Saturday, June 26, 2010

Susi Graf's Lost in the Crowd

Kimy (l) and Nicole (r) lament their tough roads

Lost in the Crowd
is Susi Graf's often heartbreaking documentary about homeless queer and trans youth in New York City. It was filmed over a 7-year period starting in 2003. Because her film's subjects were on the street, in and out of housing facilities and often transient, it took incredible patience for Ms. Graf to maintain trust and contact with these young people who've often been abused, rejected and exploited by adults. As she explained in the Q&A after the film, she was unable to even keep or pay a cinematographer because of the long hours often required to locate and follow the young people (ranging in age from 18 to their early 20s) to maintain continuity in their narratives. Graf was both interviewer, and camera op. This showing at San Francisco's Frameline Festival was the film's official debut although its actual first showing was at a preview in New York a few months ago.

An interesting interview by Samara Rivera of Susi Graf and Gisele at the New York premiere.

Privilege leading to... homelessness
At the center of the film is Kimy, a tall, long-raven-haired trans-identified 18-year old. A well-educated, talented artist and budding fashion designer, he (I'm only using male pronouns because of his final gender identity in the film) was abused by his step-father, and unable to deal with his repressive family situation in Utah. He relates how he exchanged sex to get a ride most of the way to New York. Explaining in humiliated tones how he's done a combination of repellant sex work and not-too-successful thievery to live (including multiple stints in jail), a chilling moment in the film comes when he says in a bitter voice, "I hate men, I hate everything about them." But admits he's still attracted to them.

All God's children
There is Adrian, a sensitive African-American HIV-positive New Yorker who, at various times, seems to be thinking about transition, but mostly presents as a femme male and does sexwork to survive. Adrian is from a family of 14 kids. His foster mom, a highly religious woman, can't deal with Adrian's femme gay/trans identity nor his drug use and kicks him out of the house. By the time we first see him at 21, his youth is starting to leave him. He explains how, when younger, he was seduced by a 42-year old man who was the one who gave him AIDs. We later find out he was also abused for 7 years by his family's preacher. Sometimes Adrian wears $200 fuschia heels a john bought him and $50 decorated acrylic nails; other times he's on the street looking impoverished, scared and vulnerable.

Adrian, scared on the street

Passing out of the scene
Jazmine is a young trans Latina who spent time on the street, in the ballroom scene and in prostitution but has gotten housing, seems farther along with her transition than the others and is attending school. She provides a hopeful glimpse of the possibility of future stability, but even later in the film, getting her MSW degree and in a straight relationship with a cop, she retains her deep-rooted insecurities about her trans history and anxieties of a future of being clocked.

Jasmine keeping it real and stealth

Other interviewees come and go, appearing in the film whenever the tenacious Graf can find them. Nicole, a young trans woman friend of Kimy's who was brutalized while doing sex work as a young teen vanishes in 2003. Serenity, somewhere between a femme male and an untransitioned trans girl does sexwork, sadly explaining at her advanced age (early 20s) no one wants her as a woman any more but she's very popular as a young femme queer. Clayton is a slightly older HIV+ femme gay man who has finally obtained stable medical treatment and is working part-time doing outreach. The most glam participant is Gisele, a well-known trans-Latina beauty from the New York Ballroom scene (and member of the House of Xtravaganza) who has parlayed her ballroom renown into modeling and acting in mainstream film projects.

Serenity ponders the transience of beauty

Some mothers know best
A key scene in the film is when Graf visits Adrian's mother. Earlier on, he achingly wishes he could just go back to his family. He clearly misses the love and companionship he had at home even when his place in the family was precarious. When mother and child are sitting next to one another, it's not hard to see why he's out on the street. She cares about him, but not to the extent where her extreme fundamentalist faith can excuse who he is. By contrast, Graf visits the home of Gisele's mother in East Harlem and mom, religious though she is, wholly embraces her child as a daughter and provides a solid base of support for her transition and endeavors. The comparison between the two situations is painful to watch.

Willi Ninja 1961-2006

You better work
The other main component of the film is a glimpse into the ballroom scene in which many of the film's subjects were participants. Graf has some of the last interviews with the late, great Willi Ninja, who was featured prominently in the film Paris is Burning, choreographed and performed in many music videos, coached runway supermodels and famously founded his own Ballroom House (of which Adrian is a member). Ninja, who died of AIDs-related heart failure in 2006, serves as inspiration for the often marginalized youth in the ballroom scene as to how they can leverage their talent and creativity into other (more remunerative and mainstream) pursuits. Graf also features some wonderful footage of Gisele and Jazmine doing Ballroom runway (a scene which also produced Isis King, who was also homeless around the same time yet went on to appear on America's Next Top Model).

Kimy with bear

Without giving away the end of the film, needless to say, some of these young people die, some end up incarcerated and some drift away from the scene while others seemingly outgrow it. It's interesting to note how the two subjects who seemed to thrive the best were the most "passable" and binary-identified. Others who live between genders or flit back and forth with transition seem to have greater issues being marginalized. Is this a function of having the opportunity and support to transition or whether it's just easier to live as a binary (and attractive) trans woman in the world isn't clear. While I doubt this was an intentional message of Graf's, as a trans woman viewing the film, it's hard to not be struck by the contrast. Several of the participants in the film, while still experiencing profound issues around being trans, push transition away as a likely (and unaffordable) option or for safety reasons, preferring to live queer-bodied.

Shelters neither respectful or safe
In the Q&A after the film, Graf explained how most of these young people had problems with homeless facilities like Covenant House (which, in Houston, was recently accused of not accepting LGBT kids nor creating a safe space for them). Graf noted it was much the same in NYC where straight homeless kids would intimidate the trans and gender-variant youth. A care provider in the film explains how most homeless trans youth would rather try and sleep in the subway system all night than go to adult/straight shelters. Many preferred to be on the street (or as one of the subjects states, in jail) than the intimidation and physical danger they face in the adult shelter system or even their families.

Will it sell at the GLAAD Media Awards?
Every few decades the issues of homeless youth seem to be covered by films like 1984's award-winning Streetwise about dumpster-diving street kids in Seattle (or 1990's Paris is Burning, with Venus Xtravaganza, who is murdered before the film was finished filming). Sadly, the organizations which assist these kids continue to be some of the first to get their meager budgets slashed. It's my hope that films like Lost in the Crowd can encourage LGBT organizations to actually prioritize focusing on homeless and at-risk queer youth (especially those of color)... but I doubt it. While millions are spent fighting issues like marriage equality, street kids are considered non-contributors to large political organizations and therefore, persona non grata. Moreover, the very people who desperately need to be exposed to this film— schools, support organizations and, especially, the parents of non-gender-conforming children, will likely not see it.

Which is tragic, because Lost in the Crowd (shamefully sparsely attended being shown on the night before SF Pride when many people were out partying) has much to tell us all about what familial and social responsibility means and what love really looks like. A family which doesn't put the needs of its children first can have no Pride.

For more interviews and information on the creative personalities who've survived and thrived in the Ballroom scene, I highly recommend The Luna Show on YouTube.


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