HRC’s new documentary details how religious spaces can be come more LGBT-friendly

Our recent article on the firing of LGBT staff at Catholic schools was just the latest reminder that many faith communities and institutions are still reluctant to truly open their doors to all—that being in direct conflict with their core values and teachings. But being a part of religious communities myself, I know that safe spaces do exist and that there are LGBT people and allies working from within to make spaces that aren’t so queer-friendly a little more welcoming.


While mainstream depictions of the LGBT community paint us to not be particularly religious, for many of us religion does matter, and moving forward to open up dialogue on this is important. That’s why I welcome Brave Spaces: Perspectives on Faith and LGBT Justice, a new documentary commissioned by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).

Produced by Rev. MacArthur Flournoy, director of Faith Partnerships and Mobilization at the HRC, and directed by Marc Smolowitz (Trembling Before G-d), Brave Spaces looks at the “past, present and future of coalition building and intersectional justice” as this relates to LGBT and faith communities.

We recently spoke with Marc Smolowitz about the motivations behind his movie and how he thinks it’s useful as a community dialogue tool.

U0K5hyjS5MaEonIt2GUyqvwWN-n8Cu8VaFXdkqcLYDY What were the motivations behind this documentary?

Marc Smolowitz: There were several motivations. One was to create a documentary–a short documentary–that was a good running time that could support community conversations. What’s great about Brave Spaces is that the running time is kind of suited for community events. So you can imagine sitting down and watching the film with different stakeholders and then having a dialogue about religious issues within the LGBT community.

That was one vision, but I think what MacArthur was really aiming for, and what I tried to support, was making a film that could speak to different audiences. So going into communities of faith that may or may not be with LGBT issues entirely, but creating a film and a space to help bring people into the conversation.

Outside of that, I think it was also meant to be a film that could be shown to LGBT audiences and help connect the dots around intersectional justice and more broad social justice movements–helping people on the LGBT side understand the history of social justice and how we all worked together over many decades.


AE: There was definitely enough meat in there for this movie to be an hour and a half long, easily. Why make it little more than 30 minutes?

MS: The motivation, I think, was really to have something that could be used as a community tool. In that way, I think the running time is in the sweet spot.

The facilitated conversation afterwards can really be a partner for continuing on the ideas that are presented in the film. I totally agree with you that something longer could have been possible, but it was really sort of the HRC’s plan to just come up with a good running time that could support their efforts in the community hosting the event.


AE: Getting into the themes in the movie, do you believe your film is unique in that it portrays the power of faith institutions to help the LGBT cause, as oppose to hurting it?

MS: I definitely think we came at this from the posture that faith communities have the power to help. And that there are members of the faith community, and always have been members of the faith community, that have been there with us, and that are at the table.

One of the reasons we even called the film Brave Spaces, for example–this is something that we came up with, MacArthur and I, through the process of making this film–is that the idea is that when people come into conversation, when they come into a space where they’re trying to create a coalition or space of intersectional justice, they need to be in a certain kind of space of trust in order to do that. In order to meet each other in the middle, understand that they have differences, and that they may or may not agree on all issues, but on the issues that they can agree on, they can move forward.


AE: There have been news reports as of late of people being fired or having job offers rescinded at Catholic schools. Do you know if it’s the HRC’s intention to highlight what’s going on in such institutions using your film as a tool?

MS: I know that the HRC has lots of diverse priorities with respect to its faith and religion priorities. I think the idea that a non-profit would endeavor to make a film like this–we can’t undervalue that decision. It’s a big idea and a big project to make a film, right? I think the fact that they did it was a very strong choice. It gives them a very powerful storytelling tool to be able to go into communities, and hold events and deal with issues in really interesting ways. In different communities, the nuances of that are going to be specific to what’s going on there.  


AE: Your film highlights specific movements, such as the civil rights movement, that LGBT people participated in but were forced to take a backseat in. Now that it’s “our time,” is it your sense that we’re getting support from the communities our pioneers supported?

MS: I think what happened with marriage equality is sort of case in point that we are getting their returned support. I think maybe for me I want to highlight that, now more than ever, the LGBT side of the conversation needs to be supporting other communities in their social justice goals.

There’s a particular interview in the film by a straight religious leader who says, “Sometimes when we ask for help from the LGBT they don’t show up.” That sort of comment was quite revealing to me. I think if we’re going to ask for help, we also have to show up and help. So hopefully the movie can become a convening tool where people can think about what it means to show up for one another.


AE: Why do you think a film like this makes sense now, as opposed to five years ago? Given the context of recent events, to me it certainly seems more valuable that it is a recent release.

MS: When we looked at what’s been going on in the last five to seven years, really kind of since Prop 8 and since the Obama presidency, so much has happened! There’s been this kind of acceleration of so many things that are embedded in the different issues that we deal with in Brave Spaces. We had to pick and choose what we wanted to highlight because there is so much going on.

I think you’re right. I think that something like this would not have been really possible before marriage equality. It wouldn’t have had as much power because the advocacy goal is different. Prior, the advocacy goal would have been to get communities to work together to advance marriage equality. Well now we have a tool, this movie, to take the conversation beyond that and go a little further.

So I’m hopeful that this documentary, that as the HRC works with it, will be able to continue to partner with the priorities that they’re setting for 2016, for 2017.

A non-profit is not going to make a movie every year. They just don’t have the resources or the ability. So when they do, they really want it to have staying power and to be useful. That was a major part of this–let’s make something that has shelf life for the HRC so when they go into a community they actually have a storytelling tool to convene people.


AE: So what do you ultimately hope audiences get out of this film?

MS: Films like this are wrapped around by an enterprise, and that enterprise is what supports the continuing work of the film when it comes off the screen. So you show a movie, and then the lights come up, and what’s next? Well the “what’s next” piece is what you have to support.

Brave Spaces is playing at the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival on September 11. You can request a screening of the movie by visiting its page on the HRC website.