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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Opinion

Second Class Citizens and the film that never was: UH professor calls on filmmaker to release his documentary


Building on the 2010 and 2011 momentum of the nationwide “It Gets Better Project” and the “Trevor Project,” Ryan James Yezak, a gay Hollywood filmmaker and Houston, Texas, native, launched a campaign on Jan. 9, 2012 with Kickstarter in hopes of securing $50,000 to make a documentary detailing how society systematically mistreats gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals.

Two months later, Yezak’s viral project was “backed,” having received a whopping $176,354 from 4,272 individuals – half of the individual donations were $25 or less. Second Class Citizens was due to be released in January 2013. Over seven years later, however, this film is nowhere to be seen.

I learned about Yezak’s project on Facebook. I watched his trailer and looked at his past productions and found his videos different, interesting and inspiring, especially “The Gay Rights Movement,” “I Want To Know What It’s Like” and “Only Gay In The World.”

During a time when I was becoming more comfortable with and open about my own queer identities, these all had important and personal meanings. I remember feeling like my $75 donation was another step toward my own liberation.

Yezak made promises to go out in the community and to address the issues that forced gay, lesbian and bi people into second class citizenship.

Marriage inequality laws, gay panic defenses, bans on gay blood and gay adoption, laws that allow employers to fire gay employees and disowned children were all among the promised topics.

I even wrote to Yezak, explaining that I was a historian finishing my doctorate and would be glad to consult on any historical questions that might come up. He actually wrote back, saying great, thanks, be in touch. I was even more excited about the project, for a time.

According to Kickstarter’s guidelines, Yezak was supposed to deliver the project on time, with reasonable delays understandably, but was also supposed to provide regular updates; updates were scarce. Two in 2012. The third update came in May 2013 after the scheduled completion date.

After a flurry of other updates in 2013, the next one came almost a year later in July 2014. Following a few others, the last update came on Nov. 13, 2016 saying that the film was basically finished and that a rough cut was almost three hours.

Over the years, hundreds of people have left comments, questions and complaints on Kickstarter begging Yezak to please say something. Yezak only ever replied to seven of these. Additional angry voices can be found on Facebook—all without any acknowledgment from Yezak. 

I have even sent Yezak direct messages asking for some kind of update, eventually asking for a refund, saying that my $75 could really benefit some actual queer cause. Specifically, using Facebook Messenger, I had sent him a bill for $75.

We have all been ghosted.

And despite our complaints and reports, Kickstarter hasn’t done anything about it either, at least nothing that has been communicated to the 4,272 backers.

Certainly, Yezak had the welcome difficulty of filming during a time that has seen unprecedented increases in the everyday acceptance of queer individuals and acknowledgments of basic human rights.

Support for equal marriage, for example, increased from 40 percent in 2010 to 63 percent in 2019. But, documentaries are always historical snapshots and can never give voice to every issue.

During the time he says filming was in progress, to his credit again, Yezak launched a national campaign in July 2013 aimed at ending discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation for blood donors.

His “Gay Blood Drive” showed how many men who had previously had sex with another man desired to donate blood, but couldn’t due do unscientific bans, and made people aware of such prohibitions. It was a powerful protest—people across the United States knew they would be denied but still went and asked, “may I donate blood to help save a life?”

Almost a decade since becoming a backer for Second Class Citizens and having taught queer studies and queer theory for years, I can now see some problems with its premise. The promotional materials are too homonormative, too homonational.

That is to say, they generally focus on stereotypical, cisgender, conventionally attractive, able-bodied gay or bi males and they focus on the importance of assimilating with the state and joining social institutions, such as marriage and the military.

Promotional materials also neglect to include trans individuals as part of “the community.”

 It’s ironic that Yezak promised to help give queer individuals a national voice but is now actively denying any voice by not giving information about what is happening with Second Class Citizens and by not sharing the stories of the people he supposedly interviewed.

 Yezak owes people something. And at this point, owes everyone all the footage he took, if it exists. What better time than as June 2020 Pride Month is wrapping up?

What better time than when the Supreme Court of the United States has taken a stand and said people cannot be fired merely for being gay or trans or thought to be gay or trans? 

Otherwise, Yezak did nothing more than profit off of the queer deaths by suicide and the queer murders that prompted the activism that made his project even possible. 

Andrew Joseph Pegoda teaches women’s, gender and sexuality studies;
religious studies; and English at the University of Houston and
can be reached at @AJP_PhD on Twitter or at [email protected]

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