THE battle for gay and lesbian equality has been fought at the ballot box, within the government and military, through the courts and on the streets. But arguably the most dramatic and divisive clashes are now unfolding inside churches -- and a group of independent filmmakers is taking notice.
There is so much new documentary and dramatic work exploring the explosive intersection of spirituality and sexuality that this week’s Outfest, as the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival is known, has created a five-film series, “Queers in Christ,” on the subject. Although diverse in story and tone, the movies are linked by a common argument: That God and Jesus would welcome every member of the human family into their realm, regardless of sexual orientation. Since good storytelling involves conflict, though, there are any number of people in these films -- including Scripture-quoting anti-gay activists and not-in-my-house Pentecostal parents -- taking a dramatically different view of inclusion.
Even though some of these movies have been in the works for a long time -- the director of “The Believers,” a documentary about a transgender gospel choir in San Francisco, filmed the chorus over the course of five years -- they are arriving at a propitious time. Although the secular world appears to be growing more tolerant of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals, the same can’t be said for many organized religious groups.
The ordination of a gay bishop and the blessing of same-sex couples is fracturing the Anglican and Episcopal communions. Pope Benedict XVI has said that same-sex marriages are “pseudo-matrimony.” And the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recently kicked out a gay pastor in Atlanta who was in a relationship with another man.
“It’s an amazing time,” said Chad Allen, a gay actor who stars in “Save Me,” a fictional story exploring a love affair inside Genesis House, a ministry aimed at turning gays into straights. “Christians are standing up finally and saying there’s something wrong with a theology which condemns and scapegoats gay and lesbian people for political power. We will not allow our faith, and our belief and love of Christ, to be used in that way.”
When the big studios delve into homosexual themes, it’s usually for a sophomoric laugh -- “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry” or “Blades of Glory.” Those rare high-profile Hollywood movies featuring gay characters like “Brokeback Mountain” rarely introduce religion. The Outfest films, on the other hand, wear their religious politics on their sleeves.
“The struggles of queer Christians are uniquely dramatic and a large part of the drama stems from the fact that queer Christians are people that often find themselves ostracized from both their religious communities and the gay community at large,” said David Courier, Outfest’s co-director of programming.
The films’ narrative and political militancy -- coupled with occasional low-budget production values and no-name casts -- probably means they will have a tough time attracting an audience. But several from the series will be distributed theatrically.
The drama “Rock Haven” is a look at a budding relationship between two young men, one of whom is raised in a conservative Christian household. The other two films are documentaries. “We’re All Angels” follows a young (and gay) Christian singing duo as they record pop songs in their Texas studio, play gigs at churches and fundraisers across the country, and try not to look too gay or too Christian in a photo shoot.
The second documentary is “For the Bible Tells Me So,” which alternates between a look at five families with gay children on the one hand and a theological refutation of allegedly anti-gay Bible passages on the other.
This last film, scheduled to receive a theatrical release in mid-October, is the most narrowly focused on the sexual orientation-religious divide. Director Daniel Karslake intended to interview people on both sides of the issue; when most conservative commentators declined to participate, he says, he tried to craft a film that was not overly argumentative. “I always wanted to make a movie that spoke to the middle of the country,” said Karslake, who lives in New York. “I didn’t want to make another film that would separate people.”
“For the Bible Tells Me So” directly confronts anti-gay Christians who quote a handful of Bible passages -- usually including Leviticus -- to support their position. The film’s experts (including Harvard University theologian the Rev. Peter Gomes and South African archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu) say those passages are usually taken out of context and also call for other prohibitions (such as mixing crops, wearing linen and wool together, and remarrying after divorce) that few of the staunchest anti-gay critics seem to worry about. The film’s overarching thesis is that Jesus was a reconciler, not a divider; that he and God walk with the oppressed, not the oppressors.
At the center of the film is the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, whose ordination as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 was the catalyst of the current crisis splitting the Episcopal and Anglican church. By profiling other gay and lesbian people, “For the Bible Tells Me So” aims to show how Christian families can -- and sometimes can’t -- handle a child’s coming-out.
“I think the real power of the film, besides the five very personal stories of religious families who have dealt with this,” Robinson said, “is that it gives people a firm piece of ground to stand on and say, ‘You know, those verses actually don’t wind up saying what they at first appear to mean.’ My sense is that there are a lot of people in the country who are beginning to or already are feeling somewhat sympathetic. But they feel totally undercut when someone starts quoting Scripture to them. The film will give people the tools they need to turn that sympathy into real active support.”
“The Believers” ratchets up the conversation by several octaves. Filmmaker Todd Holland’s documentary (which will be shown on cable TV’s Logo on Aug. 11) follows the formation of the Transcendence Gospel Choir, a 15-voice musical ensemble composed entirely of transgender singers.
Ashley, who formed the choir, began life as a man named Ash. “I was told every which way that I was going to hell,” Ashley says in the film. “I grew up thinking I was a flawed, useless mistake.” Ashley turned her outcast status into an organizing principle -- to create a transgender choir, even if the very God they were praising in song was being cited by others to condemn them as an abomination.
That is one of several paradoxes “The Believers” presents. Holland struggled to obtain music rights to a number of modern gospel songs, because their conservative authors didn’t want to be associated with a transgender choir. And traditional gospel fans weren’t inclined to embrace the performers, while the LGBT community wasn’t automatically inclined to like Christian music.
“They are truly stuck between those two worlds, but the film shows how easily those worlds can connect when you never thought they could,” said Holland. “The spirit of the people in this choir is so contagious that no matter where you are coming from, you are going to see something you like.”
Music is also at the heart of “We’re All Angels,” a documentary following the young Christian pop duo Jason & DeMarco. Jason Warner was raised a Pentecostal and DeMarco DeCiccio a Roman Catholic. Both remain observant Christians and are a couple. Rather than see that as a crippling identity crisis, the two make it their calling: preaching, through song, that you can be a loving, happy couple finding comfort, rather than condemnation, in God.
“These guys aren’t going to let any church or any religious authority define their spirituality for them,” said the film’s director, Robert Nunez. “They know that they are OK and that their relationship with God is as solid as anybody’s relationship with God.”
Nunez said he was drawn to Jason & DeMarco’s story after reading a profile of them in the Advocate magazine. “I always thought that gay people who clung to religion were like battered wives who wanted acceptance from an organization that just hated them,” Nunez said. “But they know that God loves them.”
“We’re All Angels” and “For the Bible Tells Me So” were partly underwritten by Michael Huffington, the former California congressman and U.S. Senate nominee. Huffington, who has come out as bisexual, said he believes these and other films are an important part in what he calls “the civil rights movement of our century.” “I came out because I realized God created all of us in his image, and his image is so broad that it includes everyone,” said Huffington.
“I really hope that some pope -- maybe 1,000 years from now -- will say, ‘We were wrong on this issue.’ One day, it will happen.”
Times special correspondent Lisa Rosen contributed to this story.