In 2005, a 16-year-old boy in Memphis, Tennessee came out to his parents as gay. When he learned his parents were going to send him to a conservative Christian “reparative therapy” center called Love in Action, Zach Stark reached out to friends and classmates via social media. What happened next surprised everyone. Filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox spent the next five years creating a documentary film This is What Love in Action Looks Like, just released on DVD, and Morgan joins us this week to talk about the making of this beautiful film. With a current legislative effort in California to outlaw ex-gay schemes geared toward minors in that state, and the World Health Organization joining other health authorities in condemning the practice, this documentary couldn’t have come at a better time.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: MORGAN JON FOX[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Welcome back to State of Belief Radio everyone. I’m Welton Gaddy.
A 16-year-old boy in Memphis, Tennessee comes out to his parents as gay. He’s quickly whisked away to a conservative Christian reparative therapy center called “Love In Action.” Now, what happened next was so unusual, so inspiring that we’re fortunate that filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox spent the next five years creating a documentary film about it. The film is titled “This Is What Love In Action Looks Like.” It’s just came out on a DVD from TLA releasing, and we’re fortunate as well to have Morgan Jon Fox join us now on State of Belief Radio. Morgan, welcome![MORGAN JON FOX]: Thank you for having me, I really appreciate it. [WG]: Can you start with what brought this gay Memphis teen, Zack Stark, to your attention – this was 2005 I believe – what was your awareness of the ex-gay movement up at that point? [MF]: Well, my awareness actually was very little; I didn’t know anything about it. Little did I know that one of the oldest and largest ex-gay organizations in the entire world was just in my backyard. How I found out about it was Zack Stark – he was 16 at the time, he was actually going to the same high school that I had graduated from several years previous – and I do a lot of work in Memphis with film and theatre, and so I knew a lot of his friends that still were at that school. And I got a call one day about this kid who was being sent to this camp – and it seemed almost fictional; it was like this movie “But I’m A Cheerleader!” or something. It seemed like a comedy or something unbelievable, but it’s so true and it’s happening right in our backyard – and so we started to research and get information about this place, and when Zack was going to be going there. And we found out that it was just like two days away that he was going to start. And so we decided to have a protest, and I essentially wanted to help his friends – who were all teenagers – help them organize, and see through the support of a friend of theirs. [WG]: So you had to make a decision rather quickly on what you were going to do about making this movie. [MF]: Yes. You know, to me what was first was helping Zack’s friends and just the local community stand up for a situation we knew was wrong. And I’m a filmmaker, I’d already made three feature-length films before this time – not documentaries, but films that I’ve written and directed – but, I have the equipment, and so that first day at the protest I brought my equipment, and I kind of balanced talking to the media and helping, you know, draw signs for the protest as well as filming things and documenting at the same time. [WG]: What was the tipping point? I mean, did you say fairly quickly for some reason: “I’ve got to take this on”? [MF]: Well, I was just filming the first day and really, that’s what we probably thought that that’s all it was going to be, just a one-day protest. But it went so well, it was such a great turnout and the media was really portraying us in such a positive way that we decided to do it every single day that Zack had to be there – and by about day three, this had become a huge viral news story. We were getting emails from the New York Times, Time Magazine, Good Morning America, CNN – and so suddenly I realized that I had the inside story to what is now a huge international news story, and felt very fortunate in terms of being a filmmaker and the story falling in my lap. But also that’s why it felt like a duty for me to put a time capsule over something that felt really special, and I felt fortunate to be in that position, surely. [WG]: My guest is Morgan Jon Fox, director of “This Is What Love In Action Looks Like,” about one teenager’s experience in the world of conservative Christian ex-gay reparative therapy.
Morgan, my hometown is just north of you – I grew up in Paris in West Tennessee – and so I know that you were not receiving loads of encouragement from the local community to do this kind of thing. What gave you support?[MF]: Well, you know, we were actually quite surprised. Surely there was a section of Memphis or the local community right around where Love In Action was that wasn’t supportive; but you know, we actually were really surprised and encouraged by the local media, how well they supported, and also just the turnouts that we were having to these daily protests. If you see the documentary, you’ll see some of the news organizations, specifically some of the more conservative ones say: “The gay community was outraged and they came to protest.” But honestly, some of these days it was like 80-85% straight people! I mean, a lot of the teenagers, especially, were heterosexual kids coming out to support a gay friend of theirs, you know, and that’s a real sign of the times in how things are changing. I think a lot of that has to do with social media and how well we were able to spread that story to people who wanted to show support, you know? And I think this is a story about a kid being shamed, and people were just like, you know, ”This is a friend of ours, we don’t appreciate him being bullied or forced into a situation that’s unhealthy for him, and we’re going to show support.” So we felt very encouraged; even though there may have been some discouragement around, we blocked that out. [WG]: Well, I mean you’ve got to also know, I guess, that it was Zack’s courage in posting his thoughts publicly that made this amazing story possible, isn’t that true? [MF]: Absolutely. I think it’s something like what I’d kind of call a modern-day message in a bottle; you know, ten years ago Zack would’ve written these entries in a journal and put them under his bed – and no one would’ve ever seen them. But him being able to speak up and put this on his Myspace blog – which at the time was the Facebook of that day – and you know, yes, he wrote so eloquently what he was going through, what he was feeling, what kind of situation he was in. And he had the foresight to post the rules of Love In Action and what he was about to face. And that gave people tools and support and courage to stand up for him, because he had the courage to do it in the first place. [WG]: Yeah. How did the process of making the documentary go? [MF]: Well, Zack ended up being in there for eight weeks. I, of course, documented the protest as it was happening, and then I knew that I was going to have to wait until Zack turned 18 to be able to get permission to interview him. So I always knew that it was going to at least be a couple of years before I would finish it, and even after that happened I still felt like I didn’t actually have an ending to my documentary: Love In Action was still there, they were still doing what they were doing – but then as time went