For one family in Iowa, the choice between staying and going didn’t feel like a choice.
“Do we stay and fight, or do we go? But where do you go where there’s stability and safety?” says Katie Chiaramonte in the new Hulu documentary “We Live Here: The Midwest.”
Chiaramonte, who is married to a transgender woman, is one of several Midwesterners profiled in the film, which also visits Nebraska, Kansas, Ohio and Minnesota.
Director Melinda Maerker describes a sense of hope replaced by fear, as the “joyous” marriage equality decision in Obergefell v. Hodges was quickly followed by Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and “really outward, ugly” displays of discrimination.
That backlash is still growing, she says. “But the goal [of] the film was not to be in any way preachy. We wanted people to fall into these stories, and good stories are often complicated.”
Maerker and co-producer David Miller joined the Political Theater podcast to talk about the “courageous” and imperfect families they met along the way.
This interview has been edited and condensed. For more, listen to the full episode of Political Theater, and watch “We Live Here: The Midwest” on Hulu starting Dec. 6.
Q: How did you come to this project?
MM: We worked together on a project a number of years ago about LGBTQ families, and that was very sweet and lovely. And then the 2016 election happened, and it ushered in this backlash that was really scary.
Marriage equality, which had been such a joyous celebratory thing, was suddenly threatened again. So we were curious how LGBTQ families were doing, and we chose the Midwest because it’s known as the heart of American family values. What do those values look like, and who do they include?
Q: One couple talks about having to leave the church after spending their entire lives there.
DM: Katie describes how traumatic it was for her to