New doc explores the silent ’T’ in ’LGBT’
Thanks to the work of Chicago filmmakers Henrique Cirne-Lima and Josue Pellot, the word is slowly beginning to leak that vibrant and open LGBT communities are not limited to the city's North side -- and such depictions are long overdue for a city that's been focused on Boystown for far, far too long.
Through their first-time full-length film, titled I Am the Queen, Cirne-Lima and Pellot have offered up a side of queer Chicago that isn't often included in more mainstream representations of what the city has to offer: A small group of transgender women, all of Puerto Rican descent, competing in the annual Cacique beauty pageant in Humboldt Park, a neighborhood on the city's Near West Side.
Through following the pageant's four contestants, the filmmakers offer a rare glimpse into the day-to-day struggles and triumphs that define a queer community that's chosen to carve out its own unique space under the broader LGBT umbrella. Their representation belies stereotypes that all too often reduce the transgender community to caricature and presents a welcome alternative to the traditional media's narrative of tragedy and discrimination. This tale, instead, is one of redefinition and reclamation -- that of one's body, one's family, one's community and one's livelihood.
With the film set to screen before a fundraising reception for a new endeavor for an LGBT-geared transitional housing space in Chicago, Cirne-Lima and Pellot opened up about their experience working on the new documentary.
Stumbled upon pageant
EDGE: What inspired you to create a documentary on this subject?
Josue Pellot: We stumbled upon an invite to a beauty pageant one day and the invite alone just said it all. It said it was a beauty pageant for Puerto Rican transgender youth from Humboldt Park and it was just so focused that I found it to be really interesting. It was layers of minority on top of minority. I brought it up to Henrique’s attention and from there we just started slowly looking for who was sponsoring the event and one thing led to another. We had intended for it to be a short film and we ended up with a feature length project.
Henrique Cirne-Lima: When we first started doing the interviews, we thought the film would be about transgender people in general, but when we met the main characters at the first Vida/SIDA meeting for the pageant, the film took a totally different direction. The women in the pageant were really interesting to us and opened up a lot of their time and lives to us. The film became about their lives and we wanted the larger picture to come through their experience.
EDGE: What was it about these women that really appealed to you? When did it really click that you wanted the pageant to be the central focus of the film?
HC: When we went to Ginger’s house [the fiery matriarch of the neighborhood’s transgender community], it was the second meeting and the second time we met them and it really took off in terms of how lively it was. We pointed the camera and things would happen. It was so spontaneous.
JP: Little by little, all of these things kept developing right in front of us, and I think we got really lucky with the story. Even with Julissa and Jolizza [two of the pageant’s contestants], it was confusing because we were even confusing them and during the interviews, it was night and day. These were things we weren’t expecting.
HC: And then, with the end of the film coming down to the two of them facing each other waiting for the pageant results, that was really fantastic. We couldn’t have scripted the film to play out in a better way.
We wanted the audience to get to know them and get a glimpse of their personalities and lives and learn through that way. I think it’s the best way to break down stereotypes and prejudices -- getting to know a person from that group.
Much support, little homophobia
EDGE: Was there anything that really surprised you to learn or uncover while you filmed this?
HC: One thing was Julissa’s family support. I was really surprised to see that. I expected most of them to be homeless or have no family ties at all, so that was a really unique and beautiful thing. Also, I was surprised to see the lack of explicit homophobia in the community. I expected the film, because of its subject, to have much more of that coming through, but it really didn’t. In a Latina community, I expected there to be more machismo, homophobia or dirty looks, and there was some of that, but it wasn’t as explicit or clear as I expected.
JP: They said they have more problems with that in Boystown than on Division Street.
EDGE: Tell me more about that -- the safety and support this specific community offers for these women, that they don’t feel from the "mainstream" gay neighborhood. I think a lot of people might be surprised to hear that.
HC: Some of the women said they don’t like coming to Boystown and that they feel much safer in their community. Everyone knows each other and it’s a little more protected. A lot of them grew up there, and a lot of the people in the neighborhood knew them from when they were little boys ... It doesn’t come through the film too much, but from their perspective, they feel very left out from the gay community. When we first started filming, Julizza told us that the T in GLBT was silent and we love that line. The film was going to be called "The Silent T" for the longest time.
JP: I was really touched and impressed with this event, a lot of times it felt like it was all being held together by duct tape, but I think it actually made a difference and gave these girls something to look forward to and take aim at. They are like a family, and sometimes there’s gossip there, but it’s all there and this really brings a snippet, an intimate side of this community and these peoples’ lives. I really hope that side comes through.
EDGE: How has the response been so far from those who have seen it?
HC: Pretty far, it’s been good though we haven’t shown it to too many people yet, just select close friends. What we always get is a lot of discussion and thinking that it triggers.
JP: We’ve had a few transgender people watch it from the neighborhood and the LGBT community and we’ve gotten really good feedback from them. They like the angle that we pushed.
HC: I think they were touched that we showed their lives as their lives, not relying on the stereotypes. We showed the dark side, a side that hasn’t been shown too much.
EDGE: What are your goals for the film?
HC: We are sending the film to some festivals and got accepted at the Chicago Latino Film Festival [held April 1-14, 2011], which was a great surprise for us. We’d really like to get distribution for the film and get this film before the biggest audience we can get.
JP: We’re also already working on a part two, a sequel.
HC: I want to follow their lives again and see what happens six months or a year after the pageant, to see how the film affected them.
’I Am the Queen’ screens Friday, Feb. 18, at Roberto Clemente High School, 1147 N. Western Avenue, beginning at 5 p.m., followed by a reception benefiting the "El Rescate" transitional housing project, which aims to offer the city’s first LGBT-geared homeless youth shelter. Visit www.prcc-chgo.org/vidasida/ for more information.