Pier Kids shows you the world through the eyes of queer homeless youth of colour

The documentary by Elegance Bratton — a Black queer man who himself once lived on the streets — is a powerful and essential watch.

The documentary by Elegance Bratton — a formerly homeless Black queer man himself — is an essential watch

Pier Kids. (VQFF)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. 

As we are all trying to do this summer, the 2020 Vancouver Queer Film Festival is adapting.

This year's fest is taking place as a virtual event from August 13-23, and it's kicking things off with filmmaker Elegance Bratton's extraordinary documentary Pier Kids. The film follows several years in the lives of Krystal, Jusheem and DeSean, three homeless LGBTQ youth of colour who congregate at the Christopher Street Pier in New York City. Raw and uncompromising in its depiction of some of the most neglected members of the LGBTQ community, Pier Kids should be required viewing for less marginalized queer folks who have spent this Pride season trying to reckon with their privilege.

"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," the opening title of the film reads. "Out of America's two million homeless youth, over half are LGBT. 40% of those queer youth are people of colour."

Bratton — a Black queer man who himself once lived on the streets — talked to CBC Arts over the phone last week about his experience creating the film and the path of resilience he took to get to the point to make it. 

This film is such a window in the lives of these kids. And even though you filmed it between 2011 to 2016, it feels just as relevant right now. It brings such humanity to the fact that queer youth of colour are disproportionately facing exceptional systemic racism from the police and how they also disproportionately experience homelessless, which now means being especially at risk with regard to COVID-19. It's a really powerful film to watch in the context of the moment we are living right now.

Thank you. And yes, I think the first thing that's really important for people to understand about Pier Kids is that the film is a meditation on the legacy of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, two trans women of colour — two homeless trans women of colour — who, in the summer of 1969, considered Christopher Street and its piers to be their home, just like Krystal, Jusheem and DeSean. And also like the people in Pier Kids, Sylvia and Marsha, as trans women of colour, were very much subject to lots of police harassment and brutality. One of the difficulties around being Black in public has to do with the very fact that by virtue of being Black in public, you are highly visible to law enforcement. And in a situation of gentrification, what gentrification is kind of seen as is a code word for ethnic cleansing. Very often the mission is to clear public space of poor people so that property values can go up or be maintained.

As was the case of Sylvia and Marsha, for the folks that star in Pier Kids, their very presence in public spaces is seen as a nuisance at best and a threat at worse. And that can make you sad. That can really, really upset you. It's going to make you feel as though you're not allowed to be in public just by virtue of how you look, the colour of your skin and the way you present your gender. And I understand why Sylvia and Marcia and the kids that are on the pier today would want to riot. This film understands why they want to riot because this film is squarely on the side of the pier kids and squarely on those who have the least to lose and the most to gain from a devaluation of structural racism and transphobia.

I understand you yourself were kicked out of your home after coming out and spent time homeless. We see stories like this documented, but few from filmmakers who have lived version of the stories they are telling. To me, it felt like with you behind the camera, it became in part a celebration of these kids and their endurance...not simply a depiction of their marginalization. Do you want to talk a little bit your experiences as a youth and how they ultimately led to you becoming a filmmaker?

I came to filmmaking by way of a happy accident. When I was 16 years old, I was kicked out of my house for being gay. And that's pretty traumatic, so I just went to the train station and I brought a ticket to go to New York City because growing up we would always go to New York. We would just go look at buildings and wander around the street. So I got on the train and I saw who I felt to be three Black gay men who were having the time of their lives. And I thought they were gay because they were acting really, really gay in public, much gayer than I knew was even possible to be in public. I was really excited that they could be so comfortable in their own skin. So I was like, "Well, I wonder where they're going." I followed them, and they led me to Christopher Street. And, you know, it's so interesting that you use the word "celebration" to describe the spirit of the film, because for me, I felt celebrated for the first time being gay and Black together.

Pier Kids. (VQFF)

And prior to that moment, how had you been reckoning with that intersection?

I mean, I was the only Black kid in my elementary school. So I always felt out of place because of being Black, and then it was also a Catholic school. Basically, the closer and closer we got to sexual maturity, the more and more the priests and the nuns would tell us how evil and doomed homosexuals were. And then in my own household, I grew up in the shadow of the Black church so we had a lot of homophobia in our family. Not to mention a lot of my relatives ended up dying of AIDS, so there was the stigma of all of that. So, you know, it was it wasn't a fun place to be gay. So when I got kicked out and made my way to Christopher Street, I was like, "Oh my god, these people are like me and people want to flirt with me," and it was amazing.

Fast forward 10 more years and I end up in a homeless shelter. And I asked my mother to come back home and she said to me, "If you're still gay, you can't be here," and suggested I join the military. So I joined the Marine Corps — that's where I got hired to be a combat filmmaker. My job at the Marines was making movies.

Wow, that is an extraordinary way to find your way to filmmaking.

It was crazy because I'll never forget on my first duty station, I was called out to general's office. He had written a script, basically, for his retirement. And he had asked me what I thought flow of his script, because, you know, I was in combat camera and he wasn't. And I found that to be kind of significant because it was the first time a straight white man had ever asked me my opinion on anything. And I was like, "Wow, this is novel." And I decided to stick with it.

Pier Kids. (VQFF)

With Pier Kids, how did you find the participants and how did you gain their trust to allow such intimate access to documenting their lives?

I started talking to pretty much everyone who would sit down. It wasn't until I met Krystal that it was directed what the style of the film should be. We had been interviewing one another for around a month. And, you know, in the military, you learn to make a movie in a very kind of didactic way. You ask certain types of questions and there's a certain angle of the camera. You light them, you ask the questions and then you're done. I tried doing that with Krystal like three or four times, and it was frustrating me and frustrating her because I didn't feel like I was really getting any sense of who she was. And then she turned to me and she says, "Elegance, if you want to tell the story of my life, then you have to be my friend."

What did she mean exactly?

Like — "The camera has to be my friend. You have to be on my side in case things go wrong. If I'm hungry, you're going to make sure I have something to eat. If I'm feeling threatened, you're going to make sure that you're on my side." It was then that I realized the film had to be told in the first person, because that is the reality for pier kids. This film has the potential to make the audience into a pier kid for 80 or so minutes. It's important that the film does that because it puts the audience right into the skin of oppression. When I see a cop, my natural response is to flinch. So when you see a cop in this film, you flinch and you pay attention to them. You make sure you know where they're at so that you don't get abused by them. This film's spirit is that of a young person who has been tossed out of their homes for their sexuality and absolutely requires community survival.

This interview has been condensed for length.

Pier Kids opens the virtual Vancouver Queer Film Festival on August 13th at 7pm PST, with a Q&A aftrewards featuring Elegance Bratton and Chester Algernal Gordon. Buy tickets here.


Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada and nominated again this year) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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