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.