“I decided to take a road trip to big cities and small towns,” says activist and influencer Raymond Braun, describing the genesis of “State of Pride,” the new YouTube documentary directed by Oscar-winning filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman that premiered on opening night of the 2019 SXSW, just in time for Pride season. The engaging and emotional feature-length documentary follows the articulate and appealing Braun to several Pride festivals across the country with the aim of finding out what Pride means to individual LGBTQ people 50 years after Stonewall.
The film is book-ended with stops at the Washington, D.C. Pride, with visits to wildly different Pride events in Tuscaloosa, Ala., San Francisco, and Salt Lake City in between. What emerges is a diverse portrait of moving individuals for whom Pride holds great meaning in different ways.
For those of us in huge metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, with highly visible and widely accepted LGBTQ communities, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that people in many smaller communities across the country still struggle for visibility and still take great risks – personally and professionally – to be out, loud and proud. Among the more moving parts of the film are scenes where Braun visits with trans women of color in Alabama, who speak of the lack of visibility and respect they receive even within the LGBTQ community. The Tuscaloosa Pride festival that Braun visits is only the small city’s third such event. After we get to know several local LGBTQ people, it is surprisingly moving to watch these now familiar friends gather for the small but meaningful festival.
Among the people Braun follows in San Francisco is Jackie Thornhill, a young trans woman attending her first Pride event. The film’s focus on Jackie helps remind us that, even in the largest cities with the longest history of LGBTQ activism, there are always people taking those first frightening and thrilling steps out.
The Salt Lake City sequence focuses on Carson Tueller, a young gay man who uses a wheelchair following a spinal cord injury from a freak gymnastics accident. Tueller comes from a devout Mormon family, and his relatives have varied levels of acceptance of his sexuality. His request that they join him in the SLC Pride Parade is one of the more dramatic parts of the film. Tueller’s inclusion in the film also brings up the subject of the visibility of people with disabilities in the LGBTQ community, as the voluble Carson speaks openly about other people’s propensity to desexualize those with disabilities.
Braun, a cum laude graduate of Stanford who is the former head of YouTube’s LGBTQ outreach, is a passionate and enthusiastic guide, simultaneously embracing the joy of Pride and the serious social and political issues that many LGBTQ people still confront. A native of a small, rural town in northwest Ohio, Braun easily relates to those who feel marginalized or set apart from any larger community. And he is equally at home bantering with a gloriously jaded old drag queen in San Francisco.
With Epstein and Friedman directing, the film has an impressive pedigree. The pair directed two Oscar-winning documentaries in the 1980s, “The Times of Harvey Milk” and “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt.” They are also responsible for the Emmy-winning “Celluloid Closet.” (You can check out YouTube clips of Epstein’s acceptance speech at the 1985 Oscars, where he courageously thanked his “partner in life” on the worldwide broadcast.) “State of Pride” was developed and produced by Portal A, a digital studio. The film can be seen for free on YouTube.
With its cross-country scope, and spotlight on people of color and trans folk, “State of Pride” is illuminating even as it entertains. The film also pays respect to the history of the movement, and the importance of recognizing how far we’ve come since Stonewall 50 years ago. “Pride is both a party and protest,” declares Oakland activist and advocate Kin Folkz, the Community Grand Marshal of San Francisco’s Pride Parade.
In the D.C. sequence, Braun catches up with that city’s 2018 Pride headliner, South-African born Australian singer, actor, and activist Troye Sivan for a backstage interview. After a playful performance in front of the gushing Pride gathering, Sivan turns reflective in the interview, recognizing that, in terms of Pride, “people have been doing this a long time. We owe it to our elders that we get to be here today.”