Candid camera

16-year-old Zach Stark’s blog entry first hit the Internet on May 29, 2005. Zach, wanting to be open with his parents, had shared with them his same-sex desires.

That blog entry got a lot of attention from a number of people, including Memphis resident Morgan Jon Fox. With his ever-present video camera, Morgan and friends suddenly were part of an event that took on a life of its own.

“I just really wanted to tell them. I wanted them to know so it was out there…I wanted them to know so that I didn’t feel like I was hiding myself from them, because they’re my parents,” Stark said in This is What Love in Action Looks Like, a new documentary film directed by Fox.

Zach’s honesty led to his unwilling participation in Love in Action’s Refuge program, a fundamentalist faith-based adolescent program, AKA “a straight camp,” as Zach’s friend Eileen Townsend referred to it in the film.

Fox read Zach’s blog entry and was moved to action.

“I was pretty shocked when I saw the blog entry,” Fox says. “I saw the story about it totally unexpectedly. E. J. Friedman had written about it on his blog. Immediately everything else in my life just stopped. I was very fortunate; I had the whole summer off and had a flexible schedule so I was able to dedicate my time to organize and be a part of this. Of course, I thought of when I was younger. We (Zach and Fox) both went to White Station High School. I was able to call others from White Station; they were already aware of it when I called them about it. They said we are thinking about protests. My response was, ‘Absolutely.’ It hit home and pulled on my heart strings and had an impact.”

Fox explained how the internet blogs, combined with the grassroots effort in Memphis, drew attention to Zach’s plight, detailed in his 2005 blog entry, which told how he was devastated with being placed at the facility by his parents.

“Strategically, Friedman and Chris Davis (writer for The Memphis Flyer) were part of a blogging community, a political blogosphere that was national,” Fox says. “They spread it on the Internet whereas me and my friends and Zach’s friends were connected on a ground level."

“Local community, non-activists, regular everyday people saw injustice and stood up,” Fox continues. “(It was) like someone picking on their friends and they said, ‘No this isn’t going to happen.’ It was done out of love and hope and with messages of positivity.”

It was those young people, the parents, the homosexuals and the heterosexuals, the everyday people holding up hand-colored signs that caught the local media’s attention, and ultimately the attention of the nation and even the world.

“Something was registering with the larger population,” Fox says. “Certainly it was a collective effort. The national media started paying attention. It was a wild fire that began to spread at that point. … Love In Action was symbolic of a very big issue.… It was a target of homophobia.”

This is What Love In Action Looks Like will be premiered at the Frameline 35 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival from June 16-26. Fox explains that it was an arduous process for the film to receive such an audience.

“Well, I’ve been looking at film fests I wanted to debut the film at,” he explains. “You submit and have to wait months to hear back from them. I heard back from Frameline (the producers of the event); they’ve always rejected me before."

“San Francisco is the largest attended GLBT film fest; it gets press,” Fox continues. “Others fests look to it for films. There is a trickledown effect. It is a great place to start. Plus there is representation from lots of major distributors, television, online sites, etc. It will put the film on stage where it will be viewed and offered.”

However, the business aspect of the film’s success is not Fox’s ultimate goal for the documentary.

“Our goal is to be viewed by as many people as possible to have the largest impact,” Fox says. “I want it to be seen by as many people as possible to create a dialogue to see what happened here. People will see it and go on and stand up for their friends.”

In a surprising turn of events, Love in Action’s executive director John Smid had a change of heart about his life's work. That transformation is described in the film.

“My, that was really shocking to me,” Fox says. “Smid was our enemy; the person to target. Chants were directed at him. I requested a meeting with Smid to have direct communication, a challenge. I had an agenda to prove I was right. However, during that meeting with Smid, I let my guard down and told him about my life… I was a happy gay person, stable, in a relationship. I did not debate him. The meeting ended and we went on our way.”

However, Fox sustained contact with Love in Action and Smid.

“I continued attending open meetings at Love In Action, to check on them," Fox says. "We (Fox and Smid) kept meeting. We were having conversations. We were talking about where we came from. Because that is the way we related, he saw things from a different perspective. He had only met gay people who were in crisis and had not seen anyone from a happy perspective. So, from my perspective I learned it was best not to be judgmental and have a hardcore agenda because you are not going to hear them or be vulnerable or be yourself.”

Smid ultimately resigned his position at Love in Action.

“He offered an apology letter after he left Love In Action from his perspective and wanted to start to communicate with people,” Fox says. “He realized he had emotionally damaged others and wanted to say he was sorry. During that time I was in contact with him. Gay community people didn’t think it was genuine but for publicity. I even got criticism from people who had been through Love In Action, saying I wasn’t one who was damaged by him since I didn’t go through Love in Action. I had to step back, but John continued with open blogs."

“(Smid) recently wrote a blog speaking toward how there is this false judgment toward the gay community,” continues Fox. “…the ex-gay movements were all criticizing him. They said he was wrong and stopped communicating with him. It is sad how all these people were turning on him, where he was their former leader. He opened up and now he is criticized; it is fascinating for sure. He is at a different place.”

Smid went on to form another ministry, Grace Rivers. According to Fox, Smid will be attending the film’s premiere in San Francisco.

 “I feel very proud of the film and what everyone else did to make it possible,” Fox says. “From coming out to protest, people standing up to tell their story on film, and people who made the film."

The trailer for the film can be seen on YouTube and at


Photo by Margo Amala on Unsplash

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