In Marriage Equality: Byron Rushing and the Fight for Fairness, director Thomas Allen Harris (Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela) explores the connection between the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the modern-day marriage equality movement, which challenges the idea that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. The focus of the short film is Massachusetts representative Rushing, who was active in the civil rights movement and now works with the black community to raise awareness of the struggle for human rights that faces LGBT communities.
Marriage Equality is unique not just because it’s the first film to explicitly address the similarities between the civil rights and marriage equality movements. The film itself is only part of Harris’ contribution to fostering understanding and tolerance; equally important is that many screenings of Marriage Equality will be accompanied by panels and community discussion meant to encourage dialogue on same-same marriage and how it relates to communities of color. Such a screening will take place on Tuesday, April 26th at Harlem Stage (www.harlemstage.org), which has supported artists of color for over 30 years. Panelists are to include New York State’s Deputy Secretary for Civil Rights Alphonso B. David and David Wilson, who serves on the board of the Human Rights Campaign.
Thomas Allen Harris took the time to speak with MovieMaker on why he decided to make Marriage Equality, his hopes on how it will affect its audience and his plans for future screenings and panel discussions.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): There have been documentaries on the civil rights movement, and documentaries on LGBT rights, but none before Marriage Equality that focus on the parallels between them. Why do you think such a film needed to be made? When and why did you decide to make it?
Thomas Allen Harris (TAH): Actually, I was one of those people who felt that there weren’t any parallels between the Civil Rights Movement and the movement for marriage equality. I felt that the LGBT community–and by that I’m speaking about the predominantly white LGBT community–really were stealing legitimacy from the Civil Rights movement. But when I was in Boston doing the Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshow, which illuminates the intersection of personal family histories as revealed in family photo archives, I spent some time with Byron Rushing, and my views began to change. Byron was the first person to really break down the whole marriage issue for me in a way that made absolute sense, and it was at that point that I felt we needed to make a film to share with others Byron’s wisdom and common sense. So when Tribeca All Access called, around December 2009, about commissioning a film that celebrated people whose life and work emulated that of Nelson Mandela, Byron was the first person I thought of due to his life as a Civil Rights activist, a lay Episcopal pastor, long-time champion of equal rights for LGBT people, and the fact that he confronted the opposition of the black church [to the Marriage Equality movement] with compassion, humanity and great patience.
MM: When your film screens at Harlem Stage it will be accompanied by a community forum, where audience members are encouraged to discuss the film and the issues it explores with panelists active in the LGBT Marriage Equality movement. Will you be holding similar screenings/discussions in other cities?
TAH: Absolutely! In fact, we have already received invitations to do similar screenings in Roxbury, Massachusetts at the Roxbury International Film Festival, and in Wilmington, North Carolina. We’ve also received invitations from marriage equality groups active in upstate and western New York and from Black Pride organizations across the country, most notably those in Houston, Atlanta and Washington, DC. We were even contacted by a LGBT group in Ireland who wanted to bring the film there.
MM: What effect do you hope your film and the community discussion will have on the audience?
TAH: I hope the film will have as transformational an impact on the audience’s views of marriage equality as Byron had on me. As I said, I was initially not a big supporter of marriage equality, and I’m a black gay man who’s been in a relationship with my partner for going on 14 years! But the way Byron broke it down had an effect on me. He talks about how the government, not the church, determines the rights, benefits and legalities of marriage, and that civil benefits are made available to people in every other context on a nondiscriminatory basis, so marriage benefits really shouldn’t be any different. Lastly, Byron discusses the fact that marriage equality really is a civil rights issue, in the sense that when government discriminates against a class of people simply on the basis of who they are, that’s just wrong. If we can get people to see the issue in this way, then the film will have done a great service.
MM: You’ve directed several feature documentaries before; do you plan on directing a feature along the same lines as Marriage Equality?
TAH: Perhaps, especially if someone wants to give us a big pot of money to do so! But really, what Marriage Equality speaks to, what all my films speak to, is is the vibrancy of the human spirit and its fundamental goodness, decency and humanity. This, to me, is the essence of human nature and the basis for our shared commonality. It underlies our experiences as spiritual beings having a human moment in the process of our ongoing evolution toward the divine. The differences we allow to create divisions between us are really differences in our ability to perceive the shared values and experiences that unite all of us, in that we all enjoy the camaraderie of our families, friends and loved ones, we all enjoy spending time with the people we love and cherish, and we all desire respect for our common dignity.
MM: Anything you’d like to add?
TAH: I encourage everyone to come to Harlem Stage on Tuesday, April 26 to see the film and participate in the discussion. Tickets are still available and can be purchased online (www.harlemstage.org). If you can’t attend, please visit our website (MarriageEqualityFilm.com) for info on upcoming screenings and events, to purchase copies of the film, to get information on some of the organizations we have partnered with who are waging the fight for marriage equality or to get involved yourself.