Elegance Bratton’s film Pier Kids documents the lives of LGBTQ+ youth who spend much of their time socializing and surviving on the Christopher Street Pier in the West Village of New York City.

Filmed over the course of three years, this documentary brilliantly captures the humanity, complexity, and community of one of the most vulnerable sections of society. The three main characters in the documentary, Krystal, Desean, and Casper, became close friends with Elegance during the filming process.

Elegance spoke with us about high rates of LGBTQ+ youth homelessness, using art as a medium to communicate with ancestors and his artistic experience creating this documentary.

What drew you to storytelling in general? And then more specifically, what attracted you to this story and inspired you to tell it?

Filmmaking kind of chose me. I was homeless for ten years. At the age of 16, my mother kicked me out for being gay. I ended up joining the military. My recruiter was the one who suggested I become a combat filmmaker. I choose filmmaking because it allows for the depiction of cultural experience that is accessible to anyone willing to take in the art form.

When I was first homeless on the pier, black trans women were the ones who really saved my life. So, what I wanted to do was use the film as a way to kind of raise up that moment in my childhood, which was so magical. As horrible as it may sound to be homeless, it is also quite magical to find a community of people that accept you for who you are, even if they don’t have all the resources to solve your immediate problems. So to preserve that magic and the magic of my childhood, I thought it was necessary to raise up, listen to and not judge black trans women.

How did you meet Krystal, Desean, and Casper? How did you approach them with the idea and begin collaborating and forming relationships with them?

Well, first off, I started the project with a prompt from my sociology class in undergrad. Our professor was like, “Go somewhere where you can observe social networks at play and write about them.”

I kept asking myself, “What is home?” And for me, the place where people understand me, where I don’t have to say a word, and they get me is on Christopher street amongst other queer people of color.

And then I met Krystal who, from the beginning of interacting with her, she had such a deep, motherly energy. She’s very beautiful. Krystal said to me, “No, you have to be my friend if this is gonna work.” And then once she said that I decided to utilize a first-person point of view experience in the film. Krystal literally changed the way I was making the movie.

Once that changed, I met Desean. Desean is a big character. He was like the mayor of Christopher street, so talking to him was kind of intimidating. I started to talk to Desean, and I realized that Desean was really, really smart. He really reminded me of myself when I was homeless. Once I started to really get to know them, the community started to come to me, and I met Casper. Casper spoke to me because he’s been through hell. He’s been through as much hell as I’ve been through, but he’s not cynical. He’s so loving and so sweet and so full of life. Once I started spending more time with them, I was no longer just a guy with the camera.

Can you speak to the significance of the connection between you, the director of the narrative, the participants of the documentary and the significance of queer people of color and black people having a hand in their own narratives?

Well, I think that whoever is holding the camera is telling their own story. I find that most of the time, the filmmakers and the people who tell our tell stories about black queer people or queer people of color are often white people. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Like Paris is Burning. It’s a really good film. [But] it’s important that people who are from the experience have the opportunity to tell their stories.

My personal worldview, and I think that of the film, is that white supremacy, police brutality are not nuanced gray areas. These are laws that have been in existence for hundreds of years that are about curtailing the presence of black people in public space. And for a white person, I think it’s hard to see yourself [in the narrative] when you are a part of the problem

Absolutely. As a black woman, I recognize that even though black women have a rough go of it in this country, there is a subaltern even below us that is even more vulnerable.

Yeah, and a part of that vulnerability is why there’s such a boom around documentaries in this community. The gay rights movement started in 1969 with two black trans women who were homeless, Sylvia Rivera, and Marsha P. Johnson. For 50 years straight, you could go to Christopher street with a camera and find a population of people who are living like this and tell a story about them. That, in its essence, is a statement about vulnerability.

Some documentarians approach their projects with a problematic gaze, as if poor black folks are stuck in amber just waiting for the intrepid documentarian to discover them, shine a light on them, validate them and give them a voice. But what you’re doing is recording people who have voices without you, and when you leave, they’ll still have a voice.

My film deals with what I think is the primary issue, which is, families of color, black families, in particular, kicking trans kids out of the house when they start to express their truth and live their truth. When I was 16, I was kicked out. I didn’t have a driver’s license. I didn’t have a college education. I didn’t have a high school diploma.

