With the network premiere set for next Thursday, June 27 (9:30 ET), HBO’s The Out List presents a collection of 16 intimate portraits of leaders within the LGBT community and features prominent women such as Ellen DeGeneres, Janet Mock, Cynthia Nixon, Suze Orman, Christine Quinn, Wanda Sykes, in addition to community leaders and activists like Lupe Valdez, the first female, Latina, and lesbian sheriff of Dallas County, Texas, and Wazina Zondon, a Muslim-identified Afghan and sex educator.
Filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders began the project over two years ago; it is, as executive producer Orlan Boston writes in the forward to the project’s companion book, part of “a larger collection of investigations [The Black List, The Latino List] by Greenfield-Sanders that explore race, diversity, accomplishment, and identity in America.”
HBO recently hosted a screening of the documentary in New York City, and a sizable contingent of the documentary’s subjects were on hand to celebrate its production, including Lady Bunny, Wade Davis (escorted by one of my favorite writers, Darnell Moore), Twiggy Pucci Garçon, Janet Mock and Wazina Zondon.
(Side note: Edie Windsor was in attendance as a “special guest.” While, for legal reasons regarding the imminent Supreme Court decision, she could not speak with the press, she was kind enough to pose for many, many, photos.)
Janet Mock expressed humility to be a part of the project with such an esteemed group of people, and, she told me, she was “happy to represent [the trans community], especially as a woman of color.” Yet she insightfully qualified her statement, noting that the “transgender community is not a monolith,” and that her inclusion was only a metaphorical tip of the iceberg. To my surprise, she also informed me that her “portrait” was filmed nearly two years ago, so she herself was excited to watch the documentary to observe how her own sense of self has changed during the past two years.
This change in understanding is even evident in the film, as Mock confides her own realization that she did not want to live a “normal” lifestyle after transitioning: “At 18, I had already fully transitioned. For trans people, the ‘T’ in LGBT, I think, there’s a sense, inherently within us, that we want to blend in. After transitioning, I just wanted to live a normal life as just another girl in the crowd. But I think, after a while, I kind of felt as if I was hiding something.”
I also spoke with Wazina Zondon—who was escorted by her partner and, hello!, they are totes gorgeous—about how she has re-imagined her own personal identity, which is an amalgam of several minority subject positions, in light of of filming her portrait.
“It definitely made me think about being out as someone who has multiple identities, because shortly after filming I began to think about the repercussions on family—is my community, as Muslim, as Afghan…are they ready? But I think it’s about time they stop pushing things under a rug. I am part of a larger community. I’m not speaking for all Muslims, but i’m a queer Muslim speaking out, so I felt like it was important to be a part of the project.
Indeed, Zondon’s portrait was sincere and powerful, particularly as she explained how she navigated her queer identity in relation to her religious and ethnic culture. Her father’s response to her coming out was painful; he bluntly told her, “You’re already a double minority. You’re a woman in this country. You’re an Afghan. You come from refugee parents. You don’t have to prove anything. Don’t live this life of struggle. There’s no such thing as gay Afghans. So, if you think you’re a lesbian, there’s no such thing. But if you want to come out about it, just know that I will not be able to be buried in Afghanistan.” Zondon, looking into the camera and speaking directly to the camera, holds back tears and responds, “To think about jeopardizing his integrity, his dignity, and his honor is a frightening and very shameful, upsetting place to be. But I also know where my resilience comes from—from that same man….”
In Cynthia Nixon’s “portrait,” she explained her decision to appropriate the “gay” label for political reasons:
“There are a lot of people who really don’t believe people when they say they’re bisexual. So, I try [to] avoid the bisexual label because it just brings so much grief down on you. People think you’re faking it, you’re wishy-washy. Or people think you’re a sex addict or something, who doesn’t want to make up their mind. I want to be a political fighter and I want to be in there fighting, so I call myself gay. And, certainly, I’m delighted to be in the gay club.”
This statement, bold, blunt, and unapologetic, struck me as the finest articulation of how and why the bisexual community is being erased within the larger politics of the LGBT movement. I think Nixon could really revolutionize the narrative around bisexuality if she so chose to do so. (Frankly, I think this woman could walk on water if she so chose to do so.)
There were two moments during the screening that elicited wild cheers and hoots ‘n hollas from the audience that are worth quoting in full here.
Rabble-rouser Lady Bunny threw a big red brick at the audience with this gem:
“Do gay kids value their predecessors? No, I don’t think that they do. Don’t you ever discount the drag queens. I get so tired of these conservative gays always saying, ‘The leathermen and the drag queens, they don’t represent our community.’ Well, we started your gay rights. It was not the conservative gays that put on a pink T-shirt or a rainbow flag one day a year and then went back to their closeted office jobs. It was the drag queens and the street people that were getting the harassment by the police who said, ‘Uh-uh. Enough! Here’s a brick in your fucking face!’”
And Wanda Sykes offered a brief synopsis of her transition into muff-munching whoredom:
“I was living as a straight woman…. I would say, you know, a good wife. When the marriage ended, for other reasons, it was…it was very liberating. Then something, like, went off: ‘Well, I tried that. It didn’t work out. [rubs hands greedily] Let’s get some pussy!”
Whether comic or somber, or full of queer rage (thank you, Larry Kramer and Lady Bunny), each portrait culminates with a moment of catharsis—the subject’s gaze directed at us as the shot fades to black.
Many of the documentary’s subjects ruminate on the seismic political and cultural shift in America in favor of LGBT rights via their attention to central tenets of the mainstream gay agenda like marriage, and the military, and, more generally, “acceptance.” If Greenfield-Sanders continues to make these exposés and, specifically, if he makes an Out List sequel, it will be fascinating to reflectively witness how the dialogue—the gay agenda itself—will change in the next decade alone.
Until that time, you can check out the original Out List beginning next Thursday, as well as purchase the companion text (which essentially provides transcriptions of the portraits), over at HBO.