Aug Sept 2016
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The Advocate

What #OscarsSoWhite Can Learn From a Corpse and a Kiss

What #OscarsSoWhite Can Learn from a Corpse and a Kiss

In a thrilling scene from Vámonos, one of the shorts that screened at Los Angeles's Outfest Fusion event earlier this month, a young woman breaks into a morgue. In defiance of her late partner’s conservative Hispanic family, she removes the makeup and dress from the corpse of her lover. Then she carefully clothes her partner in a suit.

In heartbreaking flashbacks between past and present, we learn that this is how her partner wanted to be seen to the world. A suit was what the deceased would have preferred in life as well as death. 

The gala at Outfest Fusion, a film festival dedicated to LGBT people of color, which is held at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, screened shorts that were full of moments such as these. They offered glimpses, both sweet and sad, into the lives of LGBT people of color. 

In the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, in which the Academy Awards failed to nominate actors who were not straight and white, these spaces that celebrate and promote diversity are more vital than ever. After all, much more than entertainment is on the line. In the real world, LGBT people, in particular transgender women of color, face exponentially higher rates of violence and murder than the general population. And when they die, many, like in Vámanos, are buried in clothes they would never wear, or under tombstones engraved with names they did not identify with. The lack of representation in media is an extension of this erasure.

As shown in the films of Fusion, the consequences of erasure can be dire for LGBT youth. In House Not Home, a gender-fluid teen weeps after encountering cyberbullying and then physical abuse from classmates after wearing gender-nonconforming clothes to school. A friend, Skyping from across the country, grieves how they cannot be physically there to offer comfort. Both lean in to kiss each other through the screen, a gesture that will resonate with any queer person who, in their youth, felt trapped and alone. All too often, even family members can be foes.

This was not the only short to showcase the plight of young people. In Whittier Blvd., a white lesbian offers temporary housing to a Latino youth struggling with their gender identity, but, after bemoaning the loss of butch women, refuses to assist in their transition. In Veracity, a high school cheerleader is ostracized after she is outed. In Robo Saint, a young man turns to gender-bending cosplay in order to express a love that dare not speak its name.

This is the world in which many LGBT young people operate, where far-flung friends on social media can be more trusted than those from their daily lives. In this world, films such as these in Outfest Fusion are more than celluloid. They are "stories that say, 'I see you, and I love you' to our community," as explained by Outfest's executive director, Christopher Racster, in his introduction to the night.

This love is vital when LGBT youth are twice as likely to be physically assaulted than their straight peers, according to the Human Rights Campaign. LGB youth are also four times as likely to attempt suicide. The two are linked. Each incident of bullying can multiply the desire to self-harm by 2.5.

Can an Oscar nomination or a movie that says "I see you" save lives? Yes. GLAAD, an organization that fights for positive depictions of LGBT people in media, exists because of the power of these representations to change hearts and minds. Unfortunately, even as LGBT characters and storylines appear more frequently on television, "we still struggle to find depictions anywhere near as authentic or meaningful in mainstream Hollywood film," said CEO Sarah Kate Ellis after the release of the group's most recent Studio Responsibility Index, an annual progress report on Tinseltown's diversity. 

"Hollywood must recognize that LGBT people are worthy of depictions crafted with care and humanity, and we should be part of the stories they tell," she said. "Doing so won't simply demonstrate respect for a long-standing part of their audience, but it will align Hollywood film with other media in telling more authentic stories that represent the full diversity of our society and encourage greater understanding."

"Only then will we be able to say that America's film industry is a full partner in accelerating acceptance," she added.

However, the responsibility of "accelerating acceptance" may not fully rest in the hands of film studios. Filmmaker Lee Daniels, speaking at a recent PaleyFest event, urged those who feel underrepresented to take matters into their own hands, particularly when it comes to systemic barriers like racism and homophobia.

"Here's the bottom line. The minute that I embrace it, it becomes real to me," he said. "I don't have time to blame Paramount or Sony or Fox or whomever. I get my own money. I get my own actors. I write my own scripts ... I make my own way, and I don't want to hear, 'Woe is me. They ain't treating me right.'"

"Get off your asses and do it," he advised.

"People are going to tell you no, because you're not part of the system," he added. "You're an outsider. You'll always be an outsider, because of the color of your skin. This is the way of the world. ... Kick the door open, and don't take no for an answer."

The honoree of the Outfest Fusion evening, Nisha Ganatra, said it best: "Make a movie, change the world." The Canadian filmmaker, who is of Indian descent, did indeed kick the door open in 1999 with the release of Chutney Popcorn, a coming-of-age tale of a young Indian-American lesbian. Sadly, films like this are still rare in 2016. But after describing all of the hurdles she has faced in Hollywood due to her gender and background, Ganatra still expressed hope.

"Change never comes as quickly as we want it to," she said. "But it does come."

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