Reed Cowan has been through a lot in his life. The out journalist-turned-filmmaker’s first project, The Other Side of the Lens, documented how the death of his son, Wesley, affected him. Now former Mormon Cowan has turned the camera on the church to which he once belonged to shed light on the lengths to which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints went in the effort to pass Proposition 8, rescinding California's legalization of same-sex marriage. The Emmy award-winning journalist and filmmaker reveals to The Advocate how he came to film 8: The Mormon Proposition, which debuts in theaters and on video on demand June 18, and on DVD July 13.
The Advocate: You grew up Mormon.
Reed Cowan: I grew up Mormon in a small Utah town. Not only did I grow up Mormon, but I was schooled in the Mormon seminary and I was trained to be a door-to-door missionary, and then I served as a door-to-door missionary for two years of my young life — an actual man of the cloth, so to speak.
What was your coming-out process like?
I don’t want to make the coming-out process sound horrible for young people because I want them to know it’s a beautiful thing too. It was excruciating. I lost all of my Mormon missionary friends. I lost all of my Mormon extended family and I lost much of my Mormon family through one disagreement in the coming-out process. Aside from the personal liberation, it did have an excruciating element to it.
When did you decide to make a film that exposed how strongly the Mormon Church backed Prop. 8?
I knew that this film needed to be made when I started to hear exactly how specific [the church] was in what they were doing. As soon as I knew a wrong had been done, I knew it needed to be made right. The only way you make a wrong right is by telling and exposing the truth. The minute I knew of the wrong, I put the wheels in motion to try to expose truth and in my way try to make it right.
What sort of struggles did you encounter in making the film?
I think the thing that surprised me the most, as far as from a personal angle, was how my Mormon family reacted. My family was there for me when I lost my child, to support us. There couldn’t have been a better family reaction to a death or a tragedy. They were so supportive of the adoption of our children. Yet when it came to speaking out against their church, it was like hearing a locomotive come to a screeching, grinding halt. That was the most difficult thing for me. My family was supportive of my life up until the time that I decided to get vocal about their own church, and that’s when the walls went up. It has been like a nuclear bomb has been dropped on my family. They didn’t come to see any of the screenings at Sundance even though they live a short drive away from all of the six theaters where it played. There are really a great number of difficulties in my family because of this film. I think that my experience is a microcosm for other Mormon gay experiences. A lot of Mormon families will come as far as supporting their children in their quiet life, but when their children get vocal or it’s about their community or their children are taking a stand against their church, that’s when the line is drawn.
My relationships with my sisters and my father are forever ruined. And my relationship with my mother, because she has defended my sisters and my dad, it is at a very critical stage. I don’t know what’s going to happen with my family. I would have wanted my family to stand with me; instead I had to stand alone. My dad wrote me an e-mail saying, “It’s out in the media that I told you in a conversation that God gave me the scriptures first before he gave me you. Where the hell did that come from?” I had to respond, “Dad, it came out of your mouth. And by the way, don’t fault me for what’s out in the media and don’t fault me for the fracture in our family. If you have a problem with the fracture in our family, take it up with your prophet, take it up with your church leaders — who you side with. There’s where the problem is. Don’t blame it on me.” That’s the truth. The fractures in all Mormon families and families of all faiths aren’t the fault of the gay child. They’re the fault of religious leaders and the family that chooses to listen to the bully who stands at the pulpit, the bigot at the pulpit.
The film is incredibly well researched. Is there one specific interview that’s had the most impact on you?
From an emotional standpoint, the most impactful story was Stuart Matis, a young Mormon who was gay who strapped a note to himself saying “Do not resuscitate” and blew his brains out on the steps of a Mormon church in California. That story has been out there, but what took my breath away was when I asked his parents years later to be interviewed for this film, after all of the damage of Proposition 8 and after knowing of their son’s suicide, they asserted to me in a voice-mail message that’s in the film, “We have no other than position than what the position of the church is.” Still they persisted in defending and supporting the church.
Knowing what you do now, would you do this all over again?
Yes, and doubly so. Sign me up twice. I’ve gotten so many letters from young people that said, “You don’t know how close I was to suicide.”
How did you connect with the film’s narrator, Dustin Lance Black?
We were in preproduction and I knew that there would be a narrator for the film. I watched him stand to accept the Oscar for Milk. Before he ever opened his mouth, I said to my partner, “There’s a Mormon boy.” Then he spoke. When he finished his acceptance speech, I turned to my partner and said, “There’s our narrator.” There was nobody else on the planet.
How do you think Prop. 8 can be overturned?
Prop. 8 will be overturned when it is eradicated from the hearts of those who created it, crafted it, who brought it to life and who voted it into reality. You have to start with hearts, with the mind, and with the soul. You cannot affect hearts and minds and souls and eventually a vote until you tell your story. Every life has a story; every story has a lesson; every lesson has the power to change the world. My movie is about the lives of the people who are affected. It’s about their stories, and their stories, if you watch with an open heart and an open mind, can change the world.
What can we as a community do going forward?
We’re really good when we are pissed to go out and march, but then we tend to get lulled back to sleep. We need to stay insistent on our rights — not only when a march is scheduled but in our everyday life. We have to continue holding hands, letting the world see who we are and what we are. I also think that young people should get involved and engage our straight allies to march together, because this is a fight for human rights. It’s not a fight for gay rights. Until every member of the human community is involved, we’re not going to win this.