When a New Haven resident uttered this phrase at the hearing on domestic partnerships in March, it received a standing ovation. The handful of white students sat tensely, while the predominantly black residents rose like a wall behind them, clapping and shouting.
“Don’t you remember the Civil Rights Movement, when there were people marching the streets?” one Yale student asked the skeptical residents. “Black men who wore signs that said ‘I am a man.’ Well, that’s the same thing. I’m a human!”
Ran Frazier ’03 was there that day at City Hall, hiding behind his video camera, recording what happens when race, religion and sexuality collide. The scene that resulted from the confrontation between Ivy League activists and their urban neighbors made it poignantly clear: In the debate over gay rights, these factors are inextricably mixed.
“To some extent while it was happening, I was able to distance myself using the camera,” Frazier said. “It just didn’t seem real, it was so shocking.”
These issues are an integral part of Frazier’s own identity. A black, gay Yale grad, he set out to create a documentary that would sift through the myriad of issues and contradictions faced by the queer community at Yale — a community at once pleasantly insulated from, and keenly aware of, the harsh realities outside the Yale “bubble.” The result of his film studies senior project, Frazier’s documentary “Queer@Yale,” which was just screened at the Greenwich Film Festival in New York, has struck a chord among its viewers.
“The film is an index of a powerfully shifting conception of Yale,” said professor Jonathan Katz, the executive coordinator of Gay and Lesbian Studies, who provides commentary throughout the documentary.
The film delves into the many notions of what it means to be a gay Yalie, exploring various levels of political and artistic activism on campus, the social scene, and the ambivalent relationship between the isolated “Gay Ivy” and the surrounding world. Frazier focuses on the activities of Yale’s Queer Political Action Committee and follows Jimmy Johnson ’03 as he produces his original musical, “The Death of Liza Minelli.”
Frazier said he began filming the documentary in response to what he felt were inaccuracies in the October 2001 Rolling Stone Magazine article “To Be Gay At Yale.”
“A lot of people were really upset,” he said. “[The article] made it seem like such a utopist, apathetic environment. [It] focused on Caucasian, upper-class — falling into the paradigm that many people in this country take gay to mean, like Will from ‘Will & Grace.'”
So Frazier set out to discover whether gay students at Yale really were as complacent and white as he felt the article implied. What resulted was the picture of an infinitely more complex community, as diverse in background and opinion as the university of which it is part.
“Things have changed in the queer community on campus over time,” said Alyssa Rosenberg ’06, founder of the Queer Political Action Committee (QPAC) and a prominent face in the documentary. “The movie captured a particularly vibrant moment on campus.”
Katz agreed that Frazier’s documentary shows a renaissance in Yale’s queer community — a community that for most of Yale’s history existed underground. For this reason, Katz said, there are plans to send the film to gay alumni to promote the Larry Kramer Initiative, which supports gay and lesbian studies at Yale and sponsors lectures and discussions about queer issues.
Frazier documented QPAC’s actions in support of the Domestic Partnership Amendment, which failed to pass in an aldermanic vote in May, and the organization’s activites in response to anti-gay religious activist Fred Phelps’ campus protest the same month.
More than any other part of the film, Frazier said the scene in City Hall has continued to haunt him.
“It tends to be the minority communities that cannot deal with homosexuality,” he said. “It’s seen as being weak, and for a lot of people in urban communities, being able to prove your strength and masculinity is necessary.”
For Frazier, who said he was never politically active until he began the film, the artistic endeavors of gay Yalies were an equally important form of activism to explore.
The documentary’s segments about Johnson’s love for Liza Minelli and the creation of his partially autobiographical musical oscillate between funny and deeply personal.
“I wrote this play at Yale, and I don’t think I would be the person that I am if I hadn’t gone to Yale,” Johnson says in the documentary. “I don’t think I would be able to say these things if I had gone to any other college.”
But as Frazier can attest, everyone must leave Yale and confront the real world at some point. Since graduation last May, he has spent his time promoting “Queer@Yale,” splitting his time between New York his hometown of Baltimore — with frequent vists to New Haven. He said people seem to be expecting his next project, although for now he will continue to focus on promoting “Queer@Yale.”
For his part, Frazier said he has been pleasantly surprised by the documentary’s success thus far.
“I made it for a very specific purpose,” he said. “I never really thought I would still be talking about it four months later.”