'The Dads': A Brotherhood of Fathers Sends a Love Letter to Their LGBTQ Children - 27 East

Arts & Living

Arts & Living / 2205919

‘The Dads’: A Brotherhood of Fathers Sends a Love Letter to Their LGBTQ Children

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Stephen Chukumba in Luchina Fisher’s

Stephen Chukumba in Luchina Fisher’s "The Dads." COURTESY HIFF

Dan Ouellette on Oct 2, 2023

Twenty-five years ago, the world was shocked awake by the horrendous murder of 21-year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in rural Laramie. Because he was gay, two young homophobic men abducted him, took him to a remote location and tied him to a split rail fence where he was brutally beaten and tortured. He was discovered the next morning by a bicyclist who, at first glimpse, thought he was looking at a scarecrow. Authorities were alerted, and Shepard died a few days later in a Colorado hospital.

The most notorious anti-gay crime in American history, Matthew Shepard’s death rallied thousands of people around the world to attend vigils and rallies in his memory. The tragic event soon became a national symbol of the struggle against LGBTQ intolerance. His parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, turned their grief into action by establishing the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Their goal was to carry on their son’s legacy of championing diversity awareness and equality for gay, lesbian and transgender people.

At heart, they sought to counter misinformation and hatred with love. They made headway to help pioneer the first federal hate-crime legislation, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009.

Being so honored, just over 20 years after he was murdered, in 2018 Matthew Shepard was interred at Washington National Cathedral in Washington D.C. — a burial that was fiercely protested by homophobic groups.

Two years after the hate crime, playwright Moisés Kaufman created the play “The Laramie Project,” based on hundreds of interviews with the citizens of Laramie. The theatrical piece was later adapted into a Sundance-premiering film for HBO.

A radically new reflection of that harrowing time and its aftermath comes in director/producer Luchina Fisher’s compelling short film, “The Dads,” which screens at the Hamptons International Film Festival as part “State of the Union” program of short films at noon on Saturday, October 7, at East Hampton’s Regal UA Cinema. This fall “The Dads” will be featured on Netflix, which describes the film as “a quiet meditation on fatherhood, brotherhood and manhood that counts 13-time NBA All-Star Dwyane Wade among its E[xecutive] P[roducer]s.”

Fisher, a documentary filmmaking lecturer at Yale University, attended the annual Human Rights Campaign’s Time to Thrive conference before the pandemic and talked to men involved in changing sentiments against LGBTQ children.

“Trans kids show up in all kinds of families,” she says. “It’s not just blue states or red states.”

The men Fisher talked to came from all walks of life, including, she says, “manly men who went to the woods.” But she adds, they all had common ground. The real power to change things through strong connections comes down to the love of their children.

Fisher envisioned how powerful it would be bringing together fathers who were facing headwinds about their LGBTQ children to talk about their own lives — not in a studio setting or on a stage, but around a late night campfire in rural Broken Bow, Oklahoma, after a day of fishing.

The first to come on board was Dennis Shepard followed by Wayne Maines, the father of the first trans super hero who starred in The CW’s “Supergirl” television series.

“Wayne is a real backwoods guy from Maine,” says Fisher. “He grew up hunting, fishing, camping.”

Maines had struggled for years when one of his twin sons insisted that she was a girl. Today he’s a vocal advocate for her and other trans kids. He took the lead in planning the six-man trip. Other participants included Stephen Chukumba, Frank Gonzales, Jose Trujillo and Peter Betz.

“We kept the filming to a minimum with a spare team and worked with no pay,” says Fisher. “We wanted to go someplace where the dads could share and talk and laugh about their experiences. These were important conversations about equality, tolerance, simple human decency. They talked about their fears and concerns for their children’s safety and their most vulnerable moments of confusion and doubt while raising their children.”

Through her Little Light Productions company, Fisher submitted “The Dads” to the SXSW film festival which chose to screen it. “We were surprised SXSW went for it,” she says. “That’s when everything started happening.”

Fisher’s key Netflix contact was the company’s manager of original documentaries, Chloe Gbai, a noted filmmaker and producer of films that deal with issues of race, immigration and gender. She saw Fisher’s film at SXSW.

“Chloe and all her colleagues loved it,” says Fisher, “They spoke highly about how it moved them. In this whole acquisition, Chloe has been a steady, calm force.”

Fisher added that Gbai took the film to Wade, knowing his connection to the topic. Wade’s daughter came out as transgender in 2020 with his full support. He has been an LGBTQ advocate. Wade became an executive producer of the film and told Fisher he wanted to be a part of getting this film to a wider audience.

As a producer and director, Fisher is best-known for her 2020 feature film “Mama Gloria” about Gloria Allen, the trailblazing 75-year old Black transgender activist, and the 2022 short, “Dream Team,” about the social justice issues of Black women swimming competitively in their golden years.

“There’s power and poetry of seeing short-form movies,” says Fisher. “Think of it as a haiku vs. a novel. These days, people have a hard time sitting down for an hour and a half to see a film. But we’re doing it in 11 minutes with the same emotional effect.”

As for the subject matter of “The Dads,” she feels thrilled to see the story get out to the world.

“This is a critical moment for this film to reach people at a time of intense anti-trans rhetoric and legislation,” says Fisher “This film is about a new brotherhood sharing a profound love letter to their trans and LGBTQ children.”

The Hamptons International Film Festival runs October 5, through October 12. with screenings at cinemas in East Hampton, Sag Harbor and Southampton. For tickets and full schedule information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.

— Dan Ouellette is a writer on Shelter Island whose new book “The Landfill, Chronicles,” will be published in early 2024 by Cymbal Press.

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