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Take Five: Film producer Jen Rich discusses St. Louis' vibrant LGBT community

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 15, 2011 - St. Louisan Jen Rich probably knows more about the city's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community than most queer people.

That LGBT people have taken back and embraced the word "queer" is just one of the countless facts Rich has picked up during the past two months. Since February, Rich, 35, and her business partner have immersed themselves into the community and emerged with a film. The 15-minute "Just Like Anyone Else: St. Louis After Stonewall" will run with the full-length "March On" at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 16 as part of Cinema St. Louis' QFest, a weekend of LGBT-themed offerings.

The Stonewall Inn was a New York City club whose name became a battle cry. During a time of regular raids on bars where queer people gathered, Stonewall patrons decided on the night of June 28, 1969, to take a stand: They fought back with police who'd stormed the bar to enforce such ordinances as a ban on wearing clothing typically found on the opposite sex. The ensuing riot is heralded as the birthplace of the LGBT equal rights movement.

In the years since, LGBT populations in St. Louis and elsewhere have slowly become organized and more visible. But the transition was completely out of Rich's view as she grew up in St. Louis County (she went to Parkway Central High School, in case you're a native St. Louisan with a need to know). Upon recently returning to St. Louis after 12 years in New York City, Rich told the Beacon she discovered a thriving LGBT community in her home town.

Where did you get the idea for the film?

Rich: We [she and business partner Dawn Balk and their Many Hats, Many Voices company] originally did it as a three-minute piece. WGBH-TV in Boston had an open call for a contest based on its airing of the "Stonewall Uprising" documentary for people to do short films about the LGBT people in their community after Stonewall.

While we were working on ours, we interviewed Chris Clark from Cinema St. Louis, and he asked us if we would submit an expanded version to QFest. Usually you're shooting something and you're begging someone to screen it so this opportunity was just too great to pass up. We have been doing this only since February and now it's mid-April so we're putting it together in a very short time.

Everyone in the St. Louis LGBT community has been really, really wonderful. They've given us an incredible amount of access and have been really honest and open, and they've trusted us to tell their stories. That's been really helpful.

You're straight. What was your experience with LGBT people growing up in St. Louis?

Rich: I grew up in Town and Country and in the Chesterfield area in the 80s, and I don't even think I knew a gay person growing up in the county. But my parents are from Brooklyn, and I grew up in a liberal home and went up go to New York City all the time, so for me it wasn't a big deal. But I have to say in Town and Country, there was a stigma. The kids I grew up with, they didn't come out. My friends who came out, all came out after high school, in college or after college.

Kids today are coming out at much earlier ages. It's really a testament to how the LGBT community, not just in St. Louis but in the rest of the country, has really fought so that they are comfortable enough to come out at 13, 14, 15 and 16.

What surprised you as you made the film?

Rich: I used to think of myself as being this very open person. But it's embarrassing to say but I had no idea we had such a wonderfully vibrant, organized and progressive community here in St. Louis. Everybody, when they think of a gay community, thinks of New York and L.A. but there are pockets of progression happening all over. I think what's happening in St. Louis is a good reflection on what's happening around the country.

Another thing that surprised me was the fact that 50 to 60 percent of the younger LGBT kids that we talked to, those under 25, didn't know what Stonewall was. Also, the fact that you can still get fired for being gay or transgender or bisexual or lesbian.

What do you hope people will take away from this film?

Rich: That the LGBT community is fighting for the same protections that heterosexuals and heterosexual couples have. Until their relationships are recognized in the same way as heterosexuals in the state of Missouri and federally, I don't know how much is going to change. But I feel that every little step that happens is a step in the right direction. Even since we started the film a couple of months ago things have happened, such as Don't Ask, Don't Tell being repealed. That's really encouraging.

What's next for Many Hats, Many Voices?

Rich: Our hope is we can take this 15 minute film and get grants and other financing so we can do a longer piece. The film we have now is really just a story from the LGBT community and we've only scratched the surface. In the longer piece, we want to show the other side of it, the religious aspect and the anti-gay legislation; we want to talk to people that are against gay marriage. You can't get everything in, with just 15 minutes.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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