“Out of Respect” offers a 90-minute window into a year in the life of five young homeless LGBT adults in Milwaukee whose childhoods were dominated by instability, neglect, abuse and abandonment. The film also reveals the inadequacy of community support for those whose sexual/gender orientation makes them more vulnerable to such hazards as discrimination, substance abuse and sexual exploitation.
In fall 2009, when UWM lecturer and documentary filmmaker Tess Gallun (Reel Life Films) met the young people profiled, all of them were new recipients of housing through two assistance programs. One of the programs, Q-Blok, was a promising new resource for Milwaukee’s LGBT youth in need.
By the time filming was completed about a year later, three of the youth – Amber, Jesse, and Monica – had been kicked out of their programs. Amber left Milwaukee to live with relatives for a while, then returned to the city, homeless. Jesse began to couch-hop and his boyfriend Josh joined him. Monica lived in her car.
In anticipation of the film’s Feb. 24 Milwaukee premiere, Gallun shared her thoughts and experiences.
Will Fellows: You’ve ex-plored varied topics in your previous films: wildlife conservation, gun violence, religion, racism. Why this topic?
Tess Gallun: About four years ago, Jane Ottow came to my office at UWM. As LGBTQ program coordinator with Children’s Service Society of Wisconsin, she was looking for help to raise awareness on gay youth aging out of foster care. She hoped we could do this through my documentary production class. I agreed, but knew it would require a bit of funding to do it right. For a year I sought grants and support, without success.
I stayed in touch with Jane, knowing that somehow, some way, I had to tell this story. My determination had to do with my own upbringing, and how fortunate I felt to have a supportive family when I came out. But it also had to do with my protective maternal instinct. My partner and I had been trying to build our own family and, after years of unsuccessful pregnancy attempts, we decided to go the adoption route. In September of 2008 we were placed with a 10-day-old baby through the child welfare system.
That first year as Mom, I began researching the aging-out process for gay youth. The more I learned, the more shocking the story became and the more urgent my need to tell it. Sexual discrimination at home, in school, and in the child welfare system was jeopardizing the chances for gay kids to lead productive lives. As soon as I met a homeless gay youth, I became aware of the urgency and multi-layer impact. Even though I had no funding, I decided it was time to tell this story.
In September of 2009 I invited my documentary class to begin pre-production on this powerful undertaking. Sharing this project with my students would resolve some major production expenses. More importantly, it would provide a meaningful collaboration between gay youth and college students. Both groups would learn from each other and foster community relations and social media activism. This kind of experience is one reason I love to teach!
WF: How have you been affected by becoming closely involved in the lives of the film’s subjects?
TG: Both positively and negatively. On the positive side, I truly believe this problem can be resolved – after witnessing the youths’ focus and courage to become healthy adults despite the pain they’ve endured; after witnessing Q-Blok and other allies in action; after seeing the discussion gain momentum.
Knowing how uninformed many parents, educators and child welfare workers are, I’m compelled to continue providing support after the documentary is done. First, through finding financial and physical support to create an educational outreach campaign. Second, by becoming a Q-Blok sponsor. Seeing the impact a few sponsors have made on one of these young people has shown me how invaluable one person can be in their lives.
On the negative side, I found myself consistently feeling that my role as “professional documentary filmmaker” was denying my innate desire to become their “Mom” and bring them home. I think I may have experienced a form of depression throughout the editing process, wishing I could do more.
WF: How have the student filmmakers handled the project?
TG: The crew did an amazing job negotiating their roles, treating the youth with respect, and learning as much as they could as production plowed ahead. I was proud of their creative insights, their ability to face their fears and thoughtfully engage in a complicated story and emotionally demanding topic.
Our biggest challenge was to build trust with these young adults. I was asking a group of abandoned and abused youth to trust and be open to a group of privileged college students, most of whom had no understanding of being homeless or gay. Once trust was achieved, the students had to learn the balance of being close with our subjects while remembering their role as documentarians. Setting some boundaries. This is hard to negotiate, especially for a compassionate person who wants to provide support to someone who needs it.
WF: What effects do you hope “Out of Respect” will have?
TG: I hope it will raise awareness of homelessness among gay youth, who are at greater risk than non-gay youth. I hope it will push schools, youth service agencies and the child welfare system to acknowledge the existence of gay youth and provide more safe resources and open support. And I hope it will mobilize allies and other families to step in where homophobic parents and families have failed – to confront discrimination, to have no tolerance for hate and to become a source of the unconditional love and respect that these youth so greatly deserve.