You know, all you have is what you’ve got, which is very often one’s body. So when you see sex workers in my film, you know, I’m conscious of not glamorizing it, but also not degrading it either. This is a viable form of employment for folks who don’t have all of the necessary tools to engage in the economy. At the same time, this is a transphobic and racist society, that even if they did have all the tools, you know, it’s going to be a struggle to find that rung on the economic ladder where you are not subjected to sex work.

This film is about the inherent risk of being outside all the time for trans women. That risk is heightened because of the visual of who they are and also because of the toxic masculinity of who they attract. But it cuts across the entire LGBTQ spectrum because when you think about it, you know, more than half of America’s homeless are LGBTQ youth and more than half of them are of color, predominantly African American. As a result of living outside, they deal with more risk. That’s where this film takes its life. We’re outside with them.

One of my key takeaways from this film was that this community of pier kids, though no doubt survivors, are also victims of a system that has failed them. And then they are victims of predators that come in all forms. The film raises the notion that these communities need care, rather than violence. I really appreciated how you were rewriting the cultural narrative that for so long portrayed those young people as the criminals and as predators themselves, when in fact, the root of their situation was vulnerability.

I’ve always bristled at the larger white supremacist culture that looks at black folks through the lens of pathology, period. Always, anything we do, it’s pathological. Anything we do is a sign of cultural deterioration. What that does is lock us into how the white supremacist system sees us and understands us so that we can easily be transported into prison or into the grave.

The American capitalist system has always required an underclass in order to sustain the perpetual growth of society. For every public school that closes, for every desk that you lose, the state builds three prison beds. Gentrification is a tool for expediting this process. That predatory dynamic between pier kids and police creates a ripple effect across all class dynamics.Cops understand that their job is to arrest black people and harass black people in public in order to discourage them from existing in gentrified spaces.

Speaking of social, political divides, you mentioned in the Q&A that your focus was depicting this population of individuals that were by all accounts unseen in mainstream culture. In the vein of the seen and the unseen, what are some other messages or identities or stories that you feel are lacking from mainstream narratives about queer people? 

In my childhood, I didn’t really interact with trans men that much, but I think they need more representation in mainstream media. Additionally, we don’t ever see enough poor people on screen.We often look at poor people like there’s something wrong with them. In reality, there’s something wrong with our system that allows people to fall through the cracks. And if it wasn’t for poor black women and for black trans women, there would be no black American culture, right? So, I think we need more content that depicts the genius of poor black women, black women in general, but especially poor black women.

Along the lines of rewriting cultural narratives, I really appreciated when you and your husband, Chester, spoke in the Q&A about intentionally keeping that ball scene in Pier Kids very quick because the context of those gatherings is, to quote Chester, “[to capture] the nitty fucking gritty.” I read a critique by Bell Hooks about Paris is Burning and how the film isolated the individuals from familial scenes or home settings, and almost commodified their glamour. Why is a more raw, vérité portrayal so significant?

I can say that first of all, the history of cinema and histories of black and American culture is again, like everything, being done for the white gaze. When you’re enslaved, you work to create white wealth. We have been stuck in a power dynamic where the name of the game is the extraction of resources from vulnerable populations. That is how you create wealth in a capitalist society.

That’s not the full breadth of what Black art is for. It’s not just to entertain and to enrapture the white gaze so that they can throw coins at you. This is the way that we speak to our ancestors. Voguing is not just a bunch of flamboyant queer people slapping their wrist around in high heels for the sake of like glitter and lipstick. Voguing is a competitive martial art where people have decided to turn their rage into an aesthetic for the sake of trying to figure out a way to overcome their oppression.

In the Q&A, you mentioned that you wielded the camera to get the audience “into the skin of oppression.” Could you elaborate?

You have to know what it feels like to walk through the world with all of this brilliance in you and to be rendered invisible at best and a danger to society at worst. For me, putting people in the skin of our oppression was important. It was a way for me to channel that rage into something that could hopefully uplift my community, but also put a stop to this notion that somehow, I’m worthless if I’m not entertaining somebody. Or the notion that the only value I have is in so far as people can use me.

What changes would you like to see?

There is a nonprofit industrial complex that’s been built after the HIV AIDS crisis — The HIV AIDS crisis is still ongoing in black communities, particularly black queer communities. I think these nonprofits have a lot to answer for in their role in dismantling systemic oppression.

Our kids are dying unnecessarily young. We need to be creating alternatives. We need to have way more representation on the boards of these organizations. We need to be employing our youth. Most importantly, these resources need to be spent on housing and education, period. It needs to happen, and it’s not happening enough.