CROSS TO BEAR: As a Catholic priest, Father Adam (Andrzej Chyra) agonizes over his homosexual desires in the Polish drama In the Name Of.
For Yoruba Richen, election night 2008 ended in a mixture of elation and disappointment. As an African-American lesbian, she was thrilled with Barack Obama's victory, but she could not revel in that triumph knowing that California had just passed Proposition 8, effectively banning same-sex marriage in the state.
Almost five years later, Richen was again experiencing warring emotions last week. This time, the Supreme Court had struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, essentially killing Prop 8. But to Richen's dismay, the court had also gutted the Voting Rights Act. "A lot of times in this country we go a little bit forward and a little bit backwards," she says.
This tug-of-war is at the heart of Richen's latest documentary, The New Black, which screens at this year's QFest. Although the film was conceived as Richen watched the election results roll in back in 2008, it focuses on Maryland's hotly contested 2012 ballot initiative that made history for being the first time voters affirmed marriage equality. In the film, Richen hones in on the divide over same-sex marriage within the African-American community and questions whether the LGBT struggle is the new civil-rights movement.
Much of the initiative's opposition came from the African-American church, a bitter irony for Richen. "In all religious institutions, there's been a challenge to accept LGBT equality," she says. "The black church is where we've historically fought to expand rights, so the fact that members of that church are not for that can feel like a disconnect. But the church is the moral repository for the civil-rights movement — it's where the movement began, it's where many of our civil-rights leaders have come from — so even if you're not a part of the church, it still has moral sway in our community that you have to respect and acknowledge."
The church's struggle with homosexuality is a theme that runs throughout several other films playing at this year's QFest. In The Way to Kevin, the conflict is embodied by Philadelphia native Kevin Mines, whom we see performing a Christian mime act at a church's youth service, acting in gay porn and later confessing his molestation at the hands of a trusted pastor.
"I feel like my relationship to the church is still a bit strained," says Mines, who recently moved to Cincinnati to be closer to his mother. "A lot has changed from eight or 10 years ago when I first started doing porn or expressing my sexuality. Some things are a lot more acceptable, but back home, a lot of the churches I grew up in, or people I grew up with, still see this as 'I am a sin' versus 'I'm sinning.' So I avoid some of those places, but my relationship with God or my spirituality is growing and flourishing."
Filmmaker Erin Davis met Mines when she was working as a box-office manager at Eastern State Penitentiary's annual Halloween attraction Terror Behind the Walls. She hired Mines as an assistant, but was unprepared for his surprising admissions during a routine getting-to-know-you session among employees.
"I immediately fell in love with Kevin, which is what everyone does," Davis recalls. "He's such a wonderful person, so sweet and so genuine. But the first time we had a full group together, we had everyone sit down and say three things about themselves as an icebreaker. When it came around to Kevin, he told everyone that he was a mime, a minister and a gay porn star. I turned to him and said, 'We need to talk more.'"
Davis and co-director Nathan Edmondson ended up following Mines for nearly two years, an experience she calls "a roller coaster of emotion." When shooting began, Mines was devoted to the church, but also resented it for condemning his lifestyle and being the site of past abuse. The resulting film is a frank depiction of Mines' battle to reconcile his spirituality with his sexuality along with overcoming his own personal demons to realize his powerful ambitions.
"Watching the film," Mines says, "I seem like someone who is really all over the place, which I guess is sort of true. But it also paints me to be a very family-oriented individual who has struggles and works hard with everyone to try to find myself."
At this point, he continues, he's come to a better understanding of who he is and how his various sides can coexist. "In the past, it was very hard to reconcile and to try to come to an understanding of how it is that I call myself a Christian and I'm gay or I'm a porn star," Mines says. "My spirituality and my sexuality are all just parts of one being. I'm at peace with that. I don't struggle with it, I don't go back and forth about it, about whether this is a phase. I know who I am, I'm comfortable and confident, and I know that God accepts me for who I am."
Although Mines has a cult following as a porn star, his self-discovery has not been nearly as public as that of former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey. Since McGreevey's scandalous resignation and outing in 2004, he has followed a different path than many gay men, moving closer to the church rather than farther away. The HBO documentary Fall to Grace catches up with the ex-gov as he studies to be an Episcopal priest and mentors women incarcerated in the New Jersey penal system.
Of course, those who already wear the collar also have their own struggles, as the mounting scandals within the Catholic Church have revealed in recent years. The Polish drama In the Name Of offers a surprisingly sympathetic, fictional examination of the issue. The film follows a gay priest in a small town who works with troubled boys released from a reformatory school.
Writer/director Malgoska Szumowska stands dispassionately removed as the priest, played movingly by Andrzej Chyra, treads a tricky line between sexuality and pedophilia. Both, according to the clergyman's church and his oath to it, are morally reprehensible, but he views his problem as the same basic struggle with sexual urges that any priest must face. The fact that his charges are on the cusp of adulthood and that he finds himself transferred out to the sticks for some unspecified past transgression suggest more troubling issues that Szumowska leaves viewers to negotiate on their own.
As Mines sees it, both sides of the gay-rights debate struggle with one's own essential philosophy, whether spiritual or sexual. "A lot of the people who preach against it are concerned more with how they look than they are with healing people," he says. "I'm at peace within myself, but the people who are supposed to serve as our examples are preaching hate. I believe that if you feel that you want to help me, change or deliver me from this lifestyle, you have to love me first. Until you can preach love to me, you can't get my attention."
Fall to Grace plays Sat., July 20, 2:15 p.m., Ritz East; In the Name Of plays Thu., July 18, 5 p.m., Ritz at the Bourse, and Mon., July 22, 6 p.m., Ritz East; The New Black plays Sat., July 13, 4:45 p.m., Ritz at the Bourse; The Way to Kevin plays Sun., July 21, 4:30 p.m., Ritz East. For more details, visit qfest.com.
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