At Sundance, one of the most powerful documentaries I saw as Love Free or Die, director Macky Alston’s chronicle of Bishop Gene Robinson’s fight to get the Episcopal Church in America to recognize gay clergy and gay couples’ marriages—as well as the story of Robinson’s own wedding to his long-time partner in New Hampshire. In addition to being a moving story about Bishop Robinson’s life and work, Love Free or Die is a counter to a major progressive assumption: that the gay rights movement will have to proceed largely without the help of major American religious institutions.It’s also the rare Sundance movie that you can help bring to your own community: details on how to do that are available on the movie’s website. I spoke to Bishop Robinson and to Alston in Park City about making the movie and arguing that gay people religious people shouldn’t have to give up their faith—and that the church shouldn’t have to lose its members. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
I was wondering if maybe both of you could talk about the experience of working together and for Bishop Robinson, about moving to the center of the frame in a documentary instead of being one of many subjects?
Bishop Robinson: This was a big decision for me, to allow a film crew into my life and my family’s life for, you know, three or four years…I wouldn’t have done it with someone I didn’t trust implicitly. And Macky has just been true to his word about doing this film with great sensitivity and taste, and we so agree on the message of the film, which is that love trumps everything, and when people get to know us as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people, it changes everything, because then they’re not responding to an issue, they’re responding to a person.
I guess also, in the back of my mind, you know, all those kids that I hear from, literally every week, who are in some little town in Idaho or Alabama or halfway around the world, who seem to draw inspiration from my being public about who I am, and yet saying, you know, you don’t have to give up your religion and your faith just because you’re gay. And I wanted to make this film for them as well.
You talked about letting the camera crew into your life. Was that stressful? What were those conversations like with your family about deciding to go ahead, as well?
Bishop Robinson: I think they trusted me and my trusting Macky. And, you know, my husband – my legal husband now, but my partner for 24 years – is not a public person, particularly, and, you know, he didn’t know he was signing on for this 24 years ago…But he also believes, you know, believes in the power of integrity, and the power of one person’s story to inspire courage in many, many people. And our greatest hope for this film is that everyone will see themselves as a prophet, as a potential voice to call their Aunt Betty or to talk to that co-worker that works next to them about the gay and lesbian people they know in their lives, and that the discrimination that has historically been true for us is just simply wrong, so that each person can become empowered to do justice work, which is what this is really about. It’s really not enough to be compassionate, although that’s wonderful…Beyond compassion, we need justice. And that’s true to the Biblical record, that we’re, yes, we’re called upon to love, but we’re also called upon to fight for justice for those who are marginalized. And so our greatest hope is that this film will empower people to do that.
This is a documentary, but it fits into a larger pop-culture spectrum that has become more accepting of gay love stories but that doesn’t often bring the church or faith into those stories.
Bishop Robinson: Well, and, to be honest, when the church is brought into it, it’s almost always a negative. And I think the culture is behind the times a little bit, because the culture has so often written off religious institutions. They don’t realize that religious institutions are changing, and they’re changing at a remarkably fast pace. And I think one of the things this film will do is catch people up on the remarkable progress we are making in religious institutions for the full inclusion and acceptance of gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
Macky Alston: The research shows also that we cannot skirt religious communities if we want freedom, our freedom, LGBT equality in the US, that the number one reason that people are voting against us is their religious convictions. And so…we have to speak from our own faith convictions, and we have to be engaged with people of faith to help them understand, help us understand how we can be better Christians, or Jews, or Muslims, living into a number one mandate of our traditions: to love your neighbor, whoever that neighbor is, and to do justice. So helping people understand the compatibility—in fact, the mandate—in their faith traditions to love and to stand for justice. That’s the only way that we’re gonna get the votes in 2012 in these critical states like Minnesota, Maryland, North Carolina, Maine. And one of my struggles with secular organizing in this movement is that, I think, folks just hope that we don’t have to go there, that in a separation of church and state-based society, we can stay separate.
Pop culture is also not very good at telling stories about religious institutions. You know, we tell a lot of stories about police precincts and emergency rooms but we don’t tell stories about sort of the churches as institutions.
