LGBT teens and whose members are there for each other.   Through acts of violence and intimidation, they have earned respect on the street and have expelled the stereotype that gay people are weak and passive.  Recognizing that these kids needed a role model and guidance, Community Outreach Counselor Ron Moten worked to provide better opportunities for some of them.  In the film, we see the daily struggles of these kids.  The directors, Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer, have been able to gain the trust of the subjects and are documenting them as they speak honestly about the realities of life on these streets, their fears, their hopes and dreams. We move past the violence and criminal activity and get to know the real person behind the protective façade.  These teens are compelling.


There’s a great sense of hope in the film, that maybe their futures aren’t lost.  The kids are encouraged by several adults to look within themselves, find their inner strength and fight for the future they want.  They are trying to show these kids that they deserve better, they deserve more.  Getting out of their normally desperate situation encourages them to reach higher.


It’s so easy to only see the negative aspects of gang culture, with the violence, crime, and addiction.  Being part of this film has been an invaluable experience for them   it has taught them self worth, self-respect, and desire for a better life.


Now there are over 200 members of the gang and many are “armed and dangerous as well as fierce and fabulous”. Coming together has helped lessen their chances of various kinds of harm (from not only schoolmates and gangbangers but family members and prostitution johns), because a fearsome reputation rapidly arose around their willingness to fight.


Aside from the young people, the documentary also introduces us to mentoring adults who try to give them a way out of the many dead ends they’ve faced in their community. The film follows Tray, Day Day, Star and Skittles, just four of the members of the gang, and their mentor, Ron “Mo” Moten, an ex-convict who works closely with the group.

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“What makes people violent has nothing to do with sexual preference; it’s about circumstances,” Moten says, “and right now there’s nobody dealing with that because people don’t want to associate with anything that’s violent or gay.”


The Check It came into being in 2009 when a group of ninth graders from the most violent parts of the city decided to band together in retaliation against the bullying that they’d been subjected to because they are LGBT. Hope and motivation for a life away from gang violence came through an unusual outlet: fashion. The film shows Day Day, Tray, Star and Skittles as they work to produce a local fashion show and eventually travel to New York Fashion Week to work the shows backstage. A clothing line, Check It Enterprises, was launched afterwards; the unisex clothes are designed and made by Check It members and, for now, are available only online.  

Star is really focused and it’s the fashion aspect more than anything. That’s what most people in life need — they need something to motivate them, to make them want to go to the next level, or to see a way out to where they want to go and fashion became just that. It has grown from a routine interest into a lifeline for the Check It. After the first fashion show in 2013, strangers started calling and praising the members for being open with their story.


The film moves between moments of inspiration and scenes that show the often tragic reality for black gay and transgender youth in D.C. In one scene, Tray is shown calling for an update on his reporting of a rape, to no avail; another moment shows Day Day visiting with his mother, who struggles with drug use.  


Filmed between 2012 and 2014, the film is so much more than just being about hardship and strife. It’s about friends and explores what happens when passionate, creative people are finally given the opportunity to put their passion and creativity to use.


Trey says, “‘I don’t want you to be like me,’ you know? ‘You can look up to us, but don’t be us.’ I don’t want people to be like us. They don’t have to go out and form a group just to survive… I just want them to learn from our story… I just want them to know that there is a way out.”