Most folks are happy to watch queers crack jokes on national TV; fewer want to see queers beat each other up. At least that’s the conclusion John Poole has come to after trying to market his film, The Sheriff of Gay Washington.
Poole created the 14-minute short for the Web site of the Washington Post. After it ran in early 2005, the Columbia Heights resident took several months off from his videographer job at the Post to pursue a development deal; he wanted to turn the subject of his film, the Metropolitan Police Department’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit (GLLU), into a full-blown documentary. But though one major network expressed interest and another gave him funding, both eventually passed on the project. He attributes the snubs to politics: Male-on-male domestic violence, for example, did not play well in development meetings.
“This is difficult material,” says Poole, 34. “If you show gays as criminals, the religious right and people with political agendas will work against [the gay community].”
Poole’s protagonist guaranteed him a wealth of difficult material. Sgt. Brett Parson, the GLLU’s out-loud-and-proud “sheriff,” explains his GLLU in the film as “the only unit that I know of in the world that does outreach…[but also] specializes in investigating crimes and solving crimes that are committed by and against members of [the gay] community.” The unit, which since 2000 (according to its Web site) “has dedicated itself to serving the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning” folks of D.C., partly has a PR mission—one of its dozen-or-so staffers, for instance, recently designed a set of anti-hate crime posters. But its daily operations also deal with serious crimes among those who are G, L, B, T, or even Q, a fact that Parson, in the film, laments: “I will be happiest,” he says, “when this unit does not exist.”
Poole and fellow Postie Jen Crandall spent weeks accompanying Parson and his officers—some of whom are straight—as they patrolled the city on night shift. The results are not pretty. Parson prevents an argument between two intoxicated gay men from boiling over into assault; the scenario plays as less Queer Eye than COPS. The sergeant’s mouth proves to be as foul as any Deadwood cast member’s. The Post ran the video with a warning about profanity, though somebody was gracious enough to bleep out all the nasty words like “cock block.”
Poole encountered more troubling things in the months he spent trying to complete his post-Post documentary. “We met a guy from New York who came to D.C. after his boyfriend set him on fire,” he says. The unit worked private connections to find temporary housing for the burned man, but with few public resources available to battered men, says Poole, there “wasn’t a whole hell of a lot [the GLLU] could do.”
Though Sheriff didn’t get a national audience, it did receive some local love. Poole entered it into the Silverdocs AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival “to give it its last hurrah,” and last month walked away sharing the fest’s audience award for shorts. “I truly felt that The Sheriff of Gay Washington was one of the more remarkable films we had seen,” says Sky Sitney, director of programming at Silverdocs. “Its production values, heart, content, and [local] significance…is just so remarkable.”
Poole recently returned to his job at the Post, filming less controversial topics such as the reopening of the Freeway Phantom murders and Tai Shan, panda extraordinaire. But he still finds himself thinking about Parson, who “struck a nerve,” he says. “I’m introverted….I need people to grab the camera, and opposites attract.”
Parson sounds happy to have contributed. “It sucks to see yourself 40-feet tall and your ass looks big,” the sergeant says. “But it’s a wonderful piece.” —Justin Moyer