Bishop Robinson: You know, I think the secular culture views religious institutions as being fixed and monolithic, and they miss the story of change within those institutions. And we’re just seeing enormous change, even in those denominations that appear to have this completely settled. I mean, even the Mormon church has done some polling and realized that their regard in the United States went down after their support of Prop 8 in California. And so, they couldn’t be clearer about their policy, but even they are beginning to recognize that this is an attitude that certainly younger people will no longer put up with.
Macky Alston: But they’re struggling, right?
Bishop Robinson: They are struggling.
Macky Alston: Because the LDS church just asked Mormons across the country, particularly in Minnesota, to stand against marriage equality there. So I feel like we are in conflict—Christian communities, Jewish communities, Muslim communities, religious communities in the US and beyond are swinging back and forth.
Bishop Robinson: Which is why this movie is so timely. These discussions are going on literally as we speak, and they’re going on in synagogues and mosques and churches across the country. And we want to be a part of that discussion.
It’s hard to get people on board for an organizing conversation if—in both directions—if their perception is, no matter what they do, they’re going to go into that discussion and come under attack.
Macky Alston: You know what is interesting to me, and such good news, is that, as a gay person, I know what Gene says to be true— the great percentage of our oppression, institutionally, comes from organized religion, that the ideology that keeps us down over these millennia and certainly during my life has been formulated and pushed out by the church, and the synagogue, and the mosque. And the thrilling news in making this film that I witnessed, historically, is that the very institution that has kept me down is also the path to my liberation and partner in my liberation. The notion, as a gay person, that my oppressor, that religion as a force for evil, is not the only nature, or way, that religion works, but that religion is a force for good, as in the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., as in the anti-war movement, as in so many movements, that that’s the way it’s going to go in this narrative as well. And I can’t believe, as a documentary filmmaker, I got to witness the direct cause and effect between an individual’s courageous stand and systemic change, and big institutions taking stands everybody predicted they would not in this year or even this decade.
And it’s not just about Gene, though that catalyst, you need that. And that figurehead, you need that. What’s beautiful about the film, I think, is that it’s the teenager whose best friend committed suicide, who’s in youth group and is a teen delegate to the Episcopal church’s once-every-three-years convention. It’s the mom who wants a better life for her son and wants love for him, a gay man. It’s the 85-year-old woman who doesn’t want to die before she gets to marry her beloved woman. And to see all of these people stand courageously in front of an audience of thousands or an intimate audience of bishops, and then to see people—to witness their hearts move, and then a vote that you couldn’t imagine…was so heartening, as a citizen, as an organizer, and as a human being, that the things we think cynically will just never change, changed on my watch. And so, oh, the work that we have before us to do, but oh the possibilities.
Certainly, a purely secular gay rights movement, to a certain extent, it denies people their faith, and it denies religious institutions the capacity of change.
Bishop Robinson: You know, I was at the Human Rights Campaign office in Washington, DC once, and I was meeting with a hundred, little over a hundred staff people. And I asked them, “How many of you are members of a faith community?” A good two-thirds of them put up their hands. And then I said, “And how many of you have ever spoken about that in this building?” Three hands. And so, sometimes, I think, it’s harder to come out as a religious person in the gay community than it is to come out as gay in the straight community. And it is so important, and our community is filled with people who have successfully joined their sexuality and their spirituality, but people don’t know it. And I think this film will encourage them to not only put those things together, but to tell other people about it.
Macky Alston: I think that one of the real uses of the film is to help the secular and the religious folk within the LGBT equality movement understand one another better
It would be an incredible shame to leave the power of religious institutions on the table.
Bishop Robinson: You know, I think you can make the argument that the LGBT community largely ignored the religious community in the Prop 8 fight in California, and had they understood each other to be allies, that might have gone a different way. And I think that’s one of the real learnings out of that terrible experience, and one that I see now around the country being remedied.
Macky Alston: People vote their values, so we need voices like Martin Luther King’s, like Abraham Joshua Heschel’s, like Gandhi’s. People are trying to figure out what the right thing to do is, and often they turn to their faith leaders and faith communities to straighten that out…it’s ridiculous to silence the ethical leaders of our time on the critical issues of our day. But I’m just interested in how that’s best done, and watching Gene, it gave me a great model, and I think folks should watch the movie with that in mind too.