Gay teens no longer movie sidekicks, but stars

A scene from Pariah, one of several films about the struggles of gay teen screening at Sundance this year.
A scene from Pariah, one of several films about the struggles of gay teen screening at Sundance this year.

Last year's Sundance hits garnered 14 Oscar nominations this week. Beyond all the swag and photo ops, Utah's week-long film festival is a flawless trend forecaster, and what's trending in Park City this week is a topic that's been largely ignored in Hollywood until now.

"There seems to be a lot of films about gay teens in competition this year," says Jordan Katnik, a co-founder of It Gets Better, the innovative YouTube campaign to promote tolerance for gay teens. Katnik arrived earlier in the week to pass out stickers and host walk-in testimonials for celebrities and non-stars at the festival. His organization's presence is perfectly timed: After years of being depicted as teen movie sidekicks, this week's festival features a host of young, gay heros and heroines.

"Pariah" follows a teenage girl grappling with coming out to her church-going parents. Kevin Smith's "Red State" depicts a group of teens rebelling against a psycho religious extremist group. "Kaboom," by cult director Greg Araki, portrays a bisexual college student who lusts after his college roommate named Thor. And "to.get.her" is a horror flick about a gay teen and her four friends who embark on a weekend trip that leads to murder.

At Slamdance, the competition for smaller budget films, there's even more offerings. The documentary "Superheroes", follows a group of real life super-human crime-fighters. One in particular uses his prowess to be a bully of gay bullies. The narrative feature, "Without" (in which I play a small part), paints a portrait of a college drop-out haunted by her high school girlfriend's bully-triggered suicide. Director Mark Jackson said at the premiere's Q&A that he wanted to examine the topic of cyber-bullying from the perspective of survivors.
Despite the various genres and approaches, it's clear this year's festival topic du jour is the gay teen experience. And that means it'll likely have a presence in theaters nationwide this time next year. In the meantime, TV will keep the momentum with shows like "Glee" and the upcoming MTV college sexpose created by Dan Savage, co-founder of the "It Gets Better" project.

Since the tragic suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi last year, the news media has paid particular attention to difficulties many teens face when it comes to acceptance of sexual identity. And where the news goes, entertainment follows. "I don't know why these types of [stories] started getting coverage. They've been going on for years and probably more so in years back," says Katnik. "I'm not happy for the tragedies but I'm glad it's being talked about now."

But is there a danger of over-saturation? Is it possible for viewers to become desensitized to the message if it's coming from all directions in entertainment? Over-saturation would ultimately be positive according Katnik, who's less concerned with keeping the issue trendy than furthering the message of tolerance. "I hope the topic of gay teens becomes so normal it does become a non-issue," he says. "Then I've done my job."

In the meantime, Katnik's seeing the positive effects of awareness right here at the festival-not just in the theaters, but on the street. "I was handing out chap-stick and stickers for IGB and I went up to these young guys that were the kinds of kids I feared most growing up gay," says Katnik. "And I couldn't believe how accepting they were and how excited they were to promote the campaign. There's a different culture of teenagers now. There's a lot of love out there."

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