For most couples, the routine hustle of everyday life is challenge enough. For same-sex couples in the South, though, that routine is made all the more difficult by the lack of legal protections set in place for their union.
A new film, inspired by local photographer Carolyn Sherer’s nationally acclaimed photography exhibit entitled Living in Limbo: Lesbian Families in the Deep South, will explore the public and private lives of lesbian families in Alabama. The documentary, State and Union, follows the real-life stories of pain and perseverance, strength and humor of the state’s lesbian community.
Sherer, who serves as director and co-producer of the film, met fellow producer Lara Embry when her photography exhibit traveled to L.A. “Lara was getting ready to move back to Birmingham and told me she’d always wondered what her life would have been like if she had stayed in Alabama as a lesbian,” Sherer said. “She asked if I wanted to work on a film following the families after DOMA.”
DOMA, or the Defense of Marriage Act, gave the federal government the authority to ignore rights for same-sex marriages. In June 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional, nationally recognizing marriages of same-sex couples.
Before that ruling, if a couple were legally wed in Massachusetts, they were granted no rights in states like Alabama (where marriage for same-sex couples is illegal). While the ruling was deemed a victory for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) couples seeking legal recognition, Sherer says local couples are still living in limbo — finding a balance between a conservative home place where their unions are not fully recognized and an increasingly positive national perspective on those unions.
That paradox has the attention of storytellers across the nation who recognize the historical significance of such a shift. “I was contacted by outsiders wanting to come in and tell our story,” Sherer said. “They wanted access to our community. I feel strongly that could lead to exploiting our story, and I feel as if we need to tell our own story. If we don’t tell it, someone is going to tell it for us.”
Misunderstanding or misrepresenting a culture or its people is a real hazard, Sherer said, but with award-winning filmmaker Michele Forman as producer for the film, Sherer is confident the integrity of the subjects will be upheld. Forman served as associate producer for Spike Lee’s Four Little Girls, the HBO documentary about the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
The power of documentary or the power of storytelling is to be able to understand what it feels like to walk in someone else’s shoes, Forman said. “Our main goal is to have viewers understand what it’s like in this pivotal year. One of the things that is astounding to us is how quickly attitudes are changing surrounding LGBT issues in general. That’s changing not only nationally, but that’s changing in Alabama.”
Forman believes the film will be both enlightening and educational, simply by offering a window into the lives of the families. “A lot of these families are completely, fascinatingly unremarkable. Outside of the fact that you’re looking at two moms, you see families worried about kids doing homework and doing well in school, worrying about what their future’s going to hold and worrying about getting them ready for afterschool activities and making sure they’re having fun. Add on to that the increasing burden that the children might be judged or cast out because of their relationship their mothers have.
“To me, one of the strong points of the film is being able to describe where we are at this juncture in time and what the texture of these lives are like. We have great personalities that are so filled with humor and joy.”
As for how these everyday occurrences are impacted by the federal ruling and state mandates, Forman said, “One of the things we’re really looking at is the structure of our country set up on the principle of federalism, meaning that states have a huge reserve of rights, and this really puts these families in a precarious position. I know taxes don’t seem like great drama, but we don’t yet have a determination on how gay and lesbian families are supposed to file on a national level. On a state level, we’re just going to have to see what happens. We have one couple, both are accountants, who are experts in tax code, and they’ve been asking these very questions.”
That federal ruling, Forman said, also raises the question: What’s changed for women in Alabama? “One of the things that’s interesting is that when we first started interviewing some of the families, some people were fairly cynical. They said, ‘It’s great. I cheered when I heard the decision, but let’s be honest: nothing’s going to change for me here.’ A scant six months later, and some of those couples are having weddings — going out of state to get married. There’s a sense of optimism, a sense of being able to formalize a longstanding commitment and the way you publicly declare your love to your partner in life.”
Bearing witness to that change was heartening according to the filmmakers. “We have pretty powerful stories that are pending. We have a child custody case we’re watching unfold. We’ve also been following a young couple as they’ve gotten pregnant and are expecting their first child. It’s exciting, and we’re amazed at how the families have let us into their lives,” Forman said.
These stories, too, are not unique to the South. “Our families are Southern and have a love of Southern culture, but some of the issues we are dealing with as a society are playing out in microcosm in this film. We as a country are trying to figure out the relationship between the federal and state on a slew of issues, and our film fits into that.”
Forman explained that the relationship between federal and state law is murky territory. “Anytime a family intersects with anything that has to do with the federal government — whether that’s through the legislature system, through the National Guard and military, through the IRS — these legal protections are now there. Anytime any of our families has to intersect with the state law, that is not the case. They have a different life as second-class citizens of the state of Alabama.”
That second-class status plays out both in everyday events and tragedies, such as the case that was filed on behalf Paul Hard by the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Paul Hard’s husband was killed in a car accident three months after they were married,” Forman said. “When he wanted to find out on the health status of his husband, he was not recognized as a family member. The nurse on duty, the doctors, [they] would not speak to him. He had to find out from an orderly hours after the fact that his husband had died.”
If you are a married heterosexual couple, you don’t need to go to a lawyer and get special documents drawn up to be recognized as a member of the family, Forman said. “Those rights are accorded to you. As same-sex couples, you have to take extra steps to be accorded that same status. That is repeated again and again through almost every institution. It’s not equal public accommodation.”
The precariousness of jobs is a prime example in Alabama. “When you look at the families who turn their backs to Carolyn [Sherer’s] camera, these are people who would lose their livelihood because they would lose their jobs if they were identified as lesbians. We also look at the vulnerability for children in same-sex families. There are no second parent rights; the second parent is not able to adopt a child. It leaves real vulnerability for children should, God forbid, disaster strike.”
By gaining a national audience for the film, Forman hopes to address the vulnerability in these couples’ lives. “This is a fight for equality. You can’t be an American citizen. It seems very unstable as a country. You, on one side of the state line, have very circumscribed rights, and you cross over to another state, and you have a whole other set of opportunities. I think about the history of Birmingham, the history of Alabama under the Jim Crow segregation laws, and I can’t help but think that it’s going to be a matter of time before everyone has equality under the law.
“Basically, doing art exhibitions, putting a face on a community, has been very productive in stimulating personal conversations about equality and public discourse about equality,” Sherer explained. “This film will serve as a platform for our community to have constructive dialogue about our community — not just lesbians, not just LGBT folks — it applies to other religious and racial and cultural minorities. I hope it will be constructive for raising equality for everybody.”
State and Union is currently in production, presented by Living in Limbo, Inc. with Freedom to Marry and the Family Equality Council. Sherer also has a new exhibit at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute entitled Family Matters, which explores the lives of LGBT youth as they navigate the acceptance (or lack thereof) from family.
“Spending time with these kids, age 15-23, was amazing,” Sherer said. “I’ve come away with two impressions. One is that they’re really bold, and they have an expectation; they plan who they are, their careers and families, as if they will be treated equally. That’s their expectation, and I think their peers expect that for them. They’re not worried they’re going to get fired for being gay. They’re not worried about raising children in the South and what’s going to happen. [My generation] did not have that experience. The other thing is that they are very unwilling to define themselves using binary terminology for either their sexual or gender identity. They don’t think in binary,” Sherer said.
“I think,” she added, “that we definitely have seen dramatic change of attitudes over the decades, and I think we have an opportunity to tell the story from the insiders perspective with State and Union. I think that our film is going to provide a nuanced kind of insight, the texture of our lives will be explored.”
Family Matters will be on display at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute until June 9.