Shauna Miller is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She is the former managing editor of CityLab.
The upcoming film Check It follows three years in the lives of a crew of gay and transgender teens in Washington, D.C.
In 2009, the neighborhood of Trinidad in Northeast D.C. was somewhere that you needed to hold your own. Especially if you were a teenaged trans girl. Especially if you were rocking a dress you made yourself, maybe full makeup. Like a million neighborhoods in America (and the world), in Trinidad, a queer kid could get attacked for that, even killed.
That year, a group of queer and trans teens who'd grown up in the neighborhood were kicked out of school for fighting. But fighting was a part of daily life for them. They fought their parents (if they were still around), who called them "retarded" and "faggot." They fought with the police, who dubbed them a gang—criminals. But mostly, they fought off merciless attacks by other kids, who harassed, beat, and threatened them every day. They banded together into a crew and called themselves the Check It.
They developed a reputation. The group grew, and continues to grow. People started getting out of their way. These days, the crew is about 200 strong, and they walk wherever they want and wear whatever they please.
"This change happened on their watch, because of them," says Dana Flor, co-director (along with Toby Oppenheimer) of the upcoming film Check It. "They started out as victims and they banded together for protection. They drew a line in the sand and said, 'This is it. We don't want to be bullied and picked on anymore.' They had the muscle. And now people know that you don't mess with the Check It."
The film, produced in part by Steve Buscemi, spans three years in the lives of several core members of the Check It—a lifetime in teenager years, notes Flor. She and Oppenheimer met the teens while they were filming their 2009 film, The Nine Lives of Marion Barry. Mo, an informal mentor to many of the kids, met the filmmakers and introduced them to the crew.
"You're dealing with something special, dealing with something dangerous, dealing something with a lot of potential to be great ... or disastrous," Mo says in the film's trailer on Indiegogo, where the project just surpassed its fundraising goal of $60,000 to produce a rough cut of the film. "They been damaged and they can hurt people. But the flip side is that they're resilient. And they see a glimpse of hope now."
The Check It is a chosen family. It's also a way to survive.
"Being together allowed them to be who they are in a place that was always beating them down," says Oppenheimer "Now they can be as flamboyant as they want to be because they know that if someone gets jumped, with one linkup, one text to everyone, within minutes they'll have 20 people or 40 there to protect them and fight back. At times it can get out of hand; they are kids. But the violence they're involved in was sparked from defending themselves."
The trailer shows the Check It involved in several nasty fights, and they are hardly angels. "If you don't stand up for yourself no one will," one teen says in the trailer. "I don't show no one my weak side," says another. "But I'm a strong survivor, so if I know you're trying to hurt me, I will hurt you."
The film is no glorification of gang life. It's the story of a few of the crew's founders and the community they created for themselves. "Most of them, their mothers were casualties of the crack epidemic," Flor says. "Most of them don't really know their fathers. A lot were thrown out of school in the 8th or 9th grade. There hasn't been a lot of supervision in their lives." There are "baby Check Its" now, a new generation of LGBTQ young teens who have role models of a sort—more of them at least than the older kids.
Mo and two other local men who serve as informal mentors to the teens have been some of the only consistent, positive presences in the lives of many of the crew members. "They are basically knocking on their doors every morning saying, 'Get out of bed, go to the GED course, get your diploma, go to this job program we are helping you with,' " says Oppenheimer. He says he hopes that the outreach to foundations and community relationships they've been building over the past three years will pay off with a more formal, funded mentorship program with resources for LGBTQ teens.
Oppenheimer and Flor, though, have also become a permanent part of the kids' lives. "Gaining their trust was hard," Oppenheimer says, "It became a process of letting them know that we were there for the long run. These kids have been disappointed by pretty much everyone in their lives, starting with their parents, schools social workers, law enforcement, churches, and their community. We had to prove to them that we weren't going anywhere—that we were there for them and with them. That we really wanted to hear their stories and get their stories out there. They were suspicious, but to have someone ask them about their lives was such a rare occurrence that they really started to respond."
Part of the film focuses on the crew's fashion line—their own designs they make for dances and balls and just to stand out in a crowd. Part of any proceeds from the film, which the directors hope to enter into festivals such as Sundance and the New York Film Festival, will go to materials for the teens' designs and to continue attending a local fashion-focused summer camp.
As they filmmakers prepare for the final stretch of editing, they are also working with a counselor to prepare the film's subjects for what it will mean to have their lives let loose on screen. "We're very protective of them," Flor says. "But this could mean so many opportunities for them. All they need is an opportunity and they jump at it."
The past few years have not been easy on a lot of the crew. "Some of the Check Its have ended up in jail," Flor says. "They've been raped. They've been stabbed. They—and we—have seen a lot. But the changes they've made over the years we are really proud of."
"This relationship won't end," Oppenheimer says. "We've fallen in love with these kids. It'll go on for years and years and years."