Marine Corps veteran Elegance Bratton is set to graduate from Columbia with honours in May, at the same time his documentary, “Pier Kids: The Life,” enters post-production. But life has not always been this rosy for Bratton. He was homeless for 10 years after his mother asked him pointedly about his sexuality when he was 16.
When Bratton admitted he was gay, she responded by saying “I don’t want a f—– in this house,” Bratton told Business Insider.
“I did not know that night was going to the beginning of 10 years [of homelessness]” Bratton says. “That night at 16, I was beginning to learn the lessons that sustained me for the next 10 years.”
The next decade was agonizing for Bratton. Drifting between acquaintances’ houses, welcoming college students’ lodgings, and homeless shelters, Bratton slept where he could throughout the New York City area. Fellow homeless teens at Manhattan’s Pier 45 provided the closest thing he had to a family at that point; this feeling of belonging is one of the key elements Bratton is attempting to capture in his film.
Bratton was not alone in his struggles. According to LGBTQ Nation, 1.6 million homeless teens sleep in public shelters or public areas in the U.S. About 40% of them are LGBT youth.
For 10 years Bratton struggled to make ends meet. The constant stress of not knowing where he was staying each night took a toll on Bratton, and he ran into trouble with the law for shoplifting food. During this time, Bratton admitted he also stole books of photography and poetry to keep himself entertained during the day while he wasn’t working his minimum-wage job at Kinkos.
At 25, Bratton could no longer count on the kindness of strangers. “I was no longer the young cool kid with books of poetry and cool clothing that could be a street poet,” he says. “I had hair on my face by then. At 25, I looked like a homeless black man.”
One morning, Bratton woke up at 5:30 when a shelter in Trenton was emptying out. Back on the street, Bratton made eye contact with a Marine in uniform who came over and asked him if he had ever considered joining the service.
Before he could process what was happening, Bratton was serving as a Combat Camera Production Specialist in Camp H.M. Smith in Hawaii, shooting videos and taking photographs.
Finding himself working in photography as a Marine came as a massive surprise to Bratton, who joined the Marines expecting to be a “grunt” serving on the front lines. Instead, he scored well enough on his entry aptitude exams to qualify for essentially any position he would have wanted.
“I went in with the intention of escaping art because I couldn’t support myself as an artist,” Bratton says. “I went in with the intention of going to the front lines and dying over there. If I died in this uniform, because of my service to this country, I’d be honored. I’d be in a coffin draped in a flag instead of in some plywood box or whatever happens to the homeless.”
Due to a knee injury suffered during training, Bratton never made his deployment to the front lines in Iraq. Through perseverance in developing his photography skills and guidance from his superiors, Bratton went from making copies at his base to having generals call him for recommendations on graphic design and editing.
It wasn’t easy to serve in the Marines as a gay man during the era of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”
“Homophobia is the norm,” Bratton said. “The idea is to make a better gay joke than the day before, to spot weakness in the other recruits and tear it down so that the target either strengthens up or feels so broken down that they’re shipped out of the Corps.”
Despite the adversity, Bratton flourished during his time in the Marines. Now, majoring in African-American Studies at Columbia, Bratton now feels as if his life is settling down.
His film, “Pier Kids: The Life,” is being made with the blessings and help of Columbia faculty. But it is entirely Bratton’s own project. The documentary, which focuses on the lives of three homeless LGBT teens in New York City alongside Bratton’s own journey, hopes to provide a way for LGBT youth of colour to bring up their struggles and identity with their parents and family.
“Elegance embodies the core values of a liberal education. The documentary is even more powerful because, as a homeless gay youth of colour, he experienced what the pier kids, who have been invisible and forgotten for years, still experience today,” School of General Studies Dean Peter J. Awn, professor of Islam, told ABC.
In Awn’s opinion, the film could be a way for New Yorkers to connect with the homeless teens they see on the street and potentially view as trouble-makers.
“The idea [of the film] is to flatten the distance between the viewer and the people being viewed,” Bratton says. Through this flattening, Bratton hopes to help LGBT youth of colour to speak to family members about their sexuality.
Bratton acknowledges that the documentary owes a great debt to the Marine Corps. “It taught me how to make movies,” Bratton says. “‘Pier Kids’ wouldn’t have happened without the Marine Corps. With all the welts and bruises that came along with it, I’m grateful to the Marine Corps.”
After graduating from Columbia, Bratton plans to attend the NYU Tisch school of the Arts for an MFA in directing where he can continue a career in film. Bratton will also be promoting his new photobook “Bound By Night,” which tells the story of the House Ballroom scene in the United States.
Below is a teaser for the film:
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