A new documentary called 8: The Mormon Proposition exposes the $22 million secret program to defeat gay marriage in California sponsored by the Mormon church. After a court ruled that gay couples could get married, a ballot initiative called “Proposition 8” was submitted to overturn it. A “yes” vote on “Prop 8” was a “no” vote on gay marriage. The Mormon church, headquartered in Utah, orchestrated a campaign to support Prop 8, working through local, non-Mormon organizations and individuals to hide their involvement. The movie is now available in theaters, on DVD, on cable via On Demand, and through iTunes. I spoke to co-director Steven Greenstreet and one of the people interviewed for the film, David Melman, from Affirmation, a support group for GLBT Mormons. Both were raised in the LDS church.
Let’s start with the most recent developments. As we speak (June 16, 2010), closing arguments are being heard in the lawsuit challenging Prop 8. And there has just been an unprecedented fine imposed on the Mormon church for some of the violations you cover in the film.
SG: The Fair Political Practices Commission in California found them guilty on 13 counts of political malfeasance for late reporting of non-monetary contributions. The fine itself is around $5000, which won’t even put a dent in the bumper of the Mormon church. But it is a big victory. The facts we presented in the film and the case that we build in the film is essentially that — that they cooked the books and they lied and they under-reported. The separation of church and state was this really blurred line.
One of the most shocking revelations in the film is when an enormous cache of documents is leaked by an insider within the church, with memos laying out the strategy very explicitly, including frank admissions that the Mormons want to hide their involvement.
DM: A church that believes you should be honest and truthful in your dealings and then hides behind these other groups, groups that at one time they taught were abominable and detestable, the little bit you do disclose you don’t disclose until after the election when it’s too late, a lot of the campaign is not based on getting the truth out but on confusing and muddying the waters. A lot of people who voted one way on Prop 8 thought they were voting the other way. A lot of untruth went out in the campaign: “If Prop 8 doesn’t pass, your church won’t have any choice about who it marries. You won’t have any say about what your children are taught in the school.
SG: After the fines were imposed, I advocate a disciplinary hearing within the church of the Mormon elders. They should be stripped of their temple recommend and brought in for internal investigation. I grew up in the church. One of the questions they ask you to issue you your faithful member temple recommend card is “Are you honest and truthful in your dealings with your fellow man?” If you’re not, you can’t get that status. This fine proves that the people at the top are not even following their own rules.
Do they believe the rules can be broken in furtherance of goals like preventing gay marriage?
SG: Religions are made or broken by how honest they are with their members versus how honest they are behind the curtain. I was a Mormon missionary, knocking on doors and carrying the message of love, charity, compassion, and tolerance. This is what I was told from the top down, this was the message and core of the church. And yet I see the church going to California with a complete lack of those ethics. I do feel there’s a disconnect between their political teachings and their doctrinal dealings.
DM: The church has always taught: love and family. With these actions, they’ve worked to tear families apart. Two people marry each other, and their family just splits apart because some stay with the church, some support the individual. The family comes apart. The campaign was obviously one of hate and not love. It left a lot of us feeling like someone had stolen our church from us.
SG: Tyler and Spencer [a couple featured in the film] were one of the 18,000 couples that were married in that small window when gay marriage was legal and now the closing arguments are happening in California. One of the goals of the opposition is not only to win this but to go a step further and negate those 18,000 marriages. Their marriage certificate may be torn up.
How did this movie come about?
SG: Reed Cowan, my co-director, was doing a film about homeless teenagers in Salt Lake City who had been kicked out of their homes because they were gay. When they came out to their parents or were discovered to be gay, their parents were informed by their bishops that it was better for them to take them out to the street than have them contaminate the rest of the family. So Reed started working on that and around the same time Proposition 8 started bubbling up in California and we really saw a correlation between what was happening there and the effect that it had on these kids. So we blew up the ambition of the film and said, “There’s a bigger story here.”
Some of the most shocking revelations in the film come from an enormous file of documents provided by an anonymous source. How did you get hold of them?
SG: We had been working with Fred Karger, who has been at the forefront of investigating the church’s involvement. He got an anonymous phone call. He met Fred in a bar with the documents and it was like a scene from a thriller. Reed went through every page. It was shocking to see the names of the top Mormon leaders, their candid language. Their strategic plan to hide the money and hide their involvement, to create front groups. It was really a revelation for me, having grown up in the church.
With Mormons, you do what you do because it is such a saturated culture. Everything you do — everything — is built around the church. I am a film-maker and so my instinct is to turn a lens on the culture that raised me and better it.
What do people who are not Mormon don’t understand about the faith?
DM: Quite a bit. The church operates differently from other religions. They have a different view on our purpose in life. We live before this earth and we live afterward and there are things we need to accomplish. The church is also a huge, multi-billion dollar, mutli-national corporation. It controls so many aspects of everyone’s life. They own airlines, they own broadcast media. The top radio stations in Washington are owned by the church. What politician in this country is going to challenge a religion? The church believes there is a divine decree that at some point they will control the government of the United States.
Do the younger people in the church have the same views? Or are they like their contemporaries in other faiths and more supportive of gay rights?
SG: I do believe that the younger generation is waiting for the older generation to die off. The older generation is clinging to ethics that are so outdated and so far in the past that in order to progress we need to wait for them to relinquish their hold on it. In general the younger generation is more in tune, more accepting of people and their peers. Gay clubs are popping up in high schools in Utah. But the church tends to only change its doctrine when it hits them in the pocketbook or in their membership numbers. That is what happened in 1978 when they changed their policy and allowed black Mormons to have leadership positions. Up until 1978 the church was an officially racist organization. They were faced with an onslaught of bad PR. So in 1978 “God spoke” and the policy was rescinded. And they could go into Africa and preach their message.
What inspired you to make movies?
SG: I was always into films. All of Spielberg’s and Lucas’ films. I bought my first camera when I was 17, analog tape VHS. I would edit the movies in my camera. I’ve always been filming. I have an entire filing cabinet just filled with tapes, everything I’ve done and everywhere I’ve gone. It is who I am and I can’t imagine doing anything else. When I first got home from my Mormon mission in 2000 I saw my first two documentaries, “The Thin Blue Line” by Errol Morris and Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me.” Both of those films just blew my mind and I knew that was what I wanted to do. Then when I saw “Paradise Lost,” by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, that sealed the deal for me. I knew that the rest of my life would be making documentaries. I have some narrative scripts, but documentaries will always be my thing.
And you, David?
DM: Stephen was working on a news story about Prop 8 and that’s how we started working together. Most of the people in the film are members of Affirmation. We’ve been around for about 33 years. We represent gay and lesbian Mormons. We advocate on their behalf. We try to create safe spaces both within the church and outside the church for people. We try and build bridges of communication and end some of the damage done by the church. We started on the BYU campus. They all met under assumed names because at that time BYU security would send people into gay clubs. To this day, if they find out you are gay, you are not only expelled from the university but they erase your transcript. It is as if they never attended college as well. We’ve worked with the University of Utah and other schools to accept whatever documentation we can put together to restore credit. We have a website called Keep them and Love Them as part of our outreach. Within the church there are people who are supportive.
The most horrible thing I’ve had to do is sit with parents with their son’s brain splattered on the wall and try to help them make sense of all of this. It’s a horrible, horrible situation that the church puts these people in. No one wins on any of this.