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Saturday, July 4, 2020

Filmmaker Alex Escaja Recognized as LGBTQ Youth Influencer

Posted By on Sat, Jul 4, 2020 at 11:02 AM

Alex Escaja - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Alex Escaja

On a Monday night in early June, Alex Escaja was waiting his turn to speak in support of defunding the police during a Burlington City Council Zoom meeting when he got an email from GLAAD, a national organization that advocates for LGBTQ equality through the media. He had been selected as one of GLAAD’s “20 Under 20 Rising Stars,” a cohort that included gun control activist Emma Gonzalez and TLC reality show protagonist and trans spokesperson Jazz Jennings.

Seeing his name among so many queer youth icons was overwhelming: “I looked up to many of those people, so it was pretty disorienting and also incredibly exciting,” he said.

Escaja grew up in a trilingual household in South Burlington. He speaks Spanish with his mother,
Tina Escaja, an artist and feminist scholar who  teaches Spanish and directs the Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies program at the University of Vermont; his father, scientist and entrepreneur Uwe Heiss, communicates with him in German. (When the whole family is together, said Escaja, Spanish prevails.)

At 20, Escaja already has an impressive résumé as an activist and filmmaker. From his first major accolade — at age 11, he won third place in NASA's Optimus Prime Spinoff Film Contest — to his leadership roles in Outright Vermont and LGBTQ student groups at UVM, Escaja has been finding ways to merge his artistic talents with his passion for advocacy.

Seven Days spoke with Escaja about how he got his start in filmmaking, queer representation in the media, and what Pride should look like in 2020.


SEVEN DAYS: I feel like everyone is sick of this question, but here goes: How has your quarantine experience been?

ALEX ESCAJA: It was pretty tough at the beginning. I was part of a study-abroad program in New York City — “abroad” being the city — in January, through the University of Vermont. I had an internship that was wonderful, and then, two months in, the pandemic hit. So I was stuck in the city and quarantined alone in a dorm room for about two months. Mentally, that was not very comfortable, and the city was kind of a scary place to be. It’s definitely a relief to be back in Vermont and to be close to nature and family and friends.


SD: Yikes. That sounds rough. How has the pandemic affected your plans?

AE: My original plan was to stay in the city over the summer, after my program ended. I was considering transferring schools — I’d been accepted into the NYU Tisch program for cinematic arts and I was really excited about that. But the pandemic certainly changed the course of things. NYU was going to be online, which I didn't find worth it, and going into film means, you know, working on films with other people. We obviously can’t do that, which kind of defeated the purpose. So I decided to come back to Vermont and stay at UVM, and I’m on the path to graduate a year early, in May 2021.


SD: How did you find your way into filmmaking?

AE: I went to Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School and they had a broadcasting club where students got to produce a news segment. That introduced me to the resources to start making media. Then, when I was 14, I watched a film that inspired me to become a filmmaker, called My Prairie Home, which really changed the way I perceived myself and influenced my process of self-discovery. I have a passion for advocacy and a love of the technicalities of filmmaking, and combining the two brings me joy. That’s what I want to dedicate my life to; watching that movie solidified that.


SD: What’s My Prairie Home about?

AE: It’s a low-budget, independent Canadian film about a nonbinary artist, Rae Spoon. I watched it on a plane, and it was the first time I ever saw a genderqueer experience on screen that was authentic and beautiful. I actually watched it twice on that flight, and I walked off the plane transformed.


SD: That feels very symbolic — you’re on a plane, the most liminal of spaces, and you see this movie, and then you disembark a different version of yourself.

AE: That’s very true. It didn’t give me all the answers; I didn’t walk off the plane knowing who I was, exactly, and in a lot of ways I’m still discovering myself. But at that age, I was starting to question my gender and my sexuality, and the film gave evidence that it was possible for me to live in a space that was different from what was assigned to me. And what was really powerful for me is that the film is about an artist who’s happy. They’re just a normal human being, with normal human experiences, and that felt radical for me.


SD: Totally. In so many movies about queer and nonbinary people, the focal point is their struggle to accept themselves or to gain the acceptance of others, to come into their personhood, in a sense. It’s rare to see those characters have conflicts that aren’t somehow connected to their sexuality or gender identity.

AE: There’s a lack of complexity in representations of queer people. I haven’t really seen a film, besides My Prairie Home, that depicts nonbinary experience in the same way. The representation of LGBTQ-plus people is often for audiences who aren’t LGBTQ. So the stories are distorted — if there’s a queer person onscreen, they’re often caricatures, or they exist to advance the plot of straight or cisgender characters.

