Filmmaker LaNita Joseph's journey to self-awareness began during her middle school years when her family moved from Atlanta to Glenview, Ill.an overwhelmingly white suburb north by northwest from Chicago. While not directly autobiographical, Joseph's first narrative film Genderblind was "definitely inspired by things that happened … in [ her ] life."
The film, which will premiere Friday, June 25, at the Portage Park Theater, is described in a press release as "the compelling story of a young Christian woman, Sincere, who begins to compromise her ideals in an attempt to further her artistic endeavors as a dance choreographer, and along the way she meets Grace, a lesbian who challenges her traditional beliefs about love. ... Genderblind is a riveting and poignant portrayal of Black lesbian culture and the challenge faced by black gay Christians to be true to themselves, their religion and their community."
Joseph's personal story reflects some of the struggles her character experiences. "I was a very traditional Christian in high school," she said, explaining that she attended a "white, non-denominational Christian church in Glenview," held to strictly Christian beliefs regarding homosexuality, went to church twice a week and engaged in a lot of bible study. "I didn't go to a Black church and had not had a Black experience until I started studying dance with Joel Hall."
Joseph took dance classes at Hall's studio during high school, but didn't start her professional training until age 17. Self-awareness regarding sexuality, sexual orientation and race identity followed, "I came to that when I was about 23," said Joseph, now 27. "Earlier, being queer was not a part of my life."
She explained that she identifies as "'genderblind,' I'm trying to get that idea out there. It's definitely queer." She defines the term, which she coined, as "an individual who doesn't necessarily see someone's gender, as opposed to the soul and spirit within that body; genderblind people are not necessarily attracted to gender, they are attracted to the spirit of someone, everything flows from the spirit.
"I live out loud, I love out loud, it doesn't matter," she said. "But I don't do things like announce my sexual orientation. This goes along with the genderblind ideaand the movieheterosexual people don't have to announce that they are heterosexual, so I don't feel like I should have to announce my sexuality to anybody."
Joseph did not always think this deeply. "In high school I just wanted to fit in with everyone else and had self-hatred as an African American," she said. "It was really difficult. What people saw on TV was what they thought of Black people. And I didn't think my skin mattered until I was around 13 or 14 and boys became important. Everyone, even the Asian girls, wanted to be blond and blue eyed. I tried to go blond and all my hair fell out. I am also dark-skinned, but the closer to white you could be the better and my white friends would try to help me look more white. They were victims of the oppressive cycle as much as I was; that's what they thought was beautiful, that what I thought was beautiful and they were trying to help me. And the boys wanted to sleep with me but not take me home to their parentsthey would actually say that. I was sexually harassed in high school and I never said anything because I was just sad and wanted to fit in. It was just bad and I let it happen and let it grow inside of me and it wasn't until college and I started reading books like Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye that I really understood why I hated myself."
Joseph's mother died when she was 14. An older brother left for college, her father fell ill shortly thereafter, passing away from a heart attack when Joseph was 20. "I did it by myself. I became an orphan of the ward. I was on my own through much of high school and all of college," she explained. And, with no sisters or aunts, she had no women in her life. "Young Black women, wherever they are, need a Black woman to help them. I began to write about thatstarting in high school and then college. I expressed myself through dance, spoken word, poetry and plays."
"I didn't really start understanding my issues until I was about 20," Joseph said. "Now I realize the importance of putting out shows and plays about the oppressive cycle and being misrepresented in the media and people believing that dark skin is ugly, these standards of beauty. So many people of various ethnicities related to my play The Monologues of a Dark Child [ first produced at the Harold Washington Cultural Center in 2007 ] ; I got so much feedback and encouragement. I'm still working through the issues: being okay with nappy and figuring out how to be beautiful."
In addition to her current work as a filmmakershe is the writer and director of Genderblind and has produced several dance for film projects and a dance documentaryshe is deeply engaged as a teaching artist through River North Dance Company and her own not-for-profit, Anita Davis Dance Theater ( ADDT ) .
"Arts activism is so important because these kids need a vision. They are suffering from self hatred, an oppressive culture and media negativity," explained Joseph, who teaches dance to at-risk youth in the Chicago Public Schools. "So many of these kids haven't even have exposure to the arts. I aspire to help find a vision beyond sex, violence and gang membership there are other ways to be proud. As arts activists we have to give them something to hold onto and show them that they are somebody and that their lives are worth something. Right now so many kids don't see their worth at all. One universal truth is that everyone needs love, and these kids are trying to find it in all the wrong places. The [ arts in the schools ] programs are so vital to the youth and the future and to stopping the senseless violence. These kids need to go somewhere and to be something. And they want to be something they just need someone to show them.
"I never thought this was what I was going to be doing. Growing up in Glenview, I had no idea it was this bad and that I was going to be in it. But I really feel my career and God's vision for my life that this is where he wanted me to be and what he wanted me to do" Joseph said. "I wanted to dance behind Janet Jackson, but I feel that God had another plan for my life and wanted me to touch these thousands and thousands of children. The teaching artists need to keep coming back and doing the work. It's important and it matters.
"Joel Hall did it for me. I was the Black girl standing in the back, afraid. There were so many people who said Black dancers can't do ballet or modern, but there are so many beautiful Black dancers," she said. "Joel doesn't even know how much he's mentored me. He made sure that I knew that I was beautiful and to not being afraid to dance and giving me a vision that I could be somebody strong and powerful and fierce. And I caught onto that vision and that is why I do what I do now and I am unafraid."
LaNita Joseph's creative work focuses on social awareness issues and incorporates movement, spoken word, performance and film. Her choreographic work has been performed at Dance Chicago, The Choreographer's Ball in Los Angeles and by the Anita Davis Dance Theater. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Georgia where she minored in dance and she will begin work on her master of fine arts in choreography at Sam Houston State University this fall.
The Anita Davis Dance Theater presents the red-carpet premiere of Genderblind ( which was unavailable for press screening ) , hosted by Pat McCombs, 8 p.m., Friday, June 25, at the Portage Park Theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee. General Admission $15; VIP tickets $20 include pre-screening party ( 5:30 pm ) with the filmmaker, preferred seating and after party.
Tickets are at www.genderblind.eventbrite.com; the trailer and more information are at http://genderblindmovie.webs.com/.