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‘Saturday Church,’ a refuge for the city’s trans teens

The film was based off a real outreach program in the West Village.

"Saturday Church" was based off a real LGBT outreach program in the West Village. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

“Saturday Church’s” coming-of-age story of a transgender teen who takes refuge from a conservative world in a Manhattan-based community outreach program is all too real for local LGBT youth.

“This cinematic representation of NYC trans teens is crucial,” trans actress Indya Moore says, nodding to the obstacles 14-year-old Ulysses (Luka Kain) and their friends overcome in the film, including dealing with homelessness and prostitution.

“Unfortunately, it’s still extremely hard for people who are trans to get work,” the film’s director Damon Cardasis says, referencing the high number of people who end up on the streets.

According to data provided by the Ali Forney Center, children who identify as LGBT make up 40 percent of the city’s homeless youth and 62 percent of them are reported as clinically depressed or suicidal. “A lot of these kids end up turning to sex work as a way to survive,” Cardasis adds.

For Ulysses and many others, sanctuary comes in the form the city’s real-life “Saturday Church” programs, including the West Village’s Art and Acceptance, which Cardasis says the movie is based on.

“Creating the film was just about trying to tell this story the best I could,” he says, “trying to do the community it portrays justice and have them feel like their story is being told accurately, sensitively and truthfully.”

Three years ago, Cardasis first volunteered at the program at St. Luke in the Fields in the West Village, folding clothing, serving meals and sitting in on the group’s chats with social worker Jenna Meyer. Their “incredible” stories inspired him to highlight their unique weekly gatherings in film format.

Founded in 2001, the program sees anywhere from 25 to 65 guests per Saturday night and began as a reaction to the growing number of LGBT youth spotted hanging around outside, according to Mother Caroline Stacey, the church’s head priest.

“We learned that many of the youth had experienced rejection and hostility from their families,” she says. “We wanted to provide a hot meal and a safe space to meet some of the needs of the young adult LGBT population.”

On a typical Saturday night between 7 and 9 p.m., you’ll find teens vogueing, playing board games, and showing off their skills during open-mic sessions at the church.

Though Cardasis stresses the film was based on a number of the Art and Acceptance program’s attendees (several of whom were cast in the movie, like Moore and Alexia Garcia), he admits Ulysses’ character has similarities to a specific 15-year-old he met in passing.

“He had just started exploring his gender identity and gender is very much fluid,” he recalls. “So, sometimes he would come in jeans and a T-shirt and sometimes he’d have high heels and makeup on. That sweetness was something I thought was really endearing.”

Likewise, Ulysses learns how to “paint face” and finds the confidence to rock a pair of their mother’s spiked heels thanks to the support they find at the “Saturday Church” program with Moore’s character Dijon and others.

Moore, who landed a leading role in the upcoming Ryan Murphy series “Pose,” says she first discovered vogueing at her own outreach group the Bronx Community Pride Center, and attributes it for helping her beat depression.

“My being a gender variant person made me completely alien to and ostracized by those around me,” she recalls. “It became very important to find people who could relate to my feelings. I didn’t want to feel so different or as if something was wrong with me.”

Cardasis hopes that the film serves a similar purpose, expressing to those who may be struggling with their gender identity that they’ll find a place of acceptance at these church groups within the city.

The film made its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival last year and hit select theaters Jan. 12.

Those looking to find out more about the Saint Luke’s outreach program can visit stlukeinthefields.org/outreach.

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