by, I made another film that I wrote and directed. It was called “OMG, HaHaHa,” it was a feature-length film, and you know, kind of just leaving the film on the back burner, the documentary, and then at some point other things started to happen. Refuge, the teenage program of Love In Action, was discontinued. And then suddenly John Smid, the Acting Director of Love In Action stepped down. And then we start to hear more things in the news that are happening. And suddenly after three years of trying to get John Smid’s interview and other people’s interviews, John Smid leaves Love In Action, decides he would give me an interview, and that was the beginning to what I felt like was leading to, sort of, a resolution for the film. And what that kind of led to is John Smid had a really change in heart over time, and so I continued to interview him and document that as he began to say different things about Love In Action and ex-gay organizations and how he felt like no one had actually ever changed – and yet he was suddenly speaking out against an organization that he was the head of for almost twenty years. And so I continued to interview him and document the things as they happened, and so I’m really actually glad that I didn’t try to finish the film after two years, because so many other things happened that naturally gave me a resolution, and I think made it a better piece altogether. [WG]: You could not have dared write the script for that. [MF]: No, I know it’s definitely fascinating, you know, there are so many stories in the documentary that are so important, valuable, and the fact that John Smid, who was once the enemy of the protest and certainly an enemy of mine, the fact that he came around so much and now he’s, in some ways, saying the same message that we were out there before protesting against it, it’s pretty wild for sure. [WG]: Can you tell us how Zack is doing today? [MF]: Yes, Zack is doing good. You know, he lives in Tennessee, he’s going to school, he works a job, he has his own life, he gets to make his own decisions and he, I don’t know specifically with him and his family – that’s something that’s very personal for him and that’s a journey that he has to go on like so many people. But in terms of just his own healthiness and happiness – I think it’s intact and he’s doing well. And you know, I think some of the documentary doesn’t go into a lot of his personal life but that’s because Zack is a very personal person. He was put in a situation where people acted and he kind of became a poster boy, whether he wanted to or not. And Zack isn’t the type of person that would probably naturally do that, or offer to be that. But I think he’s also grateful and glad that it happened the way it did, just because he knows that it can affect other people, and his story can inspire others to act and hopefully give others hope who are maybe in situations like he was in. [WG]: Isolation is one of the most powerful and most dangerous elements in this kind of faith-based “therapy.” That’s why California’s legislators are working right now to outlaw this kind of misguided treatment for those under 18. But what happened after Zack was sent to Love In Action is the furthest thing in the world from isolation – in fact, it’s kind of breathtaking, don’t you think? [MF]: Yeah, you know I really wonder what would have happened had the community not responded the way they did when Zack went to Love In Action – there’s no way to tell, you know? [WG]: Yeah. [MF]: I’m certain that the community response and all of his friends sticking up for him altered the course of his stay at Love In Action. Certainly they changed their programming and their tactics because they were very concerned of how this would end up. And so I think that if people can take something away from this documentary – there’s a few things – but one of the most important things is: when you see someone in need, or you see something that you think is not right, and specifically when, you know, a teenager like this or a friend of yours is being put in a situation that compromises their health and their well-being – then it really is important to stand up. You know, I think it’s easy to feel like we’re powerless, or something we do can’t make a difference, but this is a great case that shows that it can make a huge difference, it can have a huge impact, and it’s so important not to remain silent in situations like this. [WG]: Morgan, what did telling this story do to you? [MF]: Whew. I don’t know, I mean, you know, it’s one of those things – had I not told the story, had I not stuck to it, what would my life be like? It’s hard to tell, but certainly I’m so grateful that I have. I mean, you know, I’m a gay person living in the south where there’s always the undoing of the homophobia that we’ve learned early in out lives and that kind of thing. I feel like filmmaking in general has always been my best hope towards healing and feeling more, I don’t know, happy in general, and whole. So this, in particular, has been one of the most rewarding films I’ve ever made; going all around the country, we’ve shown it in over 40 cities now and having feedback sessions and question-and-answer sessions where people are telling their stories and I’m sharing my stories and it just – it’s been so rewarding, and it’s been just, you know, it further allowed me to feel like I’m on the right path in terms of making the film and telling the stories that I’m telling and seeing that there’s an impact to be made. It feels important, and I hope that this film certainly will reach people and help other people as well. [WG]: “This Is What Love In Action Looks Like” is a beautiful film in every sense of the word; and in a more personal and powerful way than it would be by just exposing the truth about ex-gay programs, this documentary confronts those who desperately cling to the belief that homosexuality is an addiction, with relatable people who have suffered for having been brought into that to belief. “This Is What Love In Action Looks Like” is available now on DVD from TLA Releasing. I’ve been talking to the film’s director, Morgan Jon Fox. With the current legislative initiative intended to protect young people in California from this kind of dangerous pseudo-science, this DVD release could not have come at a better time.
Morgan, I thank you for the documentary, I thank you for the sensitivity that brought you to the decision to make this documentary, and I thank you so much for being with us today on State of Belief Radio.[MF]: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity to help spread the word.
State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.
Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.
The host of State of Belief, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, leads the national nonpartisan grassroots and educational organizations, The Interfaith Alliance and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and serves as the Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Welton is one of 20 international religious leaders on the Council of 100 Leaders, a group created by the World Economic Forum to improve dialogue and understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Welton emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is the immediate past President of the Alliance of Baptists and is a twenty-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, Welton served in many leadership roles in the SBC including membership on the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-1984 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-1977.
Welton received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.