Watermark Film Company’s new documentary ‘Greetings From Queertown’ shines a light on Orlando’s LGBTQ history

By : Christen Kelley
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From KKK members threatening Pride-filled parade marchers to a sea of red shirts ascending on Disney World for Gay Day at the Magic Kingdom to standing “Orlando Strong” around Lake Eola, Central Florida has come a long way for the LGBTQ community. It’s a rich history that Watermark Film Company plans to detail in their upcoming documentary, “Greetings From Queertown: Orlando.”

Spearheaded by Watermark owner, publisher and editor Rick Claggett, director/producer Sandi Hulon, director of photography Tye Belcher and others from Team Watermark, the film company was created to share the story of “Queertown.”

Claggett was inspired by the people and organizations in Orlando who devoted their lives to making it a safer and more inclusive place. He wanted to tell the story of how that community came together in the very beginning when being gay was not tolerated.

“It’s nice to go out to a parade now with 150,000 people, but when there were 1,000 people or 200 people, and you’re standing there, it takes a lot of courage to do that,” Claggett says. “My idea is to tell those stories of the progression of the LGBTQ history of Central Florida.”

The documentary will explore events such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the first Pride parades in Orlando, the history of gay nightclubs such as Parliament House and Southern Nights, as well as the personal experiences of LGBTQ individuals who live, and have lived, in Central Florida.

“Queertown” will feature interviews from out, local figures such as Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, drag performer Darcel Stevens, Watermark founder Tom Dyer, Florida House Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, as well as Orlando entertainers Michael Wanzie and Blue Star. The filmmakers also hope to include stories of everyday heroes.

“It’s about sharing the history of what people have gone through. Not only Tom Dyer or Patty Sheehan, but there are other people out there that we don’t know about,” Hulon says. “I just want people to know that there’s a really deep, loving culture that survived all the hate more than anything.”

Claggett and Hulon say the Pulse shooting will not be a focal point of the documentary; the film will show more of the history leading up to it. They say the sense of unity following the shooting would not have been possible without the foundation laid throughout the years.

“I was in awe of how all of these organizations that had been around for so long came together and how new organizations emerged to help the immediate needs of people who were suffering,” Claggett says. “Everyone was working together to help each other through this tragedy. That was inspiring to me and I thought that Orlando has a really great foundation of help for the LGBTQ community.”

Hulon, who has lived in Orlando, Los Angeles and now currently lives in St. Petersburg, says she has seen how Orlando’s LGBTQ community has grown over the last 20 years.

“It’s real here, there’s authenticity. When people get together for these big events, it’s about love. It always comes back around to the love and caring,” Hulon says. “Because of what’s happened in this community, it’s really come together and there had to be that foundation in order for everyone to come together.”

Claggett is grateful that when he came out in Orlando in 1991, there were already resources available to help young people like him who were questioning their sexuality. He credits the Delta Youth Alliance, now the Orlando Youth Alliance, with changing his life, providing him lifelong friendships and connections that led him to the career he has now.

Sandi Hulon (L) and Rick Claggett aren’t all business as they look to bring Orlando’s LGBTQ stories to the big screen. Photo By Dylan Todd

He says things would be different if it wasn’t for those trailblazers before him, protesting and fighting against inequality. “I want this documentary to answer the question of who were the brave pioneers that made Orlando what it is,” Claggett says. “To see how far we’ve come, I want this to tell the story of the people who got us here.”

Hulon was one of those people. She says when she came out she had water balloons thrown at her and was beat up for holding another woman’s hand in public. She wants younger LGBTQ people to know and understand what she went through, so they can appreciate the freedom they have now.

“We built this foundation, us older folks, so that you all could walk down the street in Orlando, or St. Pete or Los Angeles or wherever, and be okay and not get beat up anymore,” Hulon says.

While homophobia is less common today, Claggett says there’s still progress to be made. He hopes “Greetings From Queertown” will inspire LGBTQ people to continue fighting.

“We have some rights, but we are not equal. There’s a saying; ‘you can get married today and fired tomorrow,’” Claggett says. “The basic rights are still not there and there are people fighting for those.”

“Queertown” is Watermark’s first film endeavor. Hulon has been working in video production for the last 15 years, but it’s a new direction for Watermark and Claggett. He says the company will continue to use film as a medium to tell these kinds of stories.

“We’ve been a part of telling the story of this community forever, it’s just logical that this is the next progression in it. It’s the future of what we do,” Claggett says.

The film is now in its fundraising stage, with the trailer released in late August. They’re aiming to raise as much as $200,000 with help from the community. They’re also giving out benefit packages for different levels of what they call “money love.” Donors can receive a Facebook thank you post, a digital download of the film or even VIP seats at the film’s premiere.

Claggett says they’re hoping to create a documentary worthy of their city.

“If we can make it into something that can tour film festivals, can be available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO; who knows what the possibilities are,” Claggett says. “But we want this project to reflect how amazing this community is.”

There currently isn’t a release date, but Claggett says they’re hoping to debut it at a film festival within the next year. He wants the viewers to be as involved as possible in the making of the film.

“This is a story about this community, by this community,” Claggett says. “This is about the people who did it, who currently live it and are the future of it.”

For more information on “Greetings From Queertown: Orlando” and to donate to the film, visit GreetingsFromQueertown.com.

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