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A New Community: Queer/Art/Mentorship

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Many of us started out our gay lives in isolation. It was a feeling that began to creep up -- on the way to school, watching a TV show, reading a book, in science class with the handsome teacher -- and suddenly, we knew we were somehow very different. And for most of us, there was a long time when we never spoke about these feelings to anyone else. Maybe we started acting on them, maybe we didn't. But the pattern was set. Being gay set us apart.

Much of my life has been about creating a counterbalance to these feelings. By 15, I was lucky enough to find the theater. In Memphis, where I grew up, I started acting, and then directing plays in junior high, and I found a home in a local children's community theater. Maybe that's when being arty and being gay for me was first linked. It's not a coincidence that before there was Glee, there were many, many of us who felt most ourselves behind the stage, rehearsing. These were communities that embraced us, and these were places where the history of gay people was visible in a way that it wasn't in the rest of my life. Seeing the road show of A Chorus Line in 1977 at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Memphis was a life-changing event for me: there were gay people, on the stage, and they all lived in New York.

By 1988, I was living in New York myself. The city of Michael Bennett, of Robert Mapplethorpe, of Keith Haring, and John Sex, and Arthur Russell. By the early '90s, all these men had died, and the artistic city of my dreaming was a very different place. I had started making films myself, and gay ones, but I didn't know how to proceed. I continued as a filmmaker, but the subject of my work changed. I began to say to myself that I didn't need to make films explicitly about gay people to be a queer filmmaker. I mostly still think that's true, but I also wonder how my work would have changed if I had had more role models, if I had ever had a queer mentor.

Working on the Obama campaign was a life-changer for me. I realized during that campaign that structure is the name of the game, and so, soon after the election, filmmaker Adam Baran and I started Queer/Art/Film, a monthly series at the IFC Film Center in downtown New York that invites queer artists to present the films they love to an audience. At the screenings, I began to see the same faces month after month. We watched in the darkened theater the films of Jean Cocteau, of Chantal Akerman, of James Bidgood. Another community forms. I found myself creatively in dialogue with these voices, these celluloid mentors. This summer, I shot my own queer film, Keep the Lights On, a very personal film about two men in a long-term relationship, and about New York City. It comes from my life, but also as directly from the dialogue that Queer/Art/Film has started for me. Now my work is not just queer; it's gay again.

Thirty years after I played Winnie the Pooh in that queer little children's theater, Lily Binns (co-executive director of the Pilobolus Dance Theatre) and I have launched Queer/Art/Mentorship, an independent program that supports queer working artists in New York City. It's another stab at fighting the isolation, for the fellows that are a part of the program, but also for myself. By creating a structure for interaction among artists, among queers, among generations, we hope to create a new sense of home, a new community. Who knows what trouble we can cause.

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Ira Sachs | Keep the Lights On