A quarter century after Paris Is Burning swept the independent film world with its verité depiction of life in the New York ballroom scene, the docks down by Christopher Street, off Manhattan’s West Side Highway, are still home to New York’s largest population of homeless LBGTQ teens and young adults of color. For the past four years, Elegance Bratton has been making a documentary with the people who live there. His in-progress first feature, Pier Kids: The Life, follows three homeless youths—DeSean, Krystal, and Casper—as they struggle to find themselves, and a place to spend the night, on the same streets where Bratton once stayed. Pushed out of his home as a teen himself, the filmmaker spoke to The FADER about the twin epidemics of homelessness and HIV in New York’s queer community, as well as the loving second family he found on the piers
What brought you to the piers in the first place? I’ve been on my own in the world since I was 16 years old. When I was growing up in New Jersey, around the time that I became a sexual being, I started getting an intense pressure from my family to be hetereosexual, and I couldn’t do it. It got to a point where my mom basically gave me an ultimatum: prove to me that you’re straight by dating a girl, or get out. So I just left. I spent the next 10 years homeless, bouncing from couch to couch, situation to situation, until I joined the Marine Corps and started working in the Combat Camera unit.
When I had this altercation with my mom and left, I had like 20 bucks in my pocket, and I got on the train going to New York City. And I saw these three black gay men on the train laughing, reading each other, throwing shade, dressed to the nines, and it seemed like they were having the best time ever. And I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna follow them,” and they led me to the pier. When I got off the PATH train at Christopher Street, all of a sudden there were all these black gay men and trans women, and they were all excited to see me. It’s fresh meat, on one end, but I knew I had found this thing that I had lacked, this sense of belonging and having a place in the world.
How did your experiences on the street lead you to begin work on this project? After the Marines, I moved back to New York and enrolled at Columbia University. During summer break, in 2011, I was watching all these other kids who had homes to return to—and I just found myself back on Christopher Street again, looking to belong, just like I had done when I left home the first time. And I was asking myself, “Why does this feel like home to me? This is in public. This is so strange.” This time around, because of my time in the military, I had a new skill: I had a camera. So I brought my camera and starting asking people, “How did you get here? Why here, why now?” And from there, the whole project started.
How do members of New York’s homeless LBGTQ population survive? Well, the first method of survival is just being together. On Christopher Street, before anybody knows what your class background is, whether you’re in school or not in school, they just come up to you. “Hey, who are you? What brings you down here? Do you know how to vogue?” So that idea of forming family because you’ve been abandoned by your blood family is the first survival tool—you can be eating out of garbage cans, but to know that someone loves you and cares about you, that can give you that little bit extra that you need to find a way out.
Where do most people stay the night? Most of the interiors that we film in Pier Kids—they’re provided through the HIV/AIDS Services Association, HASA, which is a program for homeless people who are HIV positive. If your T-cell count goes below a certain level and you have a medical diagnosis of AIDS, you’re put on a list to be provided free housing. The individuals that have HASA housing are often the ones you meet in the summer, and those relationships can last—you might stay there a night; you might stay there the whole winter. A lot of people do that, but it’s very complicated: because HASA is the most direct route to free-to-affordable housing, there’s this added incentive now to not use condoms. It’s a rock and a hard place.
Where does the ballroom scene fit in with life on the pier? Krystal, one of the protagonists in the film, is a member of the House of LaBeija—her last name is Dixon. You might have been kicked out of the Dixon family, but you’re now welcome into the LaBeija family. Through vogueing and cutting up on the pier, you’re having fun and having a sense of camaraderie and joy and success. You may not be able to afford a place to live, but you can go to the ball; you can storm your category and get your trophy; and somebody on that panel can say, “You know what? You are a real woman. You are an incredible dancer. You deserve this. Here you go.”
When we look at what’s happening today in Baltimore and Ferguson and these places, what you see is young black people living in a reality where there’s really not much opportunity to rise in the social hierarchy. The history of black Americans has been to invent shadow institutions to create the opportunity to rise. The reason the film is called Pier Kids is because of the family structure created by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, the two trans women of color that started the Stonewall Riots [that kicked off the gay rights movement in 1969]—Marsha was Sylvia’s gay mother, and, together, they started the first house. And from their combination and the various trans women and drag queens and gayboys that they knew around the ghettos of New York, the ballroom scene was born. If it wasn’t for Sylvia and Marsha saying, “You’re my child, and together we are a house,” there would not have been a model for the entire thing to exist. Once you’re in a house, now you have a social network from which to garner resources. Being part of the House of LaBeija, Krystal is given access to places to stay, women’s clothes, and hormones.
Popular culture today borrows so heavily from the ballroom scene. The House of Gaga? That’s clearly influenced by the ballroom scene. Beyoncé and her whole alter-ego, Sasha Fierce—“fierce” is ballroom terminology. “Shade” is ballroom terminology. RuPaul’s Drag Race—half of those girls on the show are from ballroom houses. We have been contributing to the larger culture in relative silence and invisibility. Anything can happen to people who are not seen and heard.
Why was it so important for you to tell this story? The largest fixed population of homeless people in the United States are LBGTQ youth. They make up 40 to 60 percent of all registered homeless people in the United States—and that’s just registered. Of that percentage, over half of them are of color. So what I’ve experienced, what Krystal’s experienced, what DeSean and Casper have experienced—this is an epidemic within the black community. If you are homeless, you are eight times more likely to become HIV-positive. So, this film is meant to combat the twin epidemics of homelessness that statistically seems to be leading to HIV/AIDS infection.
It’s really about creating an opportunity for all Americans, but especially the black family, to start talking about homophobia and transphobia so that they stop kicking their kids out into the street and causing this cycle of infection and premature death. And it’s to reach out to everybody in America and say, “What kind of community are we that we can allow children to be erased? Look at the democratic community that we’re a part of. Look at what our negligence of our fellow citizens’ condition can do. Now that you’re aware of this, do something about it.”