Trayvon Warren remembers his first big bullying incident took place when he was elementary school and a slightly older kid started threatening him. He grew up in a rough part of Washington, DC where there were no openly gay people, so his irrepressible flamboyance made him a target at a young age. But still, growing up with brothers had made him tough. The bully knew that Warren didn't scare easily, so he brought a gun to school in order to up the ante.
"A lot of people came, and he left," Warren, who has dreads and braces, told me. "He didn't come to school the next day. We just never said nothing else to each other."
Warren is one of the subjects of Check It, a new documentary produced by RadicalMedia and Steve Buscemi. The film tells the story of how three bullied DC teens started the only documented all-gay or transgender gang in America—also called Check It—with Warren being one of the original ten members. The group formed to provide members safety in numbers and let people know that if you jumped a gay kid in DC, you'd likely get jumped back in retaliation.
Today, Check It has about 200 members, and they make their money committing crimes like petty theft, robbery, and carjacking, filmmaker Dana Flor told me. More crucially, they provide each other with a sense of community in a place where being gay can get you ostracized from your family, your church, and your classmates.
"They're not the Bloods or the Crips by any stretch of the imagination, but law enforcement calls them a gang," Flor, who co-directed with filmmaker Toby Oppenheimer, says. "They call themselves a family."
Unlike other gangs, the Check It aren't tied to a specific geographic location. They hang out at each others' houses, mostly, as well as a local Denny's and the Chinatown and Gallery Place Metro stations. And they didn't have to do much to spread their name. A local go-go band called ReAction wrote a song about the gang and name-checked individual members. That meant people like Warren had a certain amount of notoriety, which allowed him to go to pretty much any neighborhood in DC without people giving him much trouble for being, as he and his friends put it, "faggie."
Flor and Oppenheimer's documentary, which is currently crowdfunding its final stages of editing, follows Warren and some of his friends at a crucial point in their lives. After getting a grant for a fashion start-up, they're invited to a design bootcamp and eventually get a chance to work on a show at Men's Fashion Week in New York.
Today, Warren is no longer a part of the Check It. He's about to finish the Job Corps program, and the process of filming the documentary helped him learn to trust strangers and learn that there's more to the world than his neighborhood. Opening up to the camera was hard at first, because he was afraid of how the world would judge him. Now he wants to become an actor, and hopes his fame will someday transcend the notoriety he's created for himself in the black neighborhoods of DC.
"There's more to the world than just Check It," he says. "But no matter where I go in DC, my name will always be Tray [from] Check It. That name will come behind my name forever."
Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.