I am constantly assessing my list of personal heroes: the people or groups that I observe in my life who I believe to be tough as nails, determined and willing to keep at it when the odds seem to be against them. As I’ve experienced more over the years, I’ve had great reason to be picky about those on the list––the first group being Mothers. After watching my wife give birth to my daughter, she has achieved tough-as-nails status. She is officially a force to be reckoned with and a woman who I will do no less than worship. I have also had a great deal of love and respect for the gay friends in my life. After screening a number of films for the Damn These Heels! Film Festival, I can more clearly see that the obstacles that must be endured daily to simply maintain a strong sense of self should propel those fighting the good fight to the top of my list of the strong and brave (though my wife still gets her own special space). I feel that I have never had a more emotional or educational movie marathon week than the time I spent pre-screening these films. Going into this, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect: I had seen films in the past from the LGBT community, but nothing that I felt broadened my point of view as much as some of these did. The key point that I took from these films is this: I have always considered myself a proud individual, but pride was something that I never thought could be taken for granted. I now see the error in my ways. Our culture continues to grow and change. Acceptance is a word that I hear often––however, it is clear that there are still so many people out there who are unable to feel that one basic, simple thing––pride. Life barrages them with obstacles, ignorant and mean people, and senseless violence. Throw into the mix a culture of expectations and moral ideals that seem to combat their very existence. My friends are proud, and I now have a more clear idea of what it takes for them to maintain that. To me, they are heroes. These are a few of the films being screened at Damn These Heels! that I feel finely demonstrate heroism and strength. Check them out at the festival running July 13-15 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. For info on tickets and the lineup schedule, go to damntheseheels.org.

Wish Me Away
Directed by Bobbie Burleffi and Beverly Kopf
Screening: Saturday, July 14 @ 12:30 p.m.

You may not find many reviews or discussions of country music in SLUG Mag; the musical genre generally passes over our radar. Wish Me Away focuses on Chely Wright, a top-selling female country music artist, and her journey to become the first commercial country artist to come out publicly with their homosexuality. This film immediately grabbed my attention because I didn’t think the country music industry or fanbase would be overly welcoming of a homosexual in their midst. Country music is stereotypically seen as “all American,” “wholesome,” “god fearing” music. In many circles, homosexuality is stigmatized as none of these. Out of all of the films that I’ve seen with a similar story, the struggles of coming to terms with one’s sexuality and the struggles/successes that may follow, this film had a new and interesting perspective. Chely, after finding great success by seeking an emotional and loving connection with her music, found that she was not living the life of her choosing, but one of commercial success built on a societal ideal. She needed to embrace her sexuality in her personal life and she needed to be honest with her fans and the public about who she truly was, all while fearing the potential for industry backlash. Sounds like a great idea for a country song. Chely’s experience is documented as she describes her upbringing, her acknowledgement and suppression of her sexuality, and her emotionally trying journey to come out to her friends, family and the public. It should go without saying that you are going to hear a good deal of country music in this film, but it plays a key role in representing Wright’s challenges and changing life. As she climbs to success, Wright’s music, formulaic and more commercial, is about love that she cannot experience herself. As Wright progresses on her path, her music becomes more intimate and representative of what she is actually going through and feeling. The importance of making her sexuality public becomes more and more clear as the film progresses. Though the country music industry is non-supportive of homosexuality, it becomes apparent that there are many individuals living sexually repressed lives working in the industry, feeling unable to come out. I still may not pick up a Chely Wright album, but I now have a greater understanding of what she is about, and that many of the absolutes that are held in such high regard in country music are riddled with hypocrisy, and appear to abandon the very American roots that they supposedly stand for.

Directed by Chris Arnold
Screening: Saturday, July 14 @ 10:30 a.m.

Multiple stories of transformation unfold in this documentary following men, women and one child as they grapple with their personal identity crisis. The stories are all similar in the struggles each individual faces in coming to terms with the fact that they were born with sexual parts that don’t match up with their gender. Each story also offers a very unique perspective and experience in the seemingly impossible journey that the individuals set upon to live their lives as they believe they should be, all while looking for acceptance from society, families and friends, and themselves. There are too many stories to describe here with too many harsh and difficult circumstances, but this film brings to light the struggles that these men and women endure in order to simply be at peace with who they are. One story that is particularly striking is that of a young boy whose struggles with his self-identity as a little girl become so extreme that he lashes out in school and at his parents, and eventually attempts suicide and threatens self castration. This little boy, Danon, was in kindergarten at the time. His parents were left with little choice but to embrace Danon as he saw himself––a little girl. This revelation lead to the end of the outbursts, and Danon is now happy. This story reflects greatly on the common thread throughout the film that these people have an incredible choice to make, and either decision may have the most extreme of consequences for themselves and their families. Many of the individuals attempt to live as expected, however, the call of their true gender is much too great and painful to cope with. Some are able to make the transition with support from their inner circle, some are not, while some take their own lives or are brutally murdered. I honestly hadn’t put a great deal of thought into the world in which they must live, knowing that it must not be easy, but not coming close to understanding the daily battle that they face. Being me is easy, I can’t imagine life any other way, but Trans helped me to think, what if the pressures of society didn’t allow me to be just who I am?

Directed by Jonathan Lisecki
Screening: Friday, July 13 @ 7 p.m.

The issues found in many LGBT films screened at Damn These Heels! deal with very serious issues with a very serious tone. Set to be the opening night film, Gayby was a welcome change of pace as a lighthearted comedy. Still dealing with serious issues and reflecting on the problems that plague our society, Gayby remains positive, celebrating what some are truly wanting to achieve: acceptance and relatively normal life. Jenn and Matt have been good friends since college, now both finding themselves at a bit of a crossroad in life: Matt having recently broken up with his longtime boyfriend, and Jenn wanting to have a baby. The two decide to conceive a child together, the natural way. As the two make several awkward and hilarious attempts at baby making, they both continue to struggle with their own issues. They are both lonely and need the companionship and love of a life partner, but this is something that they cannot get from each other, which adds to the frustration they both endure. The supporting cast and characters add some great interactions while playing off of different gay and straight character stereotypes. Never crossing into hokey or slapstick performances, every character is played with taste and grace. Gayby is bright and clever in creating an atmosphere in which I would love to be a part of, enjoying the biting banter amongst the characters.

You can buy individual tickets for these films, or an all-access pass to enjoy the entire festival at damntheseheels.org.