Pier Kids is a documentary about the queer kids of colour whose only real home, place of safety, place of acceptance, is the Christopher Street Pier. Instantly that places it in the same lineage of films as Paris Is Burning and Kiki, which does 2 things: It shows up the progress with this film being stories about queer people of colour being made by queer people of colour, and it shows up how little progress is being made in the bread and butter experience of the lives of people facing multiple layers of oppression and hostility.
Pier Kids deliberately shies away from focusing on the pageantry and spectacle within black queer culture, not because it in any way denies the creativity and joy of the community, but because that is what everyone wants to stand and take a picture in front of. You will see white people down at the pier, marching on Pride day. You won’t see them there at 3am on a Tuesday night when all the homeless kids are trying to stay warm.
This film is less about that, and more about the day-to-day reality of what it’s like to be homeless as a teen, or what it’s like to engage in sex work in order to feed yourself. How do you spend your days, where do you go? Practicalities of how to steal food, and how to market yourself as a non-passing trans girl in different porn categories.
I feel that to some degree, there is an attempt in Pier Kids to defetishise queer culture, which seems to be so marketable, and humanise queer people, which seems to draw decidedly less attention and money. One guy wonders aloud whether or not he should try to get HIV, because there are programs to house HIV positive people, and it might help get him off the streets. As appalling as that is to hear, the film makes you understand how that is not a crazy idea, how the dangers of surviving on the streets mean that contracting a treatable, but still incredibly serious, condition might actually be the safer option. And these should not be your only options. Without ever having to state it explicitly, the entire film speaks as a plea that we value the lives of these young people, that we give them better options.
It is amazing that this film, while focusing on the hard realities people face, never feels grim. The situation these kids are in is not an invitation for pity and hand-wringing, but a stated fact of injustice, which the viewer is invited to confront. The young people themselves rise to their life’s challenges, the film highlighting their creativity and agency in developing strategies for survival. It shows the support, love and acceptance they show each other in a world where their existence is rejected.
To some extent, you can’t help coming away from this movie with anger, which is right. Watching cops hassle a woman out with her kid sleeping in a pram at night, because cops never bring solutions, only trouble, and they can’t conceive that a black woman out late at night with a kid might not be doing it because she’s just an inherently bad mother, but because she’s homeless and it might be safer for them to keep moving during the nighttime. Vans of dozens of white cops show up to arrest two teenage kids for play-fighting and rassling in the street. Congrats, criminal record for having a go at your pal. Cops hassling a deaf black guy during the Parade. It makes you wonder if anything has changed since Stonewall. This movie could be about Marsha and Sylvia hooking to keep a roof over their head half a century ago. Somehow queer people of colour kicked off a movement that seems to only have benefitted white cis folk. And when there’s a rainbow sticker slapped on everything, and queer culture can be marketed for prime time tv, trans and gay kids of colour will still be sleeping on the Christopher Street Pier, thinking of ways to survive their next 24 hours.