In 2004, Dallas County, solidly Republican, solidly conservative, elected its first woman sheriff. Lupe Valdez, the daughter of migrant farm workers, a Latina and an out lesbian, made history. Soon after her win, she was on an airplane and her seatmate, the mother of a young gay man who had struggled with his sexuality, immediately recognized her.
“With your election, you have validated my son,” the woman told her.
“And I wanted to scream. Why can’t we just get validated for being human beings?” Valdez says as she recounts the exchange in The Out List, the just-released HBO film featuring a cross-section of out lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender figures talking about their lives, loves, issues with self-acceptance and hopes for equality under the law.
Against the backdrop of a gay community waiting to see which way the U.S. Supreme Court would go on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Prop 8, high-profile subjects such as Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen Degeneres, Wanda Sykes, Oscar-winning filmmaker Dustin Lance Black, Scissor Sisters lead singer Jake Shears, former pro football player Wade Davis, New York City politician Christine Quinn, financial guru Suze Orman and several others speak candidly about coming out and about the challenges inherent in being LGBT in America.
“My hope is that this film is seen by a lot of young people,” says director and producer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, a Miami native who was in town recently for a premiere of The Out List at the Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts. A portrait photographer whose works are in the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum and The National Portrait Gallery, he is also director and producer of the films The Black List, The Latino List and 2012’s About Face, featuring conversations with aging cover girls and supermodels including Christie Brinkley, Jerry Hall, Isabella Rosellini and Paulina Porizkova.
“We screened [ The Out List] in Dallas last week and a friend of one of our producers brought her 12-year-old daughter, who had just come out,” Greenfield-Sanders, who grew up in the historic Miami neighborhood of Spring Garden, says over lunch at Café Sambal in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Brickell Key.
“She was very nervous. She was clearly overwhelmed. Can you imagine living in Texas, where there may be a gay world, but not for a 12-year-old girl? But on the screen were famous people she knew saying it’s OK to be who you are. Including the sheriff of her city.”
Even with the past week’s historic rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, major victories for same-sex marriage that set off teary, rainbow-hued celebrations from coast to coast, the fight for broad gay civil rights and for true acceptance, is hardly over. There are 37 states, including Florida, that continue to ban same-sex marriages. Across the country, gay hate crimes have been on the rise in recent years. Too often, LGBT kids who are bullied in school end up committing suicide.
But with several big battles won — the repeal of DOMA last week, the end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” in 2011 — the fight for true equality has gained major momentum. And as gay political leaders have long understood, nothing changes hearts and minds more than knowing that your neighbor, your co-worker, your health care professional, your elected official or your matinee idol is gay and living in the light.
Greenfield-Sanders, who lives in New York with his wife Karin but returns to Miami to see his mother Ruth in Spring Garden, says he hopes The Out List helps to make a difference. The power of being out publicly hit comedian Sykes the day she spoke at a rally protesting the passage of Prop 8, which banned hard-won gay marriage in California. She was compelled by her anger to show up. But she says she hadn’t stopped to really think about what her turn at that microphone could accomplish.
“In my speech I said, ‘Hey, I got married — and I’m pissed,’ ” she says in The Out List, which debuted Thursday to coincide with the 44th anniversary of the Stonewall riots and has multiple run dates. “I get to the hotel and turn on the TV and on the CNN scroll it’s: ‘Wanda Sykes: I’m proud to be gay.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, this is a big f------ deal. I’m a black woman, a celebrity, and I’m out.’ It was a big deal.”
The success of The Out List is its cinematic straightforwardness and a sense of intimacy that takes it way beyond just a lineup of talking heads. Then again, the portrait is Greenfield-Sanders’ mastery.
After graduating from Columbia University, he attended the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, where he discovered his passion for shooting stills.
“These very famous filmmakers would come to speak to our class. and the school needed someone who could take snapshots of them. We would see the films of Alfred Hitchcock and then Hitchcock would sit with us. I started shooting everyone. Bergman, Truffaut, a young Steven Spielberg. I learned so much from them. Hitchcock literally said, ‘Your light is in the wrong place. It should be here.’ ”
And then there was Bette Davis, who asked, “What the f--- are you doing shooting me from below?” Then she asked if he could drive a car.
“She said, ‘If you can drive me around, I’ll teach you how to shoot someone.’ And I drove her around for a week and we became friends. Over time I learned a lot from people who knew how to be in front of a camera and behind a camera. By the time I finished AFI, I had shot everyone from Orson Welles to Billy Wilder to John Ford.”
What’s his biggest secret?
“Making people feel comfortable. People who are used to being photographed immediately notice whether or not your light is in the right place, how you’re using your bounce card. They know walking in the door that they are not being attacked. And once they know they can trust you, they start talking about themselves, they start telling you certain things that maybe they hadn’t expected to talk about.”
The dichotomy of this moment in the fight for gay rights — on the one hand, the movement has come so far; on the other, there is still so much ground to gain — is not lost on Greenfield-Sanders, which is why he believed The Out List was an important project to tackle.
“Look at how much has happened since Stonewall. And when you think about where this country was about gay marriage even a few years ago, there has been tremendous change. But still, outside of the big cities, it’s a very different story. I think everyone who is in this film knows how hard it is to come out for so many people across the country. It’s like Neil Patrick Harris says, the more you see gay people on TV, the more there are gay characters on mainstream shows, the more the world opens up for Middle America, for those people who don’t know anyone who’s gay — or don’t think they do.”