The Out List: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders Turns His Camera on LGBT America

6.25.2013

By Aaron Hicklin

New York during the Factory years; Los Angeles for the twilight of the studio gods, the photographer has had impeccable timing

The portrait sittings have continued, but in the last decade, Greenfield-Sanders has turned his attention to making documentaries, including The Black List (volumes 1-3), The Latino List, and now The Out List. Each focuses on a minority community in America, in a simple talking-heads style that reflects his approach to photography. And each has materialized at a moment of great serendipity. The Black List—interviews with black Americans—premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2008, just as Barack Obama was winning his first primary. Work began on The Latino List as Sonya Sotomayor was being nominated to the Supreme Court.  As for The Out List, there could hardly be a more auspicious time for a documentary in which 16 prominent members of the LGBT community make the case for equality. 

In many ways, the documentary finds Greenfield-Sanders back in the world of his old pal, Tally Brown, hanging out with the self-proclaimed freaks and outsiders forced by an often hostile society to fall back on their own resourcefulness. There’s a wonderful moment when the famously volatile Larry Kramer recalls the life-and-death struggle in the 1980s to shake Americans out of their complacency to AIDS. “You do not get more with honey than with vinegar,” he says. “Anger is a wonderful emotion, very creative—if you know how to do it.” For Greenfield-Sanders, who witnessed many friends die of AIDS in the '80s and '90s, Kramer’s contribution is the most affecting “because at a certain point, people don’t remember AIDS, even, and they don’t understand.”

Kramer is one of a cacophony of voices that remind us that the LGBT experience is more diffuse and less cohesive than, say, the experience of black Americans. For a start, some of us are black Americans, or—like Janet Mock—black transgender Americans. Put Mock alongside Lady Bunny and Suze Orman and Wade Davis and Neil Patrick Harris, as Greenfield-Sanders has, and you begin to see the challenge of talking about a collective LGBT experience.

If there is one unifying theme running through the interviews in The Out List, it’s that we all have the power to define who we are. That can hardly be truer than it is of Lupe Valdez, a Hispanic lesbian Democrat elected sheriff in the Republican district of Dallas County, Texas, in 2004. She recalls the sage advice of a state legislator not to allow the election to be defined around her sexuality, but to define it instead around her values. That is the tricky high-wire balancing act that all LGBT people are challenged with: acknowledging and embracing our sexuality or gender identity, while refusing to be reduced or boxed in by it. 

For Dustin Lance Black, being known as a gay filmmaker and writer is not just a point of pride, but a responsibility. “I’m not going to run from that label,” he says in the film. “I am a gay filmmaker. I’m not ashamed of that.” At the same time, he wants to get to a point when the distinction is immaterial. “I want to be out of the business of civil rights fighting as soon as possible,” he says shortly after recalling the bitter sense of defeat he felt on the morning of November 5, 2008. The same ballot box that had swept Barack Obama into the White House had revoked the rights of gay and lesbian Californians to marry, a result that Black believes cost lives.

But the very fact that The Out List includes people like Harris and Wanda Sykes—entertainers who have come out of the closet fairly recently—as well as a trailblazer like Ellen is a testament to a dramatic shift in the narrative. Change is coming, and in many ways faster than anyone could have predicted. Some of that is due to people like Ellen and Black, who have used their platform to challenge prejudice. It’s left largely to Christine Quinn, speaker of the New York City Council and a candidate for mayor, to sound a note of triumph. “If you had asked people 10 years ago, ‘Would, in 2011, New York State pass marriage equality?’—if you told them Massachusetts, Connecticut, all these other states had it—they would tell you you were nuts.” 

You might ask what qualifies Greenfield-Sanders to take his lens to communities that he is not intrinsically a part of. It takes a certain kind of audacity, after all, to map such emotional terrain, but the cool gaze of the outside observer also helps keep The Out List from being overwrought or didactic. In many ways, Greenfield-Sanders is doing exactly what he’s always done with his photography: shooting what he sees, documenting human lives. Only once, at a screening in Houston of The Black List, has anyone questioned his motivation. “A black guy got up and said, ‘How come you, this white guy, are doing this project?’” Greenfield-Sanders didn’t beat around the bush or choke on his own justification. “'Cause it was my idea,” he replied. 

It always comes down to timing in the end.

The Out List premieres on HBO June 27 at 9:30 p.m. EST

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