Runtime: 84 minutes
Director: Elegance Bratton
By Joan Amenn
To fully appreciate “Pier Kids,” it helps to know some of the history of lower Manhattan in New York City. Chelsea Pier is walking distance from Christopher Street, where the Gay Rights Movement of the 1970’s took place. Also located there is the Stonewall Inn, the site of the June 1969 riots, hence why Gay Pride is now celebrated annually at that time.
The overall message of “Pier Kids” is that struggle for affirmation and support continues among the LGBTQ community who continue to flock to the area of Chelsea, mostly because they are homeless and have nowhere else to go. These are young people of color who have been estranged from their families. They take comfort in each other’s company, even referring to each other as parents and children in some cases.
Theirs is a harsh life of doing whatever it takes to survive, which includes prostitution, stealing, and sometimes drug dealing. As one of the “pier kids” points out, they can make more in one night selling themselves on the street than they could in two weeks at a minimum-wage job. Their patrons are mostly white males, who often drive by and offer hundreds, sometimes more, to be gratified. HIV remains a potential threat to these struggling young people, but as one points out, to test positive for the virus means to be accepted into programs that will get them off the streets and into housing. The New York police are seen patrolling and occasionally making arrests for seemingly arbitrary reasons, more for keeping the appearance of maintaining order than for actual illegal transgressions.
These are young people of color who have been estranged from their families. They take comfort in each other’s company, even referring to each other as parents and children in some cases.
Directed by Elegance Bratton, this documentary also shows a few families of the “pier kids” and how they grapple with coming to terms with their chosen identities. An aunt acts as a go-between for a mother and her transgender child whom she cannot recognize beyond the son she bore. A young gay man returns home to his church, which he professes to love so he can spend some time there even though it rejected him when he came out. It is heartbreaking to witness how much these LGBTQ people crave the love and acceptance that their families deny them, for whatever reasons.
The film points out in its opening that there are over two million homeless youth in America, half of which are LGBTQ and forty percent of that population are people of color. It’s a staggering number, all the more overwhelming when one realizes that this film was made before COVID-19. New York lost more than 30,000 people so far to the virus, and it is chilling to wonder how many of them were among these poor kids who only want a place to be accepted for who they are.