Soledad O’Brien knew she and her CNN colleagues were onto something after finishing Black in America. The documentary’s premiere coincided not only with Barack Obama’s decision to run for president but with a ground shift in Americans’ thoughts about race. Whether frightened or invigorated by the changes in front of us, it seemed everyone was hungry for more information about a group of people whose stories had gone underreported for too long.
But after CNN followed that documentary with another four hours of Black in America and then four hours of Latino in America, it was clear that no program could be as comprehensive as those titles suggested. “People would stop me on the street and ask, ‘What about black people in Africa?’ ‘What about Pakistani people in America?’ ” O’Brien says. “My own mother [who is Cuban-born] said, ‘You weren’t interested in Caribbean black people? Hmm.’ ”
So O’Brien and her team sharpened their focus to one-hour documentaries. Their latest, In America: Gary and Tony Have a Baby, starts with a New York City gay couple’s decision to have a child through surrogacy and then follows the couple until their son, Nicholas, is 6 months old. The show premieres June 24.
When Tony Brown and Gary Spino, both 47 and together for 20 years, were first approached by CNN producer Rose Arce about participating in the documentary, they figured they’d be two of many people featured in Gay in America. It was only after agreeing to the proposal that they realized they were the program. “That was both frightening and exciting,” Seino says.
At the same time, the project felt like a logical extension of the couple’s longtime activism. “Our work has centered around telling people’s stories,” says Brown, who is the executive director of the Wedding Party, a group that throws high-profile same-sex ceremonies to raise awareness around marriage equality. “When it comes down to it, this is really just about telling our story.”
Although exposing yourself to the world’s scrutiny can’t come without its share of concerns, neither man seems particularly shy. Upon answering the phone for this interview, Spino explains that he and Brown are cleaning up from Nicholas’s “first major, major vomit.” The men are so open that the documentary doesn’t only follow their three-person family, it also includes their egg donor and the surrogate, whom they call their “carrier.”
One of the biggest ironies in Brown and Spino’s story is that although they can both be Nicholas’s legal parent, they can’t become legal partners to each other. It’s a twist that strikes a particular chord with O’Brien, whose parents weren’t able to marry in Baltimore in 1958 because her Australian-born father is white and her mother is black. “They had to drive to D.C. to get hitched and then came back to Baltimore and live illegally,” she says. O’Brien, who is 43, and all five of her brothers and sisters were born before 1967, when the Supreme Court overturned all state bans on mixed-race marriage.
“I’m multicultural,” O’Brien says. “I have my toes in a lot of different pools. It’s been really interesting to cover these types of stories at the same time we have a black president, at the same time we’ll have changing demographics in the census.”
Then, perhaps anticipating questions she’ll get on the sidewalk after Brown and Spino’s story airs, she adds, “No one is going to claim that Gary and Tony represent every single person in the gay community. But we really get into their history and into their heads. They talk about their childhoods, about their struggles, about coming out, and about building a family. It’s compelling. These two guys are great stories.”