A Story of Five
Homelessness is a commonly championed yet often misunderstood cause. The term itself conjures up images of middle-aged vagabonds, presumably mentally ill or fighting with addiction. It is such a vast and varied problem that it is simply easier to believe that all those without a permanent home fit into some sort of reductive profile, in turn allowing our society to become complacent in accepting this flawed definition of homelessness.
Documentary filmmaker Tess Gallun is challenging our complacency with her new film Out of Respect: A Story of Five, which premiered at the Milwaukee Art Museum on Feb. 24.
Out of Respect follows five homeless queer youth as they hustle and struggle to survive on the streets of Milwaukee. Over a year of shooting and 100 hours of footage were whittled down to 90 minutes of intimate and informative exploration of the plight of homeless queers in our very own city.
The premiere sold out days in advance, a testament to the importance of the story Gallun is telling. The five youths: Jesse, Josh, Monica, Josiah and Amber were in attendance, visibly taken aback by the swelling of support for both their courage to be filmed, and their situation.
The film offers no narration, but instead allows the subjects speak for themselves. There are no contrived story arcs with which to unify each person’s story. These young Milwaukeeans simply exist within the film, and watching their lives unfold on screen is a rich and rewarding experience. They were even given cameras to record their own video diaries, making their confessional-style outpourings personal, heartbreaking and, at times, refreshingly hilarious.
The decision to showcase these subjects so organically was a deliberate one. Gallun wants you to see them as youths first, and LGBT identified second. In fact, the viewer does not know they are queer until about twenty minutes into the film. It is a delicate omission meant to challenge minds and which reinforces Gallun’s intentions for Out of Respect to be an educational tool and catalyst for conversation. As she explained to me, “I am purposely trying to get you to care about them as young people and then realize they’re gay. It’s important to talk about youth because we’ve all been young; we all know how hard it is.”
Indeed, the film presents some very sobering figures. Citing the Cream City Foundation’s “State of Youth Homelessness Report,” out of the 400 homeless youth in Milwaukee on any given night, 20 to 40 percent are LGBT. In one of the most pragmatic and affecting scenes in the documentary, it is revealed to the viewer that there is no box to check to identify a young adult entering foster care or another state system as LGBT. So as long as the state is not keeping track of how many gay kids enter the system, they remain invisible. And if they remain invisible, they can be ignored.
For Gallun, the crisis doesn’t lie in the statistics, but in the ramifications thereof. “This population is at a higher risk for everything because of fewer housing options, intolerant environments and less family to turn to. They’re more susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse, exchanging material goods or food for sex and have a higher risk of suicide.”
The documentary cites studies which show that LGBT youth are roughly three times more likely to run away or be kicked out of their home than their non-LGBT counterparts, a fact that plainly encapsulates the hardships queer homeless youth face.
Out of Respect is unexpectedly exultant and quite funny at times, and Gallun says she was adamant on focusing on the subjects’ resilience. “They’re not victims; they’re courageous, amazing and succeeding in life. They inspire people to educate themselves; they elicit sympathy in people who have resisted understanding.”
It takes a special kind of courage and person to present their life to a roomful of strangers. Yet these five have done it, and have helped start an important dialog borne out of respect and understanding.
The next screening of Out of Respect will be held at 2 p.m. on Thursday, March 10 at UW-Milwaukee’s Union Theatre (2200 E. Kenwood Blvd.) as part of the Diversity & Climate Inclusive Excellence Conference, which seeks to diversify and improve the climate on college campuses for everyone. For more information, contact Linda Huang, (414) 229-5433.
View the trailer on IMDB by clicking here.