Most media images of LGBT people seen by the general public fall into similar categories. They tend to be white, middle to upper class, and almost always live in big cities or more liberal areas, but in truth LGBT people are just as diverse as the overall population. The upcoming documentary State and Union: Lesbian Families in the Deep South, from co-directors and producers Michele Forman, Lara Embry, and Carolyn Sherer, aims to rectify that impression somewhat, by shedding light on real lesbian families living in Birmingham, Alabama.
It's a state where grassroots advocates still face tough uphill battles in the struggle for equality, making it particularly important that stories like these be shared. Currently the film is just twelve days away from the end of it's Indiegogo campaign, in which it's already raised over 50 thousand dollars. Lara Embry and Michele Forman spoke with GLAAD about why these families stay where they are, the stories that have moved them, and their hopes for the film to inspire actions.
What was the impetus for making a documentary highlighting stories of lesbian families living in the south, and how did your production team come together?
Lara: The idea of the documentary came from the photography exhibition, "Living in Limbo; Lesbian Families in the Deep South," by Carolyn Sherer. The exhibit premiered at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and was one of the most attended exhibits in the history of the institute, and then it traveled to West Hollywood where I saw it. The photographs are remarkably expressive, but many of the families had their backs to the camera in order to not be identified. When Carolyn and I spoke about the exhibit, I just kept thinking that if people in the south could hear the stories behind these photographs that we could help create a world in which these families didn't feel they had to hide. Personally, I was also very curious because I had left Alabama when I was 18, and never really gave being a lesbian in Birmingham a chance. I really wanted to meet these people who created a life in my home town; to explore what looked like an amazing, resilient community. We started to talk about making a documentary.
Michele: Carolyn and Lara reached out to me about the idea for a film telling the stories of the families in the photographs. I loved the idea. But a few weeks after we started talking about the film, the U.S. Supreme Court Decision on DOMA came out and we realized we might very well have a different film to make. All three of us understood we had an incredible opportunity to document history as it unfolds from a very intimate vantage point, from inside the perspectives of families in one of the most conservative parts of the country. This groundbreaking decision was not going to apply to Alabamians. The film is called State & Union because we are interested in telling the stories of amazing families who are watching unbelievable change and progress blossom across the country, yet are still separated from it. In Alabama, there is no law to protect LGBTQ families. The trust Carolyn built up photographing the families grew out of a shared understanding of what can happen to families not protected equally by the law. A well-known photographer in Birmingham, Carolyn did not set out to document her own community until one of her dear friends found herself expelled from her home after the death of her long-term partner.
How did you come to work with all the families featured in the documentary, and what made them want to take part?
Lara: We approached the families who are featured in the documentary, selecting families who represent the diversity of experience of being lesbian in Alabama. Some of the families had participated in the photography exhibit, but we also sought other families out whose story we wanted to tell. We wanted to show the challenges these families face having no legal protections.
We have families participating who are fighting for custody of their children, have lost jobs, and have been forced out of their own homes after the loss of a spouse. But there are also many stories of resilience and community. For instance, we have Patricia Todd in the film, the first openly LGBTQ person elected to state wide office. We also have a young Aftican-American couple who are thrilled to be expecting their first child.
No one who we have approached has said 'no', and everyone has been remarkably open. It really feels as if the community has tired of being overlooked or hiding, and is responding to the opportunity to be a part of the change they want to see. It has been a remarkable response.
Many people might have the perception that Southern or "red" states are generally inhospitable places for LGBT people to live, or even that LGBT people are few and far between there. How do the stories of these families line up with or challenge those assumptions?
Michele: Alabama is one of the reddest of red states. Much of the national perception of Alabama is based on our political culture. And our larger-than-life political figures, such as Governor George Wallace or Birmingham’s Bull Connor or more currently State Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore who has written to all 50 U.S. Governors calling for a Constitutional Convention against same-sex marriage.
Yet Alabama is not a monolith. Birmingham in the 1960s made the news as the epicenter of violent enforcement of segregation, but it was also the site of one of the world’s most successful longterm campaigns of peaceful political direct action, led by Birmingham’s own Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. I think about the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement when I think about this particular historical moment for LGBTQ families. Much of my documentary work has focused on the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement and I think about something a woman told me about being a child in the Movement: "Rev. Shuttlesworth did not teach us to be afraid.” I see so much resilience, humor, and deep support among the “chosen families” of those in our film. The size of the LGBTQ community in Birmingham is large and vibrant and distinctly Southern. The pain and fear of having no legal protections is very real, but the film captures something much richer and more nuanced about the lived experience of our families. We were filming at the first same-sex wedding to be performed at a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama!
LGBTQ families are also Southern families. I think one of the recurring themes in the families’ stories is the desire to live close to family and in the community where their roots are. Our families have a deep love of the South—food, football, family, the lake, the hospitality and neighborliness—all the elements that make for a rich, quality of life. They do not want to have to move to another part of the country to access equal rights and the protection of the law. As these rights become more and more of the national standard across the nation, we see that people elsewhere can forget that equality has not yet come to Alabama.
Though most of these families are everyday people, they are facing challenges that touch on the same issues faced by the LGBT community at large. Were there any stories that struck a chord with you personally?
Lara: I have been particularly touched by the stories of the moms who are fighting for custody of their children, whose custody is only in question because of their sexual orientation. The experience of being separated from your child, for no other reason than who you love, is incredibly unjust. Having been through something like this personally, and knowing how painful that is, these are the stories I am closest to. I also think these stories highlight a key reason why the fight for marital and family rights is so important for all of us, to secure the rights of our children.
What are some of the messages or impressions you hope audiences will take away watching the stories of these families?
Lara: I hope that the viewers understand the need to act, to implement laws across the country that protect our families. The families in our film are loving families who live in a wonderful community; one that reflects their values, and embraces them as individuals. They also face ridiculously outdated hurdles to living a normally secure life- many of which can be addressed through our legal system. I hope the film will cause people to stop saying that gay people should 'leave the south', and that they will start pitching in to fix it- because it really is a wonderful place.
You can make a donation to State and Union at its Indiegogo page here, and check out their video for the campaign below: