Any fan of Pose (and the legendary ballroom documentary Paris Is Burning before it) knows the significance of New York’s Christopher Street Pier, which became a safe haven for the city’s young queer people of color. But filmmaker Elegance Bratton is now giving us an even closer look into the legendary LGBTQ landmark and the queer homeless community that inhabits it with his new documentary Pier Kids, which made its world premiere at Outfest on Sunday.
“If you’re making a film about black queer people in the tristate New York area, you are not doing it right unless you end up on the pier,” Bratton told NewNowNext at the film festival. “Pose is on the pier. It’s just what you do to tell this story ’cause it’s where you’re safe.”
And when it comes to telling the story, few are better equipped than Bratton. The director spent a decade homeless himself after his mother kicked him out for being gay when he was 16 years old. With nowhere else to go, Bratton hopped on the train from New Jersey to New York, where he stumbled upon three “really loud black gay men” whom he didn’t think were allowed to exist out in the open up until that point.
“I followed them, and it led me to Christopher Street, and when I got there I discovered a community of queer people of color, and for the first time I felt what home is because I felt understood,” Bratton explained.
“I made this film to commemorate that and to show the power of queer family building,” he added, “to combat police brutality and gentrification and to be a part of redirecting the gay rights movement behind the issue of queer youth homelessness.”
The documentary powerfully captures the pier’s community of queer and trans kids of color, including Krystal LaBeija, a young trans woman named after Crystal LaBeija, the ballroom legend who came before her. Bratton says he met Krystal while interviewing people on the pier for a sociology paper he was writing in undergrad and was instantly drawn to her.
“Krystal has this unique philosophy about life,” the filmmaker said. “She’s almost like a black trans Lao Tzu. If you talk to her for an hour, she’ll give you a bunch of platitudes, but if you follow them you too will find enlightenment. And so I did.”
Bratton says that every time he talked with Krystal, things would get deeper and deeper, until one day she said something that stopped him in his tracks: “If you want to tell my story, then you have to be my friend.”
“It was a totally mind-blowing proposition to me,” said Bratton, who soon after started meeting other subjects, all of whom spoke to his personal need for friendship and community. “What directed me to make the film is a need to connect and understand and experience life as part of a new family.”
The world premiere of Pier Kids took place at Outfest on July 21.