Last night I saw two films at Outfest that helped me know exactly why the Los Angeles LGBT film festival — which just celebrated 35 years — will continue to be relevant, including for people from across the multicultural rainbow of LGBTQ communities.
The narrative feature Saturday Church was preceded by a short called Headless from director Sebastian Sdaigui. Both these films from very young diverse filmmakers with diverse casts spoke directly to me, a 53-year-old black gay man.
The short, which depicted post-adolescents coming to terms with their identities as queer young people, struck me hard. Its leads talked about trying to send a message to younger people that it's OK — no, imperative — to accept and love who you are in all your queerness.
Saturday Church, directed by Damon Cardasis, told the story of a young person of fluid gender identity on an odyssey of self-discovery. After the death of the father of young Ulysses (the name is “on the nose,” but to good effect), his fundamentalist Christian aunt moves in to help his mother raise him. His younger brother catches him putting on his mother’s shoes and turns him in to his aunt. At the same time, Ulysses is haunted by his sense of being different at school. He connects with a group of young trans and gender-fluid people at a community center known as Saturday Church who give Ulysses space and a supportive environment to be himself. Musical numbers provide expression to feelings that are too strong and passionate for simple prose dialogue.
I watched the film, transfixed, and identified so much with the teenage Ulysses. The young filmmakers and actors delivered a piece of art so specific to the experience of the characters, and yet, so beautifully universal. I was Ulysses, except I had an Afro because it was the '70s, not the late 2010s; my story was in Chicago, not in New York; I was the younger brother, caught by my older brother and threatened to be outed to my parents for being caught kissing another boy in the neighborhood, while Ulysses’s younger brother outed him.
As I watched the film and listened to a discussion with the film’s director, producer, and two principal actors, I heard them express their intention to help make the world a better place for the generation that comes after them. Well, as a gay man over 50, who came out late in my 40s, I knew they were not just speaking to a younger generation to tell them, “It gets better.” They were also giving that message to an older generation of people like myself: It’s gotten better and will continue to do so, but we must remain vigilant and never cease to try to improve our lot.
In the end, Ulysses’s story was different from mine because he had the fierceness to claim his identity, stand up to the forces against him, and insist on being who he was meant to be. I didn’t have that kind of courage when I was his age, so my story took a different path — not worse, but different. My path brought me two daughters who are growing up in the more free and accepting world that Ulysses inhabits. Like Ulysses, my daughters have a fierce determination and intention to fight as warriors for social justice and for the acceptance of all kinds of people.
My journey has taken much longer, but I stood in those same high heels as Ulysses and took a few steps on that odyssey under the watchful eyes of more experienced friends and spiritual ancestors who came before me who told me that I could do this. What I had not expected was the power of these young people, some younger than my children, to teach me lessons about how to be myself and how we all can do this. I can perhaps take a brief respite from my frequent pangs of despair about the future of our country and especially the future of LGBTQ people of all colors in knowing that these young people are figuring out how to tell our stories.
And that’s why Outfest will continue to be relevant for a long time to come.
TERRY FRANKLIN is a member of the Board of Directors of Outfest, and is working on a novel, The Last Will of Lucy Sutton.