When Maddy Purves and Zoie Young started working on “Same-Sex Attracted,” one of two documentaries produced by Utahns appearing in this year’s Damn These Heels Queer Film Festival, they didn’t even own a camera.
Purves needed to produce a three-minute video as part of her application to Brigham Young University’s film program.
“What if we just made a little three-minute video about what it’s like being gay at BYU?” Young proposed to Purves, after some brainstorming. “You and I are both gay and we’re both here, and we have very strong opinions about what it’s like being here and being gay, and we know that other people do, too.”
They used a camcorder and a flimsy tripod they borrowed from Young’s uncle. The application committee loved the video, and one professor told her it was one of the best student films they’d seen, Purves said. She was accepted into the program.
She describes feeling a “prompting” to push the project further. “It just felt the right time to do something big,” she said.
Young was on board and asked Purves, “Why don’t we just make this into a feature-length documentary?”
When they started making the short movie in 2015, Purves was 19 and Young was 20. “We knew we were signing up for this huge thing, like, ‘Are we really going to do this?’ But once we committed, it was never a question that we would finish it,” Purves said.
Now “Same Sex-Attracted” is screening for the first time in Damn These Heels’ virtual festival. The movie focuses on members of Understanding Sexuality, Gender and Allyship (USGA), an unofficial group of BYU LGBTQ students and other allies who gather off campus. Online Q&A panels are planned for Thursday and Saturday.
Students interviewed in the film describe their efforts to convince BYU administrators to provide official support for the club. At one point, a lesbian student faces eviction for having her girlfriend over to her apartment, and the fear of being punished for breaking the school’s Honor Code features heavily throughout.
Until this year, the code said “homosexual behavior” was “inappropriate” and a violation of its rules. That behavior, the code said, “includes not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.”
BYU has not responded to a request for comment on the documentary.
The film addresses the history of anti-gay policies at the university, including a clip from a 1959 speech where former BYU president Ernest Wilkinson said society was loosening its standards and allowing for more “homosexual practices,” and then warned, “We can expect to have some of these verted individuals on campus.”
Purves and Young started by renting equipment from the school’s library and interviewing friends they met at USGA. After graduating, the co-directors created a Kickstarter campaign to purchase their own equipment and raised over $8,000 from friends, extended family and LGBTQ BYU alumni.
“So many people say they want to make a movie and not many follow through,” Young said. “So trying to find support and people that will take you seriously was a challenge.”
Purves describes herself as a “control freak” who focused on being supremely prepared for every shoot, while Young had a great instinct for when to pivot away from their prep work. She said their teamwork was key during the hours spent shooting and editing the film.
One lesbian student in the film talks about how many young LGBTQ Latter-day Saints think that if they can just make it to BYU, “everything will be OK.” But once students arrive, the film conveys, they are on a campus where marriage is constantly discussed and emphasized as a priority for students, but they don’t fit the heterosexual model for a family that the school and LDS Church advocate.
Students say they face embracing their sexuality, or maintaining their activity in the LDS Church and working to align their sexual preferences with its teachings. The documentary explores the crisis in identity and faith that comes from living in that environment.
“Making the film turned into therapy for me,” Purves said with a laugh. “It turned into a chance to process. Sometimes I feel like I exploited these subjects. Like, ‘Hey, can I [make] a film, and figure out my own s--t with you in front of the camera?’”
Purves, who graduated from BYU in 2017, said that on campus she was “always self-policing. If I could draw how everyone else saw me, like if I presented feminine, looked straight and played the part, I’d be OK. I’d be liked. I’d be safe. But doing anything that made me more visible as different would make me a target” for punishment under the Honor Code.
Fear of Honor Code enforcement means LGBTQ students can’t, according to Young, have partners hang out in their living rooms, walk down the street holding hands or go on any dates with people of the same sex.
Purves and Young said they reached out to several BYU administrators when making the film, but none agreed to be interviewed. One administrator said they wanted to talk, Purves and Young said, but felt they could be fired or reprimanded for appearing, and wanted to instead focus on advocating behind the scenes for LGBTQ students.
The co-directors offered to silhouette faces and use voice distortion to allow faculty or administrators to speak anonymously. They still refused, which Young found frustrating.
“If they did speak out, and not even to say that ‘BYU sucks’ but even to explain why they’re in favor of BYU,” she said, “the fact that they’d be in trouble for that was mind blowing for me.”
Purves thinks the administration’s decision not to participate in the film “is really indicative of the fear that is on campus and being part of BYU culture. … The lack of trust in authority, including from the administration itself, is like a metaphor within itself.”
As Purves progressed in her film classes, she’d add more elements of filmmaking to the documentary. In one class, she learned about how the most intimidating villains in film are often the ones the audience never sees, and decided that if BYU officials didn’t want to talk, then they’d pose the school’s administration as a great unknown.
“If you watch the film and think, ‘Why isn’t anything happening? Who are the bad guys? Who do I get mad at?’ Welcome to the club,” Purves said. “That’s exactly the feeling we’ve had for a long time. How do we start a conversation if no one is going to be willing to step up to the plate and represent BYU?”
The conservative school has held some events over the past few years aimed at better understanding LGBTQ students and staff, including a major panel in 2018.
The co-directors said they experienced trauma from self-policing and worrying about Honor Code enforcement while at BYU, which took them years to “unlearn.” Young said she wasn’t sure how to act at her first job after graduating in 2018, because she didn’t want her coworkers to find out she was gay in case they might report her and get her in trouble.
Purves said she and Young hope their film proves “that there really is no reason why BYU can’t be more accepting and more LGBTQ friendly.”
Purves thinks one potential first step is “having more queer faculty, but at the same time, I’d never want to work at BYU because then I wouldn’t be able to marry a woman and work there. It’s pretty complicated, and we understand that, but it’s still disheartening.”
The uncertain future that has come with COVID-19 makes it hard to project what their next project might look like, but the co-directors say they are far from finished making films.
Premiering in the festival is “incredibly validating,” Purves said. They would have liked to premiere “Same-Sex Attracted” at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, one of the festival’s usual venues, but they’re glad that people will won’t have to travel to Salt Lake City to watch the film during this year’s virtual festival online.
“Same-Sex Attracted” will be available for streaming until July 19 and can be accessed on utahfilmcenter.org. It costs $10 to watch one film, and passes to watch all the films in the festival are $75.
ASK THE DIRECTORS
“Same-Sex Attracted” co-directors Maddy Purves and Zoie Young will answer questions about the film during Q&A panels on Thursday, July 16, at 8 p.m., and Saturday, July 18, at 4 p.m.,as part of the Damn These Heels Queer Film Festival.
The panel will be moderated by Utah Film Center Program Manager Davey Davis, and will feature the subjects of the documentary as panelists.
The free Q&A will be streamed online, and patrons can sign up for the event by clicking on the “Schedule of Events” tab on utahfilmcenter.org.