Recently, there have been more sympathetic coming-out films, but, again, the focus is usually on the drama of coming out, and how that person is affecting the straight or cisgendered people around them: Their families are tortured, or they’re bullied and they have to overcome it. And while that is a realistic experience, it de-complexifies a person; it paints this picture of being queer as very difficult and painful.


SD: Looking Back at Me, your 2017 documentary, is about an 18-year-old nonbinary Vermonter, Sade. There’s a joyful, youthful exuberance to it, and you can sense this deep comfort and trust between the two of you, even though the viewer only sees Sade on screen. How did you two end up making that film?

AE: Sade and I both went to South Burlington High School, and I really wanted to make a film that talked about queer and nonbinary experience in a way that was educational for a wider audience and relatable for people who are actually queer and nonbinary. Sade had a YouTube channel, so I knew they were comfortable speaking to the public about queerness. So I reached out to them, and we got coffee, and immediately we became very good friends.

The film felt like a collaboration in a lot of ways. We were both young and figuring ourselves out — I, in particular, was figuring myself out — and I looked up to Sade.

I really appreciate my younger self for making that film. I was 17 years old, and I feel like part of the reason that film feels special to me is that you can tell that a 17- year-old is behind the camera and talking about their own community. That really makes a difference in filmmaking — if an outsider comes in, the gaze of the camera feels different, kind of voyeuristic.

It’s so important for people to tell their own stories. We need to have more LGBTQ people behind the screen, creating the stories and producing the films. That applies to any other marginalized group — the stories will be more powerful and, in many ways, they’ll inherently be better, because people will be talking about the real thing, their real experiences.


SD: Did you have queer role models growing up?

AE: I’m really grateful for Outright Vermont, which serves LGBTQ youth ages 22 and under. I attribute a lot of the self-confidence I’ve developed over the years to them. I have a very supportive and loving family, too, but in terms of finding community and representation, Outright is run by queer-identified individuals. They were the first queer adults I’d ever met in my life, and they taught me that it’s possible to have a thriving, happy future as a queer person. If it hadn’t been for that experience, I don’t think I would have been able to go back into the greater world with the same amount of security and comfort.


SD: Over the past few years, Pride has become an increasingly mainstream cultural event, and that acceptance is so good on so many levels. But there’s also been a lot of whitewashing of LGBTQ history, and among the many refrains of protestors in the past few weeks is “Black Trans Lives Matter.” It was a black trans woman, Marsha P. Johnson, who started the protests that grew into the LGBTQ movement. From your perspective, what would an authentic Pride “celebration” look like?

AE: Pride originated as a riot, led by black transgender women and people of color. It’s really amazing that we’ve reached a point where we can celebrate openly, but there’s also something that feels wrong about that — because in a lot of ways, we haven’t achieved liberation.

Racism and xenophobia are prevalent within the LGBTQ community, and if you observe a lot of Pride celebrations in large cities, it’s often the cisgender white gay men who are doing most of the celebrating. I think it’s great that we’re revisiting the roots and starting to critique some of the issues in our community. We need to focus on how we can be anti-racist in the LGBTQ community. I don’t feel like we can celebrate, in the way that we have been, until we’ve secured liberation for everyone.


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Friday, June 22, 2018

Historic Vermont Silhouette Travels to Washington, D.C.

Posted By on Fri, Jun 22, 2018 at 12:07 PM

Silhouettes of Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant, circa 1805–15 - COURTESY OF THE HENRY SHELDON MUSEUM OF VERMONT HISTORY
  • Courtesy of the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History
  • Silhouettes of Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant, circa 1805–15

Vermont’s pioneering fight to legalize civil unions in 2000 cemented the state’s place amidst the landscape of American queer and civil rights history. Within just the past several years, the Green Mountain State has emerged as home to another gay cultural landmark: a handmade silhouette considered to be the earliest image of a same-sex couple.

The small, intimate portrait of Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake, which dates to the early 1800s, is now on view in “Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now” at the Smithsonian Institute's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Out in the Mountains Now Out Online

Posted By on Tue, Mar 13, 2018 at 12:36 PM

Covers of Out in the Mountains - UVM CENTER FOR DIGITAL INITIATIVES
  • UVM Center for Digital Initiatives
  • Covers of Out in the Mountains
In February 1986, the first issue of Out in the Mountains: Vermont's Newspaper for Lesbians and Gay Men hit mailboxes, corner stores, coffee shops and other rural newsstands. The free monthly newspaper would continue to serve Vermont communities for more than 20 years, folding in 2007 due to financial difficulties. Now, thanks to the University of Vermont's Center for Digital Initiatives, the entire Out in the Mountains archive can be accessed online.

