Nobody in their right mind can deny that the gay community has a problem with racism, or that queer men of color are often subject to prejudice stemming from the intersection of their racial, sexual and/or gender identity. That racism takes many forms—from the insidiousness of Grindr rapport like "no Asians, no Blacks" to softer forms of bigotry—but it exists, it's prevalent, and it's not something that can be dismantled overnight.
One way to combat it, though, is to spread insight and awareness into the experiences of queer men of color. And being queer filmmakers in New York City, Abdool Corlette and Adam Vazquez decided to use their skills to produce a web series that simply puts the stories of other queer men of color on screen. The result—Other Boys NYC—which premieres today on the queer media network SLAY TV—is a potent antidote to mainstream gay media, which often fails to adequately include and represent the experiences of LGBTQ minorities.
Shot against bright-colored backgrounds—the better to show off the skin tones of subjects and celebrate their beauty—Other Boys NYC is a documentary series consisting of 50 interviews with queer and trans men of color. With the intimacy of a direct address to the camera, Corlette and Vazquez hope to encourage audiences to listen to these stories with an open mind. They spoke with VICE about the renewed relevance of truly diverse onscreen representation, the earnestness at the heart of their project, and why you can never be woke enough.
VICE: This project has been in the works for a while. Did you ever think it would feel as timely as it does being released in 2017?
Adam Vazquez: We started filming last February, and we've been filming all the way until now. Trump was still making his way through the primaries then. We didn't realize that throughout the year, somehow the events of the world—like the Orlando shooting, and even when we filmed after the election—had made their way into the documentary. It did become a subject. Not at all times, but it definitely influenced some of our interviews. Which was interesting, because Other Boys almost became documentation of what 2016 was for our community.
And you can see that. For example, in Hari's interview, with him talking about how Trump's rise merely exposed something many (be they black, Muslim, women) already knew about this country.
Abdool Corlette: And I think that, also, the LGBTQ community needs to do a lot of soul searching. Many times, gay men feel exempt from certain things, and treat their Otherness as permission to get away with bad behavior, whether it be racism, sexism, or xenophobia. And the fact is that the LGBTQ community folds into the larger community. You know, many people in New York like to point their fingers down at North Carolina, like "You're terrible!" but we could literally turn on a dating app in any neighborhood and see racism. I hope as a community we take the time to chat amongst ourselves about the places we grew up, the things we learned from our communities and our families, how that's negatively contributed to the situation that we're in right now. It didn't just come out of thin air.
Vazquez: I'll tell you: everyone comes into this studio with a specific thing in their mind and heart that they want to put out there. I can't tell you how many people finally, after an hour and a half of talking, said, "Well, there's one thing I want to talk about." And that one thing becomes the final five minute interview that we edit down. I think the craziest thing was when we started interviewing strangers, people who we didn't know at all, who came to us on a leap of faith and courage, to just put it all out there. That profoundly changed both of us.
I can imagine, especially as so many of these stories really do run the gamut and offer insights into so many different family units, cultures, religions.
Corlette: There's this idea that certain cultures are very extreme or homophobic, and that Americans are somehow better than the world when it comes to acceptance—or, no, I'll use the world tolerance. And that's just not true. That's another reason why it's important to show more than just one person from one culture. It was very important to show that a person's story isn't defined by just rejection or by trauma. Like everything in life, people's stories transform and evolve. That was important too. Painting a person's story not just for the purpose of a sound bite.
Vazquez: What makes this project so meaningful is that we're really exploring identity, which is the most basic truth about ourselves. We see ourselves in this vessel that we are, and this is our body, this is where I was born, who I am. We're exploring those things. And their growth. It's really important to hear those stories because you really want to understand who people are today. And that's what we really wanted to explore with this documentary. Also to show that the sheer fact is that queer men of color are underrepresented. We're simply not there. We're just putting them out there for people to see.
And in that sense, the issue of representation which was clearly at the core of Other Boys NYC feels even more pressing. Could you talk a bit about what it means to put the spotlight, as it were, on these "other boys"?
Corlette: A lot of people can watch the Stonewall movie, or turn on Queer as Folk, or watch Looking, and I could be in a room with two white guys who see something completely different from what I'm seeing. I don't know how to show people that. How do you tell a person how it feels to never see yourself on TV? How do you make someone feel the way we feel when we go see Moonlight? I get chills just thinking about it. Because the validation and power in seeing your story, that's incredible. What's tragic is that people of color still have to experience what I experienced when I watched Moonlight. And that a lot of our white peers take for granted representation and seeing themselves on screen.
Vazquez: So what we're saying is "Stand up! Rise up!" Really. We're going to tell the world who we are. Because we have to take action.
Corlette: But we also want to tell people that sometimes they need to just listen. Somehow, a lot of times when we engage in sensitive conversations, it becomes about "Why I'm a good white person." I feel like a lot of people have a hard time, or get defensive when talking about how systems in place are inherently racist or what privilege looks like. Because of that defensiveness, it's sometimes hard to break through and make serious connection and change. At least I hope that if people have a hard time listening in person, they can at least watch these videos and listen by themselves. It's not about having a conversation about how "Oh, I'm a good ally." All of us, we all have to do that, we have to listen and learn. No one is woke enough, you know? You'll never be totally woke. There's always room to learn something new.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.