“You can’t choose your family”, or so the saying goes. But for many LGBTQ+ youth this simply isn’t the case, as their relations throw them out of their homes, disown them, or simply ignore and deliberately undermine their sexual or gender identity. For decades, kids from all over America have found their own way in life, gravitating towards those in their community and living on the streets of New York City, often meeting up at Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers in groups to stay safe. Elegance Bratton follows three such teens for his hard-hitting documentary, transgender woman Krystal LaBeija (not to be confused with the famous drag queen Crystal LaBeija), and gay teens Casper and Desean.
Bratton pulls no punches, as he opens his film with the statement: “In the wake of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the world cheered the advancement of white queers and ignored the fates of queer people of colour.” As a gay African American, Bratton has experienced exactly what his film subjects have, and it’s clear by how he puts their stories to the audience that this is a deeply personal topic. He approaches the three teens’ stories with frankness, showing the harsh reality of their lives and, in some cases, tragic deaths over the course of three years.
Photo © Elegance Bratton
It’s impossible not to be moved by their plights, wishing they could have better lives, and hoping they find a home. But very often the system fails them, leaving them destitute while others thrive simply because of the colour of their skin. Casper details the lengths he has to go to in order to survive, breaking down for the audience how he shoplifts food using a fake gift card to make it work. While Desean openly discusses his life with his Jehovah Witness mother and his struggle with the untimely death of his uncle from HIV/AIDs years before. But, Krystal’s story is particularly difficult to watch, chiefly because of her fight to be accepted by her family who still refer to her by male pronouns and use her dead name.
In a heart-breaking moment, Krystal travels home and sits there silently as her mother and aunt tell Bratton why they refuse to refer to the teen by her chosen pronouns. The discussion is clearly hard on Krystal, and as such hard on viewers to witness as it’s difficult not to want to reach into the screen and shake the prejudice out of her family members. But Krystal, for what it’s worth, takes their deliberate ignorance on the chin, and tells them how much they mean to her regardless of how they see her – she will forgive and forget. Her story is poignant, and all the more moving because of her generous and caring nature.
Photo © Elegance Bratton
The film touches on the New York ball scene, and Krystal’s involvement in them. But, this is not the documentary’s focus; it’s not Paris is Burning. It’s as much a celebration of LGBTQ+ youth of colour as it is a hard-hitting commentary on how they’re mistreated by society at large. Bratton does so with guerrilla-style film-making using a hand-held camera with low-res video quality, which adds to the gritty, realistic feel of it all. There is little room for flowery language or a soft touch, and even if the stars themselves deliver poetic speeches about their lives, the reality of their situation simply isn’t.
By showing viewers Krystal, Casper and Desean’s lives during those three years, Bratton rejoices in their strength and resilience but also shows viewers how the system needs to change. Given the film is mostly shot during President Obama’s presidency, and ends after Trump’s inauguration, it’s clear that these kids are struggling no matter who sits in the Oval Office. That so many teens have gone through this is shameful, they’ve been let down by more than just their family.
Written by Roxy Simons.