Members of one D.C. street crew have been shot and stabbed, chased and insulted. Many wear the scars of street brawls that often started without warning.
But some members of this crew of mostly young men are also known for spending as much time discussing fashion and picking out the latest in platform heels as for getting in fights.
This is the somewhat incongruous world of Check It, the city’s enigmatic gay street gang, which began with a small group of Trinidad teenagers who banded together for familial support and survival as they faced abandonment, sexual abuse, poverty and violence in their homes and neighborhoods for being gay or transgender.
For three years, District-based filmmaker and journalist Dana Flor and her partner, Toby Oppenheimer, have followed Check It, tracking four crew members as they attempted to move beyond the unpredictable violence of street-corner flash mobs toward responsible employment and careers that took them to the runway and fashion industry.
“Most people don’t see gay men being fighters or aggressive. They are a group of kids who have fallen through every crack,” Flor said in an interview this week.
“But they are so full of joy, energy and talent,” she added. “They are survivors.”
Now Flor and her partner are in the final hours of a crowdfunding effort to raise $60,000 they say is needed to complete production of their documentary — and to make a 10 percent donation to a fledgling fashion line started by Check It. The fundraising ends Friday, Flor said.
The crew started in about 2002 in the Trinidad neighborhood, where a group in their early teens faced ridicule and bullying — and worse — on the streets.
“A lot of us went through different things — put in the street, hunger, rape, fathers not being accepting, a lot of fighting . . . surrounded by violence, negativity,” said Tray Warren, one of Check It’s longtime leaders. “All we basically had was each other.”
The film is the second District-based project by Flor and Oppenheimer’s company, Macro Pictures. The pair previously teamed up to produce “The Nine Lives of Marion Barry,” which examined the career of the late “mayor for life.”
Flor said she was intrigued by a uniquely D.C. story — the growth of a gay crew and its culture in the shadow of the monuments. Although at least 200 young people belong to Check It, the film focuses on four leaders, how they joined Check It and their efforts to find a better life out of the street through fashion.
Police and some residents consider the crew a menace because of fights and loud arguments, particularly around Gallery Place and Chinatown.
Ronald Moten, a longtime youth activist and co-founder of the now-defunct Peaceoholics, is helping several members enter the fashion world through a D.C. government jobs program. Two of the members earned a chance to work behind the scenes at New York Fashion Week.
The film also explores several subsets within Check It, such as Dom Check It, a group of lesbian members, and Baby Check It, made up primarily of young teens.
Oppenheimer, a New York-based documentarian who produces and directs long-form shows for PBS and cable news networks, said he witnessed a group of people that appeared to be much more than the nuisance law enforcement may see them as.
“Check It is a real family, a warm supportive family, but a dysfunctional family, too,” Oppenheimer said. “It can be negative, scary and mean. And it can be supportive. Law enforcement may call them a gang. They won’t call themselves a gang; they call themselves a family.”
The filmmakers said they were captivated by their subjects because they are visually colorful and charismatic, as well as unapologetic in showing the world who they are — and being willing to fight to defend that.
“We fall in love with people and microcultures. . . . They are funny smart, witty, sarcastic, wry. . . . They have dealt with so much for so long but still have this ebullience,” Oppenheimer said.
Both filmmakers said they have found comfort taking on both journalist and activist roles as they to try to help some Check It members succeed.
She and Oppenheimer need funding to hire a film editor to complete production so the documentary can be released in the fall, Flor said. They also want funds so Check It can buy fabric, sewing machines and other equipment, she said.
During filming, it was at first difficult for some members to open up to the cameras and share the difficulties they faced, and they worried that telling their story might cause pain to others, Check It’s Warren said. But the filmmakers “have been good people to us,” and telling their story might change the lives of others.
“I hope our story will touch a lot of youth that are going through what we have been through. There is a way out,” Warren said in an interview. “It wasn’t easy coming out and being yourself. But as all of us stuck together, it was easier to be yourself.
“I just hope it helps.”