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This Black Trans Filmmaker Highlights the Joy in Her Community

Kristen Lovell’s The Stroll is a passionate cry for social and political equality at a moment of renewed anti-LGBTQ hostility.

Kristen Lovell's new documentary, The Stroll, captures the pain and pleasure of being a Black transgender woman in 1990s New York City. (Samantha Box/HBO)

For Kristen Lovell, simply picking up the camera is a revolutionary act.

Being in the director’s chair allows the Black transgender filmmaker to extend empathy and dimensionality to members of her community in a world resistant to their mere presence.

Just a few days into Pride Month, the Human Rights Campaign, for the first time in its 40-plus-year history, declared a national state of emergency for LGBTQ Americans. This move was a response to the record number of bills Republican lawmakers have introduced in 2023 that seek to undermine the rights and dignity of LGBTQ Americans. It came the same week the Biden administration described a series of measures that it would take to defend LGBTQ communities, and followed HRC’s announcement in November that transgender people, especially Black transgender women, are facing an “epidemic of violence.”

Yet these challenges aren’t novel. Lovell and Zackary Drucker’s documentary, The Stroll, which debuts on HBO on June 21, captures the pain and pleasure of being a Black transgender woman in 1990s New York City, and lets the community chronicle its own story. The project also functions as a passionate cry for social and political equality at a moment of resurgent anti-LGBTQ hostility.

The documentary starts with Lovell’s move to the Big Apple a few decades ago. When she started to transition, her employer fired her. To make money — that is, to survive — she began sex work in a part of Manhattan’s Meatpacking District called The Stroll. The film explores not only the struggles Lovell confronted — harassment, poverty, drug use — but also the intense bonds she forged with other Black transgender women, some of whom she reunites with on screen.

In crucial ways, The Stroll is cut from the same cloth as documentaries such as D. Smith’s forthcoming Kokomo City, which charts the experiences of four Black transgender sex workers in Atlanta and New York City. (One of the movie’s stars, Rasheeda Williams, better known as Koko Da Doll, was shot and killed in April.) Together, the films grant some of the most marginalized LGBTQ Americans the power of authorship.

Capital B recently spoke with Lovell about The Stroll, which won a special jury award for clarity of vision at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and how it might inform present-day conversations about LGBTQ rights.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Capital B: A central theme of the movie is control — who has it, who’s long been denied it. Why does it matter that you and other transgender women tell the story of The Stroll?

It’s a beautiful thing. I remember 10 years ago, a friend and I had a whole Facebook page dedicated to The Stroll, and we were encouraging people to share images and other material. It was then that I realized that we should make a documentary about this place.

We sort of let it fall by the wayside for a while, but then one day, when I was at Film at Lincoln Center’s Artist Academy, Martin Scorsese was there and talking about New York stories. And it clicked in my head: Well, what better New York story to tell than a story about The Stroll? There are other documentaries about The Stroll, and I’ve been in them, but I wanted to take a different approach, and hear directly from the community.

I approached the ladies, and they were elated to join the project. Because I’ve had the same experience, it was a lot easier to have certain conversations with them. But even as a community member, I sometimes struggled to get things out of the girls — things they didn’t want to share or felt might be too controversial to speak freely about. It’s been an amazing journey, though, and I’m proud of all the women who participated to make the story what it is.

I was struck by the joy and the light you let into the film, particularly when you talk about the sisterhood you formed.

There’s this misconception that because we’re trans, we’re miserable, that because we were in those circumstances, we couldn’t experience joy. But I think about when I was coming up and how one of my best friends — Elizabeth — and I spent our days when we were living in a youth shelter. We had to go out at night to work, but the daytime was when we experienced some of the most joy. We also made sure to link up throughout the night, and then we might have an early morning breakfast together, go back home, go to sleep, wake up, and go shopping.

Sometimes we’d just go out gallivanting, because we knew that we were fabulous and that the world couldn’t take us.

So there was joy there, definitely. The joy of transitioning and discovering yourself. It was a liberating thing to start transitioning and not care what other people thought or how they might feel about us. I’ve lived a dark life, but the movie offers more than doom-and-gloom tales. We tried to stay out of the “trans trauma porn” sector.

How should viewers think about past queer organizing — such as the work of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera — in the context of our present day?

I know that people are afraid. They’re afraid of the anti-LGBTQ legislation being passed. I just had this conversation with someone about the beauty of the U.S. Constitution. We saw that a judge rejected Tennessee’s anti-drag law, saying that it was unconstitutional. I think that we should have nationwide protections.

But we’ve seen these kinds of attacks before. They were the catalyst of Stonewall. I’m happy that we have a new generation of young, POC, trans and gender-nonconforming youth speaking out against the discrimination we continue to face today. And I just want to tell them to hold the line. We have to be visible and be ourselves and live our lives, no matter what people throw at us.

You say in the film that “the mainstream lesbian and gay community drove Sylvia and Marsha crazy because they put themselves on the line to fight for gay liberation” but “were pushed to the side.” Do you see echoes of these conflicts today?

It’s tricky. Now trans life is being talked about more often. But some of these same problems persist. I’ve met plenty of LGB elders who still call us men. I remember going into the youth center and being trans-profiled and kicked out of the space when I was coming up. Even today, I’ve been in certain gay situations where trans people go unacknowledged.

The same way there are still racist people in the community, there are still transphobic people in the community — people who don’t care about trans rights or issues. This is something I grapple with every day as a Black trans woman. But all I can do is live my best life.

What’s the connection, as you see it, between filmmaking and activism?

I was involved in many different youth programs coming up, and we believed heavily in art activism. There are various forms of art activism, and I decided to pick up the camera. At the time — this was during my first couple years of transitioning — I realized that it was important to document these stories, the things that my friends and I were going through. This may not have been your traditional coming-of-age story, but it was how we grew up and matured.

I remember getting dressed and making my installation with this mannequin I painted with feathers and glitter and makeup, and I had an old TV and a VHS tape deck and a camcorder. I went and I stood on the corner of Canal Street and asked people, “How do you feel about trans people?” And everybody ignored me. They didn’t want to speak with me. They thought that I was a freak.

Years later, I picked up the camera again, after being in [the 2007 short film] Queer Streets and a few other documentaries and articles about homelessness and trans life, and I was seeing a lot of misrepresentation [of transgender people]. I didn’t know exactly what direction I’d go in, but I was like, “What better way to change representation?” It was about being persistent, about not giving up.