“She’s never gotten the wider recognition that she deserves,” says publisher and editor Nancy Bereano of Jewelle Gomez.
Bereano is one of the many notables appearing in the new documentary film about the lesbian author, actor and activist, directed and produced by award-winning filmmaker Madeleine Lim: Jewelle: A Just Vision.
The groundbreaking documentary premieres Saturday, June 11 at the 18th annual international Queer Women of Color Film Festival (QWOCFF). Tickets to the event at The Presidio Theatre in San Francisco are free, and the film will later be available to stream along with the other films featured in the QWOCFF.
“There are not very many documentaries about queer women of color, anything at all, despite the fact that queer women of color have been at the frontlines of community organizing and activism for decades and decades,” Lim told me in a joint Zoom conversation with Gomez. Lim is also one of the film’s directors of photography and the founding executive director of the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project (QWOCMAP).
“You have to imagine a better world to get to a better world,” says Gomez in the film, “which is why I love writing.”
Asked to introduce herself as she would to a stranger unfamiliar with her legendary work, Gomez beamed, just as she does whenever she speaks on college campuses or at bookstores to her adoring fans, something the pandemic made impossible.
“I really miss that,” she told me. “There’s nothing that can beat being able to face people. I have real conversations, in-depth conversations, questions that help the audience understand the story.” The premiere of the film at The Presidio will be followed by a talk with Lim and with Gomez, who had a hand in starting what we know today as GLAAD.
“I was in that nascent little group of folks who decided to do something about the way gay men were being demonized, and out of this little group, that was meant to be, like, a media watch group, GLAAD blossomed,” Gomez told me. “It’s pretty amazing.” But that’s not all she’s done.
“I’m a novelist, having written the first Black lesbian vampire novel that’s still in print, 30 years later,” said Gomez, referring to The Gilda Stories, the collection of tales Audre Laude herself convinced her to turn into a novel. It went on to win two Lambda Literary Awards. So far, she’s written seven books. But again, that’s not all.
“I’m a playwright, I’ve got three plays produced so far,” she added. “I’m working on my fourth, and I’m a poet. And I have a new book of poetry called Still Water,” an intersectional work exploring her family, heritage and identity, published just this week.
Left by her mother when she was just two years old to be raised by her father, “I felt like I was on the margins of society,” says Gomez in the film, describing her impoverished formative years.
She recalls her unhappy early childhood, passed around like a hot potato. She ultimately wound up in the care of her great-grandmother on her mother’s side, so traumatized she used a shattered Coke bottle to slash her wrists.
“I wanted someone to help me,” Gomez says. She was nine years old.
Now 73, Gomez credits her quiet, even-tempered great-grandmother, Grace, a Native American, for turning her life around. “She had been the core of my life,” she says, recalling both her great-grandmother’s love, and their shared love of reading.
Grace A. Morandus of Boston died at the age of 88, after visiting Gomez in New York City, where she had moved into her very first apartment following her graduation from Columbia. “My great-grandmother passing away was like all the lights went out in the room.”
It was a tumultuous time, and not just because of the civil rights protests, Pride marches and the women’s liberation movement. “I had come to New York for a job, I had lost my job,” says Gomez. “I had a roommate I had known since college and I told her I was a lesbian, and she moved out. So, I was in this kind of maelstrom. I was 22 years old and I couldn’t get my feet under me. I kept getting knocked down by these waves.”
That’s a feeling many in Generation Z can relate to, given what’s happening right now across America with far right extremists targeting reproductive rights and the LGBTQ+ community.
Gomez, who has been with her spouse Diane for 29 years, talks openly in the film about knowing she was a lesbian since she a child, about loving another girl when she was 15 and about her other lovers, and the breakups. Most of all, I wanted to know about the special bond she has with Diane.
“We’re still deeply in love and romantic. As you get older, sex becomes a more complex issue. But we’re willing to deal with the complexities because we love each other so much,” Gomez told me. “There are certain kinds of love that you have and you will never give them up. And the big deal is recognizing that love. Many of us don’t recognize that. And then we let friends go. You realize it too late. And I feel that is the biggest part about love, recognizing something so enduring. “
To truly tell Gomez’s story with this film, Lim said she and her team won the trust of both its subject and her friends, and pulled back the curtain on their conflicts.
“I think what’s really important and what really comes across in the documentary is the intimacy, how intimate those conversations are, the things that Jewelle shared with me and was open to sharing,” Lim said. “There were very personal challenges and very personal moments, personal revelations and realizations,” all of which she captured with the film team of co-director of photography and co-producer Ruth Gumnit, along with co-producer T. Kebo Drew and editors Elizabeth Finlayson and Corey Ohama. “The story is always about how we deal with conflicts, how we deal with obstacles and complications, because that reveals who we are,” Lim said.
“I think that is a key thing,” added Gomez. “As our movement grows and changes, we have to learn how to deal with conflict, disagreements, with not understanding things about each other. And how we deal with those conflicts really reveals who we are, who we can be. And I feel like, as we are struggling as a movement, we have to take that into consideration. We have to be able to open our eyes and our hearts and see each other.”
In spite of in-fighting, insurrection, anti-LGBTQ states of hate and court actions that mean the end of reproductive rights as we know it, Gomez said she looks to the future with optimism for the LGBTQ+ movement, beyond Pride month.
“I feel excited, always, that we can be the most radical, even just living our day to day lives with each other. We can be the most radical. I’m terminally hopeful, or radically hopeful, I guess is the word I would use.”
Watch the trailer for Jewelle: A Just Vision below!