Families Are Forever Deals with Devout Couple Who Learns Their Son is Gay
By Demitri Corbin
Families Are Forever is a 21-minute documentary short that tells the story of a devout Mormon couple, who were staunch Proposition 8 supporters, who one day discover that their 13 year-old son is gay.It was the 2013 Ojai Film Festival Theme award-winner. The film is the third in a series of films produced by the Family Acceptance Project (FAP), a research, intervention, education and policy initiative of San Francisco State University to study the impact of family acceptance — and rejection — on the health, mental health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.I recently spoke via telephone with the film’s executive director and program director for FAP, Caitlin Ryan, PhD., to discuss the making of Families Are Forever from her office in San Francisco.Demitri Corbin: There’s a lot to this story. Let’s start from the beginning. How did the Family Acceptance Project start?Caitlin Ryan: I’ve been a clinical social worker for 40 years, starting in the ’70s and in the ’80s when the HIV epidemic emerged, and I started AIDS Atlanta. It was the only AIDS organization in the South … and in the South particularly, young gays left to go to the big city, to become themselves, and come home maybe once a year for Christmas or Thanksgiving. And their families didn’t know that much about them. Then in ’82, ’83, I started to see parents in intensive care units, and worked with families who didn’t know their son was gay. Throughout that period, most people didn’t see how families were being affected. That set for when I had an opportunity to create a program.Fast forward to the ’90s I continued working in the field … the ’80s saw more and more adolescents coming and the age kept dropping. I knew I wanted to develop a program. In 2000, I moved to California and got the opportunity to develop a program.
DC: That leads to my next question – how did you come to develop the study for the research? Was it an accumulation of research over the years? Were you developing in your head as you moved along?CR: I received a very large grant from the California Endowment for the first comprehensive study on how families acceptance or rejection effects high-risk behavior in LGBT adolescents and teens. I knew in general, families protest against their children’s sexual orientation and services were designed to serve the teen alone, or with a group of their peers.Families seemed to be a problem. I knew all families weren’t rejecting their children and I knew we needed a large family study in order to develop a new model of care families – a new service with which to support families. And I studied families all across the state in urban, rural, farm workers. I took 2- to 4-hour interviews and discovered 100 ways contemporary adolescents are rejected by their families, and how these behaviors measured the relationship between how families responded and high-risk behavior. Faith and religion are a huge factor in acceptance or rejection.By 2004 I knew I wanted to make films. I wanted the films to be about diverse families, films designed give youth and families hope – a multiple series of ethnically, religiously diverse families that tell the story, show families were being in support of their LGBT children. FAP uses models to show, to breakdown perceptions of youth and providers, to offer prevention strategies in the field of counseling, education – help families with support.
DC: Let’s talk about the creative team, tell me about the director, Vivian Kleiman.CR: We met about 10 years ago. Vivian Kleiman is a veteran filmmaker. I knew her work and we had the same philosophy. I met her at a conference and asked her if she would work with me and she said, “Absolutely.” Then I had to raise the funds piecemeal – if I could get them out faster it would make a huge difference. Each film is its own cultural work.DC: Tell me about the first film, Always My Son.CR: That was the second film. The first was the story of a Latino family with a lesbian daughter with preschool children. The mom was struggling – it brought up intergenerational issues. That was the main story. The average age of younger kids coming out is a little older than 13. They know at about age 6 or 7. The perception is young people come out later. It’s important that family and caregivers understand how to support them. In families of color, seniors are really important. This film has been used a lot in senior’s centers.Always My Son is the story of a typical masculine father with a son who is gender non-conforming. The son loves dolls, pretty colors and as the son grows older, the father pushes the son away. The mother is more responsive but the father just ignores it – silence – that’s related to risk. They start noticing depression and are sent to a psychologist because he was registering a high level of risk. He goes to a party one night and gets alcohol poisoning and they have to rush him to an emergency room and that’s when the realized how much distress he was in and needed help. They started an LGBT support group for teens and found a church that was accepting … it’s like a Wizard of Oz thing in that you don’t see what happens behind the screen, how families conservative and religious, how they integrate cultural and religious beliefs and values. It shows the journey of how either rejecting or accepting affects high-risk behaviors.DC: That brings us to Families Are Forever. The evening I met you the film had won the OFF Best Theme Award but you also won an award that evening in BakersfieldCR: Yes, the Best Independent Film Award at the Bakersfield Film FestivalDC: How did it feel getting two awards in one night?CR: Oh, we were all really blown away to win the Theme award, it was just an honor. I was so moved by the festival, everyone’s warmth, the people who were there were artists with great, long careers in film and it was just an honor for our team. Vivian wasn’t able to be there, she had other commitments. She would have been thrilled!DC: What I liked most about the film is that it was fresh – this all happened just in the last year. How did you come to find this family?CR: Well, when the son was coming out they realized they need some help. They were sending him to reparative therapy and that only increased his risk. He was suicidal and they knew they had to change. He urgently needed help and they went online, found FAP and interviewed them. The mom said I was the brightest light in the darkest abyss of their life. They desperately needed a therapist and I recommended a friend who found them a therapist. I went with them on a speaking trip at a Mormon Conference and I asked if they would like to tell their story and they said yes, of course. They would love to tell their story.
Our conversation lasted 45 minutes. I will end it here. Look for the extended conversation in the coming weeks.The Ojai Film Festival wrapped up last night with an encore showing of the festival winners. Families Are Forever will be available, along with other film festival entries, at Ojai Library in the coming weeks. For more information on the Family Acceptance Project visit http://familyproject.sfsu.edu/