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For supporters of marriage equality, post-election celebrations were cut short on November 5, 2008. As President Barack Obama pledged loyalty to the LGBT community, Californians lost their right to same-sex marriage on the very day of his election. Proposition 8’s success took a lot of voters by surprise, and The Church of Latter Day Saints played no small part in that process. In his new film, 8: The Mormon Proposition, Reed Cowan—who grew up as a gay Mormon—plumbs the depths of the LDS church’s deep political involvement in the bill, taking time to touch on the church’s broader interactions with LGBT individuals as well. Arts Desk recently spoke with Cowan about his film and the issues behind it.
What sparked your interest in working on this documentary?
We started out making this film with a focus on LGBT homeless youth. In Salt Lake City, there’s a deplorable amount of kids who are homeless in the dead of winter who have been kicked out of their house by their otherwise loving Mormon families. We started working on that around the same time as Proposition 8 started to bubble up. At one point we decided we have to reexamine our focus and turn the camera on this moment in history. So that was when we transitioned into focusing on Proposition 8. There’s just a lot of bigotry from the pulpit that turns into public policy, but we didn’t abandon the human toll of that bigotry either.
What has your experience been like dealing with the LDS church in Utah generally?
I’m a product of that culture. I was born and raised Mormon. I went to Mormon seminary from 7th grade to 12th grade, I was schooled in their missionary training center, and I served a two-year mission. My experience was knowing what it was like to be a young person who knew on the inside he was gay, but hearing homosexuality compared to the sin of murder. I knew what it was like to go home and think, “How can I commit suicide so it won’t hurt? And how can I make it look like an accident so it doesn’t devastate my parents?” I knew the pain of the bigotry spoken from the pulpit against gay people. I knew growing up that you could never tell this secret or you risk everything, your life here on this earth and your eternal salvation. So it was very difficult.
Did you reach a turning point?
I did. I got married to a woman. We had a beautiful child together, but we had a very troubled marriage. After she decided to leave, I decided not to lie any more. At that point I had a little boy who was two years old at the time, and I looked at him and I thought, “I am not going to let this child get raised by a liar.” The turning point for me was when I looked at my child and decided he deserves a truth-telling father, so I’ve been telling my truth since then and that’s what I’ve been about.
Did you face a lot of push-back from the Mormon community when you started working on this?
I did. I did have support also. I faced a lot of push-back. When we premiered at Sundance, some 85,000 faxes went out which were very horrible. They had salacious pictures of men kissing, and they said shame on Reed Cowan. Those faxes went to businesses, and homes, and church offices, and schools from a Mormon hate group called America Forever. Anyone who does a little research on me knows that little boy who was a product of my marriage was killed in a backyard accident four years ago at his mother’s home. I guess the most painful pushback has been the emails and letters I’ve gotten that say, “Your son was taken from you because you’re a faggot. Burn in Hell. You will never see him again.” That was the most recent one. So I’ve had threats, but the ones that go for the jugular were about my child and the loss of my child. That’s the pushback from Mormons that hurts the most.
That sounds like the same techniques used by Westboro Baptist.
Yeah, and I realize that comes from the fringe. That doesn’t come from a lot of my mainstream Mormon friends. But I also know that’s indicative of how you can say one thing from the pulpit, and it falls on the ears of extremists and becomes something ugly and painful.
In the film, you talk about some very serious documents you obtained from sources within the LDS Church. Were you ever threatened because of that?
No. That wasn’t a problem. Obtaining the documents came very easily. There was a person who copied them inside the church archives. They ended up in the hands of Fred Carter who appears in the film, and we haven’t had any threats related to that. You know, how do you argue with the documents? They just speak for themselves, and you can’t argue with that.
Did you have trouble finding gay Mormons who wanted to be interviewed?
Not at all. In fact, we were in the papers in Salt Lake City saying we’re coming into town, and we’d invite you to share stories if you’re gay and Mormon, or if you’re a family member of a gay Mormon. I thought we’d have a trickle of people throughout the day. We had people lining up from just after sunup until 11 o’clock at night. We turned people away who wanted to tell their stories. We really got a sense that the damage was so big and so wounding to people that they wanted an outlet to talk about how it made them feel and how it hurt.
How has the LGBT community responded to your work?
I’m thankful for the response. I feel like they’ve been supportive, and the way they’ve been most supportive is to punctuate that this is not just an LGBT film. It looks like it on its face, but really this is a film for voters. I’m most heartened by the fact that the LGBT community is showing people that this isn’t just something that affected gay people, it affected voters.
Are there potential legal ramifications to the Church’s involvement in the proposition?
We know that just within the past few days the California Fair Political Practices Commission found them guilty on 13 counts and fined them. This is unprecedented findings, and unprecedented that they would be fined publicly and have to account for that. They had to answer for it, and they did.
What do you hope people take away from the film?
That their vote is sacred. Voters have a right to know who the man behind the curtain is, they have a right to know who is pulling the strings in a ballot initiative or any other political process three months before they go in and cast their vote, not three months afterward. We need more transparency. We need to asses in our culture, do we want a theocracy or do we want a democracy? A democracy only exists when there is a clear separation between church and state. We need to decide what we want and go for it. What happened in California is a blurring of those lines, and in the view of people in my film, that’s very dangerous.
In your view, should the church take no stances on political issues at all, or is there a particular moment when the LDS church went sour?
For me it goes sour when obviously they made financial and time contributions. Obviously they behaved like a PAC. There’s advocacy for a cause they consider to be about morality, that’s one thing, but the other thing is political advocacy. When you’re creating very slick ads about politics that look like any other campaign ad for a politician, you’re in the business of politics. How does the business of politics get done? You buy air time, you put out ads, you go door to door. This wasn’t just a discussion of morality within the church and with their neighbors, this was the business of politics.
8: The Mormon Proposition will play for an exclusive three-day run at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, MD starting June 18. The film will be available on Movies on Demand and iTunes on June 18 as well.