By Bonnie Edwards
When I first ended up in New York City, after completing college in Seattle and at UAB, experiencing a stint in Italy, and then returning home to Alabama, I thought I would continue on my projected path. That path included a continuation of my studies of international development by means of a graduate school program at Columbia University. I even met with professors and pinpointed my research focus: the quantified impact of public art. But on an evening when I met the full student body and felt that familiar stale-suit fuss, I decided that the arts were where I needed to be.
Fortunately, I was accepted as an intern into an award-winning storytelling nonprofit and was eventually asked to produce a play. Only then did my intuition guide me through the fury of the entertainment industry. I have been working freelance in the New York City theatre, literary, and film scene for two years now. I have survived, sometimes only barely and never at all glamorously, but every moment has been an adventure.
But in a move that brings me full circle, my current project and my directorial debut has led me back home to Alabama.
For about a year, I have been developing Out in Alabama, a documentary about the brave and colorful Alabama communities that embrace LGBT rights. With an associate producer in Los Angeles, collaborators in Alabama, and myself in NYC, the project has created a triad of synergies across the nation and even the world.
Recently, I made a trip to Birmingham, Montgomery, and Montevallo to film the promo video with the assistance of a NYC-based cinematographer Jeanette Sears, as well as Tyler Jones of Birmingham’s 1504 Pictures. The outpour of participants was shocking, and I was pleased to have multiple courageous individuals volunteer to be a face for the promo video. Along my travels, many people asked me, “Why, as a straight person, do you want to make this documentary?”
There are many reasons. The idea originally blossomed from my graduate school focus. While researching public art in places with historical disparities, I discovered the beautiful butterfly statues in Selma (where part of my family is from). I also discovered that some creative folks involved in the art scene in similar places were openly gay. When mentioning this to my friends and colleagues in New York, they were shocked. “Gay in Alabama?” they asked.
My second reason for making the documentary presented itself to me: It’s an invitation to turn the stereotype of Alabamians on its head. The outside world’s one-dimensional view of Alabama is frustrating to me and the possibility of exposing it is an exciting and important thing. When I was a freshman in high school in Pelham, our homecoming queen was an openly gay student. While in college at UAB, my friends and I attended drags shows and supported the gay pride parade. These sorts of happenings and activities never seemed unnatural to me. So I began to question, as an internal examination, why I personally never doubted embracing the LGBT community.
I was always a bit peculiar and have been the new kid many times throughout my life. More than being new, I was actually just plain odd in my own way. I was smart but rebellious; athletic yet artistic; goofy as hell, but at times quite melancholy; kind yet quick to be defensive—in a nutshell, I was all over the place. At some schools, I was popular for a little while, but most of the time, I was sitting alone at the lunch table. Feeling on the outskirts of the social realm, I found myself relating to all the other “misunderstood” kids. And in my mind, there was only a thin line between all of us.
In addition to the film being a conversation starter around the world, it is a job-creator in Alabama through production, a compassion-igniter through its message, and the beginning of so much more.
But first and foremost, I am working on this documentary because my instinct and intuition tell me to, just like the time I made the choice to forego grad school. And that changed my life forever.