"Not too many papers like [this] have been digitized," said Prudence Doherty, public service librarian for UVM's special collections. "Certainly it has Vermont significance," she said, "but it [also] has much wider significance and will be used by people who are tracking the history of LGBTQ movements."

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Thursday, March 3, 2016

U.S. Promotes LGBT Rights With Fun Home

Posted By on Thu, Mar 3, 2016 at 4:56 PM

Alison Bechdel at Fun Home - EVA SOLLBERGER
  • Eva Sollberger
  • Alison Bechdel at Fun Home
Vermont cartoonist Alison Bechdel has had an exhilarating decade. Her 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic was a bestseller. In 2014 she became a MacArthur fellow, and Fun Home was made into a musical that won five Tony Awards last year. Oh, and Bechdel got married last year, too.

Today, a Reuters story (as reported on joemygod.com) heaps more accolades on Fun Home from an unexpected source:  U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. According to the story, Power  took 15 fellow ambassadors from countries around the world to see the Broadway show as part of an effort to promote LGBT rights. She told Reuters that the lesbian coming-of-age story "brings home the challenges that LGBTI  are facing every day around the world."

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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Bernie Sanders
So, BernieSingles.com Is a Thing

Posted By on Thu, Feb 18, 2016 at 12:57 PM

BernieSingles.com banner - COURTESY OF BERNIESINGLES.COM
  • Courtesy of BernieSingles.com
  • BernieSingles.com banner
Gloria Steinem recently opined that young women favor Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in Democratic presidential primaries not because they identify more with his progressive politics or find his grouchy fire inspiring, but because, well, they're looking for dudes.

"When you're young, you're thinking, Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie," she said on the HBO show "Real Time with Bill Maher."

The feminist icon's remarks were widely criticized as being patronizing to young liberal women. But is it possible she was onto something?

Nope, not at all. Steinem's comments were ill-advised and insulting — not to mention heteronormative — by any measure. But a new dating website, BernieSingles.com, does suggest that maybe Bernie-boosters are indeed looking for love in addition to social justice, income equality and political revolution.    

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Monday, January 25, 2016

Talking Lesbian Feminist Haunted Houses at VCFA

Posted By on Mon, Jan 25, 2016 at 7:47 AM

Entrance to "Killjoy's Kastle," Toronto - COURTESY OF ALLYSON MITCHELL
  • Courtesy of Allyson Mitchell
  • Entrance to "Killjoy's Kastle," Toronto
On Saturday night, the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier kicked off its annual winter residency program with the talk "Killjoy's Konundrum: The Problematics of Queer Feminist Cultural Production," presented by artist Allyson Mitchell. Mitchell, who is on campus this week to meet with students and faculty, used the opportunity to introduce herself and her work, including her most recent project, the "lesbian feminist haunted house" Killjoy's Kastle. 

Vermont artist Mark Lorah introduced Mitchell, somewhat quizzical about her self-identification as a "maximalist" artist. Mitchell assured him that she doesn't occupy an anti-minimalist position in the art historical sense, but that she aims for her practice to be "extraordinarily inclusive." She went on to explain in her PowerPoint pre-show, slides filled with cat pictures. "Like all wannabe witches," she said, "I try to bring my familiars into spaces that feel new." 

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Friday, September 26, 2014

Hello, Ello: Seven Things to Know About the Burlington-based 'Anti-Facebook'

Posted By on Fri, Sep 26, 2014 at 12:24 PM

SCREENSHOT COURTESY ELLO.CO
  • Screenshot courtesy ello.co
If you frequent Twitter or Facebook, chances are the catchy name of a new website — Ello — flitted across your screen recently. The social media website toggled from stealth mode to widespread sensation over the course of just a few days this week: For a time yesterday, the currently invite-only website shut down the ability for existing users to send out invitation codes. The explanation: "Ello has gone viral." 

But Ello has been brewing for months — in Vermont, of all places. The company is based in Burlington and funded by Vermont venture capital. 

If you're still scratching your head about what the hell-o is Ello, don't worry; we've got you covered. 

1. This is social media with a manifesto.

The site's motto is "Beautiful, Simple and Ad-Free" — and Ello, at first glance, delivers on the promise. The site is clean and spare, with plenty of white space — think a sort of Facebook/Tumblr hybrid, redesigned by (and populated with, if the user profile photos are any hint) hipsters. You can post messages, add photos, reply "@" ("at") your fellow-Ello-ers and invite friends to join — fueling the site's exponential growth. 

Ello promises to do more than look good. The site's manifesto declares, "Your social network" — read: Facebook — "is owned by advertisers ... You are the product that's bought and sold." Ello sets itself up as the alternative: 

We believe there is a better way. We believe in audacity. We believe in beauty, simplicity, and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.

We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce, and manipulate — but a place to connect, create, and celebrate life.
Given the site's explosion in popularity and hype in recent days, the message is striking a deep chord. 

2. Yes, you heard right: Ello is based in Vermont.

Cofounder Paul Budnitz, who teamed up with Colorado-based design firm Berger & Föhr and hacker collective Mode Set, lives in Shelburne, and splits his time between New York and the Green Mountain State. Budnitz is one of seven cofounders, who collectively own a majority share in the company. According to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings, Ello shares the same address — 47 Maple Street, the home of the Karma Bird House and a number of start-up companies — as Budnitz's high-end bicycle company, Budnitz Bicycles. 

3. Cofounder Budnitz is a serial entrepreneur — and a successful one at that.

As Sarah Tuff wrote last year for Seven Days, Budnitz is no stranger to good design. Before Budnitz Bicycles (the self-proclaimed maker of the "lightest, fastest, and most elegant city bikes in the world"), he started KidRobot, a creator of art toys, fashion apparel and accessories. Several of KidRobot's creations are in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

4. Vermont venture capital funding played a big part in launching the site. And that's provoking some consternation in the peanut gallery.

Shelburne-based FreshTracks Capital invested $435,000 in seed funding in Ello in January. When that news broke yesterday in a post on the new website itself, critics immediately alleged Ello had made a pact with the devil. How could the site, they wondered, maintain its ad-free promises with a venture capital firm looking for a return on its investment?

According to a story at Gigaom.com, a site devoted to news about emerging technologies, FreshTracks partner Cairn Cross met Budnitz about a year ago in Vermont. "Budnitz pitched FreshTracks on his ad-free social network concept, monetized with a freemium plan where users would pay for added features, and Cross was intrigued," according to the tech site.

According to Gigaom, Cross wasn't concerned about allegations that big VC would push Ello to the dark side.

“We practice venture capital in a way that very few people practice it. We’re really small-town venture. We’re patient, we have long exit horizons, we’ve had some successes, we’ve been around for awhile,” Cross told the website.

FreshTracks partners declined to speak with Seven Days for this story, instead directing us to Budnitz himself, who was unavailable for an interview today. 

5. The site's timing is great.

Part of the buzz surrounding Ello has to do with the most recent backlash against Facebook, this one having to do with the so-called "real name" policy. Facebook insists that users set up profiles under their legal names — the one that appears on a passport or credit card. The site is cracking down on users who don't comply. It's riled members who use pseudonyms on the site for a variety of reasons; think drag performers, queer or trans individuals, musicians, roller derby competitors or professionals who want to keep their professional and private lives separate. 

Ello doesn't have the same requirement. 

6. In particular, the site is said to appeal to gay and lesbian users "fleeing" Facebook.

"Is Ello the Anti-Facebook ... We've All Been Waiting For?" asked the site queerty.com in one headline. Over on the Daily Dot, a similar headline reads: "The Great Gay Facebook Exodus Begins." When Daily Dot writer Taylor Hatmaker asked Budnitz about the so-called exodus, Budnitz confirmed that Ello has seen an uptick in interest from LGBTQ users.

"Yes, we’ve been hearing about the Facebook drama too over the last few days," Budnitz said. "Ello welcomes the LGBTQ community and we’re very excited to see so many people moving over! "

After a group of Radical Faeries signed up a couple of days ago, Budnitz has been watching an uptick in queer users joining Ello—"which makes us very happy," he notes. "There does seem to be a bit of an avalanche since then."

7. That said, not everyone is convinced that Ello is a be-all, end-all solution to the perennial hand-wringing over Facebook. 

There are plenty of doubts already brewing about Ello — including the aforementioned uneasiness around the site's funding. The site's in beta mode, which means while Ello is promising more features as the site expands, there's still limited functionality right now. As Tech Crunch reported yesterday, the site lacks privacy controls, or the ability to block abusive users. 

And users and pundits alike say it's too soon to know if Ello can last. Ello isn't the first upstart to take on Facebook: "We’ve seen Facebook alternatives, like Diaspora, come and go. Or ones like Google+ come then fall flat," wrote Tech Crunch. "Ello might be onto something more organic. Diaspora was certainly too geeky and probably way too early. Perhaps it’s Ello’s time?"

Only time will tell. 

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