The Check It - America's unique street gang

"People are scared of the Check It," says a teenage girl sitting in a classroom in an impoverished neighbourhood of Washington DC.

"They don't fight one-on-one. They're known for jumping people, all of them just fight like when they put that girl in hospital.

"They act like females but they still have that muscle, they're still dudes."

The Check It is one of the many gangs on the streets of Washington and its members are known for being fearless.

"I've been stabbed 10 times. And shot," says one of the group which formed in the suburb of Trinidad in DC's north east.

Another brandishes a collection of knuckle dusters. Others have knives and hammers, some have guns too, he assures. "You get beat the f**k up, you have no choice," one says.

What marks the Check It outs as different is that each member is either gay or transgender.

They are the only known gang of its kind in the US.

"We were being assaulted. It was scary, a survival thing. Only the strong survive and that's the girls you see now," he says.

But the group isn't centred around violence. It's about strong friendships and people helping one another without question.

"It's like a family, we're all sisters. When we go out places we go out as one. If someone bothers you call us and we'll be there to fight for you."

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

The group is now the subject of a documentary, also called Check It, which has its Australian premiere in Sydney next month.

Talking to news.com.au, Check It film maker Dana Flor described them as a "band of kids' united by their difficult upbringings. Many left school young, often they had barely any parental support.

"These kids have been forced to do horrible things to survive and one of those things is prostitution, right down the street from the White House.

"These kids were bullied and banding together gave them a sense of power and before they knew it people referred to them as a gang.

"They became renowned because there are not many black dudes who wear lipstick and are in stiletto heels kick ass."

Her film, made with Toby Oppenheimer, is being screened as part of the Sydney Mardi Gras Film Festival.

When asked by news.com.au of allegations some of the group's members went as far as pouring bleach down people's throats, Tray said it was a long time ago and not something he could recall.

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

But in the documentary, he said he understood why people in the Check It resorted to violence. "It's crazy what you have to do to live your life as a gay person [on the streets] in DC. You need to defend yourself and that's when we started taking it to the next level," he says.

"That how we made our name, fighting for each other and that's how we got our respect. But no one in the Check It is a thug."

"The Check It is the embodiment of everything we have done wrong in this country," says Dana.

"We have failed these kids, they have fallen through every crack there is and this is not some random town in the US, it's the capital of America."

One of those who fell through the cracks is Alton who began selling sex at just 14.

"My mom used to be like 'you slow, you dumb, you retard, you faggy assed b***h' to everyone on the block," she says in the documentary.

"I got tired and I threw her down a whole flight of stairs. That's when I guess they got tired and wanted to ship me out to the mental home.

"I've been taking care of myself just to have some type of money in my pockets. How you going to pay your rent?"

"Being black you got the odds against you, being gay and black, that's a whole different ball game. They're in a world of their own," says Mo.

Dana said it took a long time to gain the confidence of the Check It's members.

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

"It wasn't a walk in the park, they were not very trusting. But no one had expressed any interest in their lives at all. They didn't know what they were doing was unique and they thought everyone was doing that."

While outreach workers, such as Mo, could funnel some of the anger of the Check It members into traditional non-gang activities, such as boxing, that wouldn't suit everyone.

A unique gang needed a unique response to get them out of the cycle of violence.

One of the hallmarks of the Check It is the members' fashion sense - fierce looks and on-trend accessories are almost a prerequisite.

"They're beautiful, their fashion sense is extremely singular and so fantastic," says Dana.

So several of the members were enrolled in a fashion summer school that every year set up shop in a disadvantaged suburb of the city. Tray, and a few of his cohorts, even made it New York Fashion Week helping behind the scenes.

The Check It has now been transformed from a street gang to a community group with its own fashion label. Tray is studying criminal justice and is now an outreach worker himself connecting with other young black LGBT people in DC's poorest suburbs.

"It's a big turnaround for me but I really like it. A lot of younger people have jobs and everyone is in school or off the streets."

Dana tells news.com.au she still worries about the people she met when she made the film.

"I'm always waiting for the phone call that someone's been injured or died. The streets are rough and they do get hurt a lot. Some of the decisions they make are very frustrating and it's frequently heartbreaking to think of them out of the street every night.

"It haunts me and its part of the reason to get the movie out there."

As for Tray, he's happy with his new path. But he's unrepentant about the group he became such an important member of.

"I'm proud of the Check It. A lot of LGBT people were being picked and a lot of that has changed. Even though it went in a violent way, we changed DC and they can't take that away from us."

- news.com.au

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