Documenting queer lives: Outfest & Docfest's LGBT selections

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday September 1, 2020
Share this Post:
'Nelly Queen: The Life and Times of Jose Sarria'
'Nelly Queen: The Life and Times of Jose Sarria'

During these COVID-19 times and its accompanying restrictions, feature filmmakers have been hampered in starting and finishing their projects. However, because their crews tend to be smaller, documentarians have been able to continue some production because they often use archival footage material and small-scale interviews, which provide safer working conditions.

Thus, it is likely we will be seeing more documentaries made in the coming year, a possible boom time for the genre. As if portending this trend, both the 19th Annual San Francisco DocFest (September 3-20) and OutFest (the Los Angeles version of Frameline) are offering several excellent LGBTQ documentaries, available for streaming at home, since the pandemic has resulted in the cancellation of theatrical screenings.

'Out Loud'  

Sing out
Featured at both DocFest and OutFest is Out Loud, which chronicles the initial 2015/2016 season of the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles (TCLA), the first and largest choir of transgender and gender nonconforming people singing together.

We follow their journey from the chorus' inception to its public concert debut at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall, co-performing with the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles, providing some tutelage and guidance.

The chorus was founded by Lindsey Deaton, also the initial artistic director. Deaton had her beginnings leading church choirs and uses similar discipline and training techniques to help the choristers (many of whom have no musical backgrounds) find their groove. TCLA was challenged by member's vocal range changing as they transitioned, so it took awhile for the chorus to find its voice. While initially their sound was not very good, they rapidly improve the more they practiced.

But as with any singing group, the key to success is the community that is nurtured among the members as they support one another in their struggles to accept themselves. The best parts of Out Loud are the personal stories such as recovering from reconstruction surgery, overcoming discrimination at work, or dealing with abuse at home or in their personal lives.

Some of the music was composed by trans woman member Jordan Balagot and one of the documentary highlights is TCLA singing her original composition "Genderfreak." It all leads to an inspiring, thrilling conclusion, not to be missed. The film is co-presented by Frameline at SF DocFest.

'Legendary: 30 Years of Philly Ballroom'  

I am Legend
DocFest is also presenting the 19-minute short, Legendary: 30 Years of Philly Ballroom, the POC trans dance/fashion competition, made popular by the film Paris is Burning and today through the Pose and My House television series. As quoted by some of its participants, ballroom is "gay Hollywood...feeling fabulous for one night by forgetting all the troubles in your acts as therapy."

The competing houses create families of choice, having been rejected by society, they become safe, sane harbors, especially as many dancers have been abused or are homeless. Ballroom has saved people's lives.

This documentary using archival footage traces the founding of the city's scene from its first Onyx Ball in 1989 as well as its major players such as creator Michael Gaskins and shining star Renee Karan ("the mother of all mothers"). The film works best as a primer of the movement, explaining its terminology and how competitions are judged, useful to the uninitiated/those newly interested due to media exposure or celebrity involvement in the once underground movement.

Elders want its history preserved so future generations will know where they came from, though young people join today to get on TV, become famous, or be hired to perform. Legendary manages to convey ballroom's frenetic energy, elegance, and precision, convincing the viewer that its culture is a vital component of black history.


The Cure
By far the best documentary at OutFest (and which will be included at Frameline 44) is Cured, the story of activists who fomented a pivotal 1973 victory of the American Psychiatric Association removing homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. This event is arguably the most important one in the LGBTQ equality movement, which made possible future successes such as the repeal of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy and marriage equality.

Cured reveals that the sickness model of homosexuality, prevalent after World War II, was based on prejudice, not science, and led to such barbaric remedies as electroshock therapy and lobotomies to treat LGBTQ "patients."

Producers/Directors Bennett Singer (Brother Outsider) and Patrick Sammon (Codebreaker) rushed to interview key players before they died, such as activist Ron Gold, who delivered a stunning speech, "Stop It, you're making me sick," critiquing the psychiatric establishment at that 1973 APA convention, and psychiatrists working for change within the APA, such as Robert Campbell and Richard Green, a straight ally.

However, it was Frank Kameny, the irascible astronomer fired by the federal government in 1957 for being gay and head of the Washington, D.C. Mattachine Society chapter, who recognized the importance of winning this battle.

Along with his friend, lesbian activist Barbara Gittings, Kameny formulated the strategy to confront the APA. The most electrifying turning point occurred at the 1972 Dallas APA convention when an anonymous masked gay psychiatrist testified about his agonizing experiences living as a closeted therapist.

Years later he was identified as Dr. John Fryer and for the filmmakers one of their pivotal research discoveries was finding an audiotape of Fryer's APA appearance. Suspenseful and furnishing a slam dunk case about the landmark importance of this event, Cured is probably the best LGBTQ documentary of the year.

José Sarria's historic election campaign  

Nelly best
Another winning documentary at OutFest is Nelly Queen: The Life and Times of Jose Sarria, the first film to explore the inimitable SF gay Latino drag performer. Produced and directed by Joe Castel, this is an intimate portrait of the milestone contributions made by Sarria towards LGBTQ equality.

Castel, as a graduate student, read about Sarria's inspiring activism in historian John D'Emilio's book, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities. When he moved to California in 1991, he befriended Sarria, who also became his mentor. He began to tape Sarria's cabaret performances, political theatrics, and informal interviews at the kitchen table beginning in 1992 until Jose's death in 2013 (his glittering funeral was held at Grace Cathedral).

Nelly Queen charts Sarria's rise as a drag entertainer at The Black Cat Cafe/bar during the 1950s, where he built a supportive community of gay patrons with the slogan, "United we stand, divided they will catch us one by one."

Courageously he stood up to the corrupt police and vice squad, summoning patrons to defend their rights by teaching them how to defy unjust laws, such as when undercover officers entered the cafe to entrap people he had customers stand up and sing with him, "God, Save Us Nelly Queens," a raucous variant of Britain's national anthem.

When the police threatened to close down all gay bars in 1961, Sarria became the first openly gay man to run for public office (in heels too) as City Supervisor, 11 years before Harvey Milk. Although he lost, receiving almost 6000 votes, he proved that LGBTQ people could be a potent political force in SF.

After the Black Cat closed in 1964, Sarria began the second largest LGBTQ organization in the country, the Imperial Courts, modeled after European royalty, anointing himself the Empress Widow Norton. The 70 chapters have raised millions of dollars for AIDS and other LGBTQ causes.

Sarria was the first gay person to have a street named after him in SF. Nelly Queen is a triumph, alternating invaluable historical footage with bittersweet revelatory interviews (especially his regrets about Jimmy, the alcoholic love of his life), showing how a marginalized outcast fought unjust laws and united an often fractured community by giving them a political and social identity.

Nelly Queen won Best Audience Feature Film award at the Long Beach Q Film Festival and was recognized by the State Senate as a significant film on the history of LGBTQ culture. Sadly, Frameline audiences will not get to see this very fine documentary. Castel submitted the documentary to Frameline but they did not select it.

When emailed by the B.A.R., Frameline gave no explanation for this significant omission of a masterful homage to a San Francisco gay icon, but instead said viewers will see a sneak preview of a 40-minute episode of Equal, a docu-drama series on the forgotten heroes of the LGBTQ movement, produced by HBO Max and through its parent company, WarnerMedia, one of the major corporate sponsors of Frameline.

WarnerMedia, in an email exchange with the B.A.R., refused to disclose how much money they donate to the festival. This one episode, in addition to featuring a minor re-enactment of Sarria (played by Jai Rodriguez), will also showcase Bayard Rustin and Lorraine Hansberry.

(Editor's note: On Sept. 9, Frameline Executive Director James Woolley said that Nelly Queen is scheduled to screen at Frameline45 in 2021.)

'P.S. Burn this Letter Please'  

Burning love
Briefly, four other notable, binge-worthy OutFest documentaries include P.S. Burn this Letter Please, a glimpse at pre-Stonewall gay culture through letters discovered in the storage locker of L.A. talent agent Reno Martin to several NYC drag queens during the 1950s/60s, told through vintage home movies, photos and interviews. The Truman Capote Tapes features recently discovered unreleased George Plimpton interviews with the writer's friends, colleagues, celebrities, and socialite "swans," charting his life and times (complete with salacious gossip).

Freedia Got A Gun follows the career and public crusade of New Orleans's Queen of Bounce (a genre of hip hop with the gay charismatic Big Freedia, who identifies as she, having sung on Beyonce's and Drake's albums) to raise awareness around gun violence after her brother was murdered in 2018.

Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story, profiles the effervescent black, trans musician whose 1986 forgotten self-released cassette tape Keyboard Fantasies (which defies categorization with singing and space music soundscapes) was rediscovered by a Japanese fan in 2016, reissued as a CD, leading to a resurrection of Glenn-Copeland's career, with the film following him in his seventies, as he performs with a young diverse band while touring Europe. This documentary will play Frameline 44.

Nelly Queen


Out Loud


Freedia Got a Gun

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.