To celebrate Pride Month, Los Angeles public television station KCET is airing three documentaries that shine a light on gender identity, coming out and combating hate, as well as transgender issues and using school theater for social change.
The first, Coming Out: A 50-Year History, airs Tuesday, June 12, at 10 p.m. Narrated by teen transgender activist and actress Jazz Jennings, the one-hour doc explores the history of public gay identity within the LGBTQ community from the 1950s through today. Young people interview LGBTQ elders who came out during the McCarthy, civil rights, post-Stonewall and AIDS eras and compare and contrast the modern coming-out experience. The lesson they learn: Each generation stands on the shoulders of those who came before them.
“It's such an incredible feeling knowing that you are able to save a life just by sharing your story. You have to love yourself no matter what. Once you can do that, you can be true to who you are and have no fear of being judged,” Jennings tells L.A. Weekly. “We have to just love one another. That's what will bring our society together. And if we're just expressing hatred toward one another, then we're not going to move forward.”
Star of TLC's reality series I Am Jazz, Jennings identified as transgender as a young child and became an outspoken advocate for transgender kids, starting when she was 6 years old. Jennings became a YouTube sensation in 2015; her memoir, Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen, was published in 2016.
Jennings recently was quoted by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation on Twitter about facing discrimination. “When I was in second grade, I was caught using the girls' restroom, which I was not allowed to use. And that was really the first instance that I knew that being transgender caused other people to feel uneasy and that I would face discrimination,” Jennings shared. The human rights organization tweeted, “Like @JazzJennings__, @HRC’s LGBTQYouthReport found that many transgender and gender-expansive youth face unique challenges — especially in school, where a lack of inclusive policies and procedures create obstacles to their safety and well-being.”
The KCET Pride Month series also features the docs Denial: The Dad That Wanted to Save the World, airing on Tuesday, June 19, at 10 p.m., and The Year We Thought About Love, airing Tuesday, June 26, at 10 p.m.
Denial falls squarely into the tradition of docs that start by focusing on one subject before an unexpected twist complicates and enriches the initial premise. Beginning as an exploration of energy use and abuse, the film takes a leap into the politics of gender identity. The energy debate and transgender issues, two thorny and seemingly disparate topics, ultimately are united by the struggles of one man trying to confront what most people would prefer to ignore.
In The Year We Thought About Love, Boston-based True Colors: OUT Youth Theater transforms queer teens' daily struggles into performance for social change, with attitude, candor and wit. The film introduces a transgender teenager kicked out of her house, a devout Christian challenging his church’s homophobia and a girl who prefers to wear boys clothing even as she models dresses on the runway. When bombs explode outside their building, the troupe becomes even more determined to share their stories of love to help heal their city.
“As a public media voice for the region, we [want to reflect] the issues and interests of all the communities we serve,” Lou Fazio, KCET's head of program acquisitions, tells L.A. Weekly. “We are thrilled to air a dynamic slate of programs that explore important issues in the LGBTQ community.”
The three documentaries also can be streamed at kcet.org.
LGTBQ in Hollywood: Proud but Needs to Be Louder
As KCET was stepping up with its Pride Month programming, the GLAAD Studio Responsibility Index report, released May 22, found a dismaying drop in the number of LGBTQ characters in 2017 in film compared with the year before. According to the annual study conducted for the last six years by the media advocacy organization, formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, only 14 of the 109 films assessed featured an LGBTQ character last year, in fewer than 1 percent of major studio releases by the top seven studios.
Also troubling: The 2017 report found no transgender characters in any of the films analyzed.
GLAAD rankings are excellent, good, insufficient, poor or failing. Not one studio has ever earned an excellent rating. Universal and 20th Century Fox got the highest marks in the 2017 report, with an “insufficient” rating; Universal for Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning Get Out, with its suggestion of a lesbian housekeeper, and Fox for Alien: Covenant, a sci-fi thriller featuring a gay couple, only outed after their deaths. Sony also was mentioned for its Rough Night for an end-of-movie onscreen kiss shared by lead characters played by indie faves Zoë Kravitz and Ilana Glazer.
“With wildly successful films like Wonder Woman and Black Panther proving that audiences want to see diverse stories that haven’t been told before, there is simply no reason for major studios to have such low scores on the Studio Responsibility Index,” GLAAD president-CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said. “At a time when the entertainment industry is holding much-needed discussions about inclusion, now is the time to ensure the industry takes meaningful action and incorporates LGBTQ stories and creators as among priority areas for growing diversity.”
Megan Townsend, director of entertainment research and analysis at GLAAD and author of the report, pointed to 2018 releases that could help up the statistics. “Though wide-release films this year like Love, Simon, Annihilation, Blockers and Negasonic and Yukio’s relationship in Deadpool 2 have raised the bar for LGBTQ images, studios must still do more to ensure that LGBTQ storylines and characters are included in fair and accurate ways. We hope that these films are the start of an upward trend of sustained progress,” she said.
And John Balma, a gay actor best known as Barney Varmn on NBC's Parks and Recreation, summed up the conundrum and disparity still marking Hollywood as under-representative of the LGBTQ community.
“The odd thing is that behind the scenes, I would have to guess that half of the decision makers in this town are gay, and yet the representation is what it is.” Balma tells L.A. Weekly. “Executives, the people who green-light projects and are in the positions that say 'yes,' and who are gay, are filtering their choices, probably based on what they think will make the most money.
“Hollywood still caters to the middle of the country. What can you do if leaders are not interested in representing themselves? The old belief that being openly gay will destroy your life is alive and well, but it feels out of date and I hope it will change.”
Editor's note: Leaders from L.A. Pride helped curate content showcasing the local LGBT community for the June 8-14 issue of L.A. Weekly.