Elegance Bratton made his first voyage into one of New York City's uncharted nocturnal civilizations when he was 16, after an argument with his mother. "She gave me an ultimatum: Either confirm that you're straight, say that you're gay, or get out of the house," the Columbia alum recounts in a phone interview. Not prepared to give her a straight answer, Bratton fled from his New Jersey home for the night— with a plastic bag of belongings on his back, a dearth of family or financial grounding under his feet, and a will to wander in the nearby metropolis. He bought a train ticket.
On board, Bratton came across three anonymous individuals who would escort him to the next epoch in his life as a young and black gay man. “They were laughing, and they were singing, and they were having a good time. They were all really, really well-dressed,” Bratton recalls. “So I just followed them, because I didn’t have anywhere to go.” The destination was Christopher Street Pier on the Lower West Side, near the site of the 1969 Stonewall Riots—often cited as the headwaters of the LGBTQ rights movement. That night would be Bratton’s first glimpse of many things: a public locale teeming with queer people of color, a 10-year struggle with homelessness, and the backdrop for his documentary Pier Kids: The Life—parts of which will be screened pre-production at Teachers College on March 3.
For a while, Bratton’s intermittent excursions—at first lasting a few nights at a time, then a few weeks, then months—to Christopher Street represented something of a locomotive getaway from his difficult life at home. “[Nightclubs] like the Limelight, the Tunnel, the Palladium, and Webster Hall—these are places of almost paradise-like fantasy, with incredible music and celebrities,” Bratton describes. “All you had to do was go to the pier, be gay, and be open to it, and folks would just take on this journey, and that was exhilarating.”
But in Bratton’s early 20s, the chimera wore off when he became just another adult black man sleeping on someone’s couch, or in the homeless shelter. When his motherrefused to let him back in the house, he joined the Marine Corps, where he documented humanitarian aid work in Southeast Asia and developed his skills as a filmmaker.
Over a decade later, while studying African-American studies and anthropology at Columbia, Bratton returned to the Christopher Street Pier armed with a video camera and Pier Kids: The Life in mind. The documentary chronicles the lives of three gay and transgender youth of color and their own struggles with homelessness, police oppression, and rejection by their families over a three-year time span. So far, most of the funding for the film has been collected from donations on Kickstarter. Michael Rodriguez, an associate producer on the film, confirms that Bratton needs “around 90k” for the last leg of expenses.
When it comes to gay and trans nightlife culture in New York, whatever serialized notions drift about the city’s collective consciousness—terms like voguing, drag ball, runway legend, and phrases like “strike a pose”—can often be attributed to Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. The film froze in place the burgeoning ballroom scene of the 1980s, rooted in the same underground epicenter of New York’s queer blacks and Latinos that Bratton would encounter many years later. Like Bratton, Livingston faced immense difficulties raising money for the film.
Today, Paris is Burning exists as a monument printed on celluloid (and streaming on Netflix) not only to the beauty of ’80s ball culture, but to the AIDS epidemic of the ’90s, which would take the lives of the film’s performer protagonists. In 2011, Next Magazine reported that Paris Dupree, one of the last remaining drag mothers featured in the film, had died. In the article, performer Karl Xtravaganza (of the famed ballroom House of Xtravaganza) commented that the death of Dupree signaled “the end of an era.” The aesthetic remnants of Paris is Burning remain scattered throughout the media—for example, on the reality television series Ru-Paul’s Drag Race, which is billed as a competition to find “America’s next drag superstar.” Yet popular culture being privy to what sells, such programs tend to emphasize the glamour-packed, adrenaline-tripping, morale-boosting thrill of it all.
“One can be fascinated from the ballroom culture, but not necessarily understand the yearnings of [Livingston’s] characters, of the life that’s denied them because of their sexualities,” says Marcellus Blount, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia, who introduced a course called Black Queers to the curriculum last semester. Blount explains that when ball performance is taken out of context, “it makes it easy for audiences to applaud what’s so aesthetically beautiful about these house cultures. But it also allows us to distance ourselves from any sense of social responsibility, and I think that is problematic.” Professor Blount is familiar with Pier Kids: The Life after having taught Bratton as a student at Columbia. He suggests that the film is especially blunt in its confrontation of pressing social issues—like the violence faced by queer adolescents on streets (sometimes from police officers), and heightened political and economic disenfranchisement, often as a symptom of gentrification of the West Village. “I think because of that, it hasn’t necessarily received the funding it needs,” Blount says. “It’s doing something different, and it’s doing something scary.”
Bratton himself suspects that raising money has been difficult because mainstream consumerism tends toward the stylish or inviting elements of gay and trans culture, while his film confronts more tragic realities. When not cast under a floodlight of fierceness, queer people have been woven into television series as members of nuclear middle class families (like Will & Grace, or Glee). “The kids [on Christopher Street] don’t resemble these tropes,” Bratton explains. “They are remarkably different!”
This is not to say that New York’s queer performance scene exists in a remote channel of mainstream culture and society. Bratton points out how the choreography for Beyoncé’s “Why Don’t You Love Me” is taken from moves out of the more current ballroom scene. Financially, many current ball events are kept afloat by extensive non-profit industries, some of which sponsor HIV testing at the balls. That said, the focus of Pier Kids: The Life is on what happens to the protagonists outside of the ball, on their own. Bratton notes, “In the ballroom, people don’t want to talk about being homeless.”
For now, the young director is thankful for the help he has received. From donations on Kickstarter, and their symbolic stimulus, Bratton and the participants of the film have had enough wind behind their sails to keep moving forward. Bratton is now in the midst of submitting content to some film contests, in hopes of securing more funding. “It’s a constant fight,” he admits. “But I believe we’re going to get there.”
This article previously stated that the Chelsea Pier was on the Lower East Side, rather than on the Lower West Side. The Eye regrets the error.