Linda Bloodworth-Thomason talks to GLAAD about "Bridegroom," "Designing Women" and using TV for social change

Linda Bloodworth-Thomason is no stranger to telling stories that inspire social change. She wrote, directed and produced Designing Women, which routinely took on social issues of the time. After being touched by the viral video "It Could Happen to You" posted by Shane Bitney Crone on the one-year anniversary of his partner's tragic unexpected death and the subsequent discrimination he faced from his partner's family, Bloodworth-Thomason signed on to direct what would become the award-winning documentary Bridegroom.

Bloodworth-Thomason spoke with GLAAD about Bridegroom, Designing Women's "Killing All the Right People" and how TV has played a role in social change as the Bridegroom TV premiere draws near (this Sunday, October 27 on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, 10:00pm EST). The film will be available on Netflix same day. See what she had to say below and check out our interview with Bridegroom subject and producer Shane Bitney Crone here.

GLAAD: Your classic show Designing Women routinely tackled social issues of the time, but your episodes about people with HIV/AIDS – "Killing All the Right People" – was especially poignant for LGBT audiences when it aired in 1987. LGBT images were rarely seen on television then. What made you decide to write the episode and what challenges did you run into when trying to get it on the air? What was the audience's response?

Linda Bloodworth-Thomason: In March of 1986, my mother was diagnosed with AIDS, after receiving a contaminated blood transfusion. This occurred just as the pilot for Designing Women was getting underway. As I wrote much of the first season, sitting beside my mom, I was witness to the incredible prejudice and prevailing ignorance inflicted not just on her, but all the homosexual men who shared her hospital floor.  Incredibly, some of the medical staff refused to even touch the patients.  Medicine was often placed in rubber buckets and kicked into the rooms. Many of those young men on my mother’s floor died alone with a game show playing on television.  One day I overheard a woman in the hall say, “If you ask me, this disease has one thing going for it.  It’s killing all the right people.”   This made me so angry, it prompted me to write the Emmy-nominated episode, “Killing all the Right People,” which was television’s first scripted show to tackle the hateful prejudice surrounding gays and AIDS.

There was absolutely no challenge to getting this episode on the air.  CBS president, Jeff Sagansky, was a colossal supporter of Designing Women and championed not only my writing, but also the unique talent of Dixie Carter, Delta Burke, Annie Potts and Jean Smart.  He gave me carte blanche to write about whatever I wanted, including topics that were provocative and/or controversial. 

Surprisingly, most of the response was positive.  I believe there was less hate mail spawned by this episode than originally anticipated.  This might be because the issue of a medical epidemic threatening America took precedence over the moral issue of being gay.

GLAAD: Since then we've seen great progress made both in terms of visibility on television and legislation passed in support of the LGBT community. How do you think television has played a role in that progress? 

LB-T: I think television and movies have played a seminal role in highlighting social injustice.  When the 1968 Civil Rights Act was passed, it became the law of the land.  But it took Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Roots, Cosby and Oprah Winfrey to bring it home.  The law changed things legally, but these shows, these people, they changed hearts and minds.  The same thing has happened for the gay community through shows like Will & Grace, Queer Eye and Modern Family.  Hopefully, Bridegroom can take its place in the pantheon of these game changers. 

GLAAD: What drew you to want to adapt Shane and Tom's story in the documentary Bridegroom?

LB-T: I thought Shane and Tom comprised the best couple I had seen on which to hang a love story.  So much of the vilification of the gay community has been built upon negative images and stereotypes.  Shane and Tom were decent, hardworking, well-behaved, young men from small town America.  They made such an attractive couple on every level and they were deeply in love.  I wanted to depict a love story that heterosexuals could envy and gays could be proud to call their own. Check out the Bridegroom trailer below.

GLAAD: The film has received great accolades (and awards) at a number of film festivals since it premiered at Tribeca earlier this year, has made it to theaters, and is set to premiere on the OWN this Sunday, October 27.What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

LB-T: I want all the people who oppose same-sex marriage to see exactly what it is that they have been opposing.  I think they might be surprised to see that gay love looks just like, well, love. I hope the path Tom’s parents chose might serve as a cautionary tale to other parents who are thinking of mistreating or disowning their own children because they are gay.  I hope that people who call themselves Christians will stop using the Bible the way Tom’s mother and dad did, as an excuse for abusing their child.  There is nothing in the Bible that speaks of homosexuality.  It was written when we, as a people, were in our intellectual infancy.  There are many wonderful things in it, but we also have science now.  Why is science not also a gift from God?  I would like to say to these parents, “God didn’t just give you a Bible.  He also gave you a brain.  Use it.”  It is a special kind of madness that we drive our children to hang themselves in closets and jump off of bridges over absolutely nothing more than being born the way they are and loving who they love.  It has to stop.


GLAAD: What's next for Bridegroom and for you?

LB-T: Thanks to the incomparable Oprah Winfrey, Bridegroom will have its American television debut this Sunday on OWN.  It will also become available on Netflix the same day.  The DVD will be on sale starting November 18th.  I hope everyone will buy copies for themselves, their families, their friends.  We know from thousands of e-mails that there are a lot of people out there who are living lives of quiet desperation.  This love story needs to be seen in as many countries as possible, so our goal will also be to export it to places like Russia, the Middle East, Mississippi and any other locale where bigots still need more information.

Bridegroom premieres this Sunday, October 27 on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network at 10:00pm EST. If you're in the Chicago area, you can join Shane Bitney Crone at a special Bridegroom screening and Q&A at Wrigley Field at 5:30pm. Chairs of the event include Laura Ricketts (Chicago Cubs co-owner), Brooke Skinner (GLAAD Chicago Leadership Council), Mark Pino (Harpo Productions/OWN) and Jeremy Gottschalk. Tickets are available now.