Harvey Milk knew the power of telling his own story. The first openly gay elected official in California, Milk urged LGBT people to seek political office so that their influence would grow as colleagues learned more about them and their lives. But as Milk’s own story shows us, out candidates have faced numerous obstacles that test their courage and resolve.
Breaking Through, a documentary film nearing release, explores the powerful personal stories of elected officials who ran as openly LGBT—and won. The film includes interviews with U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Fort Worth, Texas, City Councilman Joel Burns, and several other out lawmakers who overcame seemingly impossible barriers and became beacons of hope to LGBT people around the world.
Cindy L. Abel, the film’s Director/Producer, served on the Victory Fund Board for eight years, including two years as Co-Chair. She founded Atlantis Moon Productions in 2007 to create film-related projects that would launch conversations and impact popular culture.
Gay Politics spoke with Abel this week about the genesis of Breaking Through and her hopes for its impact once it’s released.
GP: Where did the idea for Breaking Through come from?
CA: Throughout much of my life, I didn’t know many truly openly LGBT people. When I learned about the Victory Fund, a whole world opened up. I learned of elected officials who were not only pursuing but achieving their dreams. What I had been told couldn’t be done, they were doing. They’d been there all along, but I hadn’t known about them.
After serving on the Victory Fund board for eight years, I was still inspired by those who were running for, and in many cases winning, elected office. I want others, who might be thinking – as Arkansas State Rep Kathy Webb did after witnessing Geraldine Ferraro’s nomination as Vice President, “I felt I could do anything as a woman, but not as a lesbian” – to realize that’s a false choice.
GP: Why is it important to tell these stories?
CA: Sen. Baldwin said, “It’s critical that we tell our stories; we can’t make progress without doing so.” And she’s right. We’ve shown clips of the film in a few places and also had conversations with strangers while traveling. I remember meeting one 76-year old gay man who was in tears after seeing excerpts of the film at the OUT on Film Festival. “When I was struggling in my teens and twenties, I tried to kill myself for almost a decade. If I’d seen a film like this back then, it would’ve changed everything: please get this out there so others don’t have to go through what I did.”
GP: Sen. Tammy Baldwin, City Councilman Joel Burns, and several other well-known LGBT people participate in the film. How have elected officials reacted to the idea of being involved?
CA: They’ve all been incredibly generous with their time. For example, Sen. Baldwin gave us two hours for the interview and b-roll – that’s unheard of for an elected official! – and then provided archival photos and news clips.
Every person we interviewed went out of their way to make time in jam-packed schedules (much to the headache of their staff) and why? Joel Burns put it this way: “If one gay kid, who is holding a gun in their hand, thinking of taking his life, sees this movie and puts down that gun, then it’s worth it.”
GP: Breaking Through addresses a range of obstacles facing LGBT people, including fear of attacks and overcoming stereotypes. How deep are participants willing to go in discussing their personal experiences?
CA: They were very open and revealing about growing up and coming out as well as running for and being in office. Amaad Rivera (Springfield, Mass., City Council) candidly talked about he and his Mom living in a car or “wherever we could find shelter.” Bryce Bennett (Montana State Rep.) shared how he’d been bullied in high school, and as he reflected said, “you know, I never talked about this before.” And Toni Atkins (Calif. State Assembly majority leader) shares how growing up “a hillbilly from West Virginia,” she lived in a house with no running water until she was eight. “I didn’t think America was about me,” she said.
GP: What has surprised you about the making of this film?
CA: I was surprised not only by the content of their stories, but the depth of emotion they showed when telling them. Like when Oregon Sec. of State Kate Brown fought back tears remembering the agony of living in the closet and the terror of being exposed at work. And, off camera, Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s communications director almost fell off her chair in shock when Mayor Parker candidly shared how she dealt with being separated from her first love in high school.
GP: Who do you hope watches Breaking Through?
CA: Anyone who’s been told their possibilities are limited because they’re poor, a certain religion or ethnicity, a woman, LGBT or anything else that might be considered limiting. They will be inspired by Breaking Through. Sexual orientation or gender identity is just one of the barriers – albeit a big one – these folks broke through.
Congressman David Cicilline put it this way: “You have to be proud of who you are, whether that’s Jewish and Italian and gay, embrace all of that – then get to work!”
GP: What’s next for the movie, and how can supporters get involved?
CA: We have some serious deadlines to meet, some of which hinge on raising the $50,205 we need by the end of March. We’ve been accepted at Sun Valley Film Festival and are in serious consideration by others.
Thanks to our fiscal sponsor, the Victory Institute, donations are tax-deductible at www.VictoryInstitute.org/breakingthrough and we recognize every donor in the film credits and on http://www.breakingthroughmovie.com/.
Ultimately, we want to obtain theatrical and television distribution so this film is seen as widely as possible and reach those who need to see it. Anyone with relationships in that area, please contact me at cabel@AtlantisMoon.com or (404) 247.6716.
GP: You’ve spent years working on this project. What about this experience has been particularly inspiring or meaningful to you?
CA: Over the past 27 months, people from all over the country welcomed us into their homes, donated airline miles and plane tickets, and contributed over $106,000 – most of which has been donations of $100 or less.
Something that has been particularly moving to witness is the passion of our predominately non-LGBT crew, whose in-kind contributions have exceeded $110,000. When asked “why?” they answer, “because this is the civil rights issue of our time, and I want to make a difference.”
And that’s the spirit every one of them has brought to the film–a commitment to creating a space where each interviewee would feel safe and respected, and creating a film that would showcase their message of “anything is possible” in a way that engages viewers visually and emotionally.
Breaking Through is really a love letter from all who participated in some way to all those – in any walk of life — who might be wondering if, because of their circumstances, their life can be happy and worth living. These stories answer with a resounding “yes.”