New documentary HomoSayWhat chronicles history of modern homophobia

By David-Elijah Nahmod

Newly out on DVD and streaming on Amazon and Vimeo, Craig Bettendorf's HomoSayWhat is at once an educational history lesson and a call to action. The film examines the roots of modern homophobia, from the 1950s and 60s, up to and including the marriage equality era. It's not an easy film to sit through: Bettendorf doesn't shy away from the ugliness of the hate that LGBT people have endured. It's an important film, one which should be seen and discussed.

As the film explains, homophobia is an "irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals." The title is also explained in the movie: "A fun prank to pull on your friends while they're distracted. Quickly say 'homosaywhat?', they will say 'what?' and hilarity will ensue." This explanation comes from the Urban Dictionary.

Craig Bettendorf, Director

The film opens with several cringe-inducing clips from "educational" films of the 1950s and '60s. These short movies were shown in classrooms to school-age kids to warn them about the "dangerous threat" of homosexuals. Gay men are referred to as "perverts," "sick," and as "mentally ill" — it's strongly suggested in one such film that kids might even be at risk of violence from "predatory" homosexuals.

As difficult as these clips are to watch, they are an important illustration of how the public is indoctrinated and brainwashed into fearing and hating LGBTQ people.

Bettendorf's history lesson continues into the 1970s when the now-infamous Anita Bryant launched her successful campaign to overturn a gay rights ordinance in Florida. In the '80s it was Jerry Falwell, a firebrand preacher who felt that AIDS was God's punishment on the gay community. Falwell wasn't alone — a political candidate in Texas publicly states that the way to stop AIDS is to "shoot all the queers". His campaign is immediately deluged with donations.

The film continues through the years as LGBTQ people are vilified and gay rights are attacked at every possible opportunity. The church has been a major proponent of anti-LGBTQ sentiments. It's therefore fascinating to learn that centuries ago LGBTQ people were celebrated by the church. The rampant homophobia that we've lived with throughout the 20th century has been a relatively recent development.

Rt. Rev. Rusty Smith © HOMOSAYWHAT / Cinema Libre Studio

Bettendorf doesn't attempt to explain why so many religious conservatives hate the LGBTQ community, or why there's been such a concentrated effort to denigrate us. He merely presents what is, reminding us that the battle for equal rights doesn’t end with marriage equality. HomoSayWhat calls upon LGBTQ folks to not get complacent, to not get too comfortable, to do whatever we can to make the lives of those who come after us better, as the previous generation has done.

Bettendorf tells Echo that making the film was a thirty year process.

"I first came out in the mid-80s, and did so while living in Houston," he said. "At the time it was the strangest ground zero that you could imagine."

Bettendorf was in the city when the "shoot the queers" comment was made by mayoral candidate Louie Welch.

"That was truly a baptism of fire for me," he recalled. "As a young gay man, relatively newly out, feeling that and seeing that that was daily life in Houston. That really impacted me. A few days later I met with a friend and went down to city hall, and we both registered as volunteer deputy registrars, and when they swore us in they asked 'what organization do you guys represent?' And we said 'The Gay Political Caucus,' and I thought the poor woman was going to fall out of her chair. But if you don't speak up, no one is going to speak up for you."

Sean Bowe, Jax Buresh, and Steve Scholz © HOMOSAYWHAT / Cinema Libre Studio

HomoSayWhat came into being because, for the past several years, Bettendorf has been working on a gay TV series called Treading Yesterday, which is now in development. He spoke of the TV show's concept and how it inspired the film.

"The concept is quite simple," he said. "I wanted to create a series that would show particularly millennials what it took for the LGBTQ community to get to where we are today. The biggest impetus behind that was when marriage equality passed in 2015 — I had a group of friends in my living room. The baby boomers were overjoyed, and cried and hugged and popped champagne and ran out into the streets and screamed, but my millennial friends had a really subdued muted reaction. That experience in my living room caused me to sit down and write the first two episodes of Treading Yesterday."

Bettendorf calls the series "an LGBTQ drama".

"But it also may or may not involve time travel," he said. "That's completely up to the viewer to determine, and it'll all be laid out by the end of the series."

In 2016, the show's pilot was screened at Dances With Films, a large indie film festival. It was the first time that the festival had screened a TV pilot--the pilot was well received. Treading Yesterday is now with Bohemia Group Originals, who is currently looking for a network that might be interested in the series.

"I looked at my partner and said that I have three seasons written," he said. "I put a heck of a lot of research into this, there are so many great stories, that we can probably pull together and just do a documentary short."

But there was so much material that the film turned into a feature, clocking in at 76 minutes. It's material that isn't always easy to sit through, but Bettendorf was undeterred.

Florida State Capitol © HOMOSAYWHAT / Cinema Libre Studio

"Having lived it, I found it more of a responsibility to this generation for them to hear it and learn it then to be concerned about my own feelings about it," he said. "Having gone through the reality of what's in the documentary — I'll be sixty in August."

Bettendorf noted that the community has been losing many LGBTQ elders, such as lesbian icon Phyllis Lyon earlier this year and AIDS activist/author Larry Kramer, who passed a week ago.

"It's absolutely imperative that those of us still living and breathing preserve their stories," he said. "That their stories are spoken in their words and heard in their voices. That's really important to me as a writer."

Bettendorf also feels that the present political climate has helped to reinvigorate the LGBTQ community.

"Loss of rights on a daily basis, a weekly basis, a monthly basis," he said. "Certainly, the last three years has woken up those of us who went through this before. And I think it's really waking up a lot of millennials as well. I found that in the film festival circuit — we showed in both LGBT and non-LGBT film festivals — that by and large there were as many millennials as there were baby boomers. I think that they're seeking, they're interested, you just have to present it to them in a way that's palpable and acceptable so that you can get to them."

The filmmaker reminds people that the film is a call to action.

"It's not a feel-good film," he said. "You do not want to buy popcorn and walk into a theater to watch this film. It's a film that points out where we've been, how hard it was to get to where we are today and how very important it is to not let the pendulum of time swing back and have our rights erode because there are administrations that no longer care for the LGBT community. As a filmmaker I want it to be nothing more than a wake-up call. There are going to be people that are already completely awake, completely engaged, and there are a lot of people who are going to think this is normal, and it's not. So how I was shocked into action in the mid-'80s, I hope that young people who see this film are shocked into action and maybe they'll go and become volunteer deputy registrars themselves."

HomoSayWhat is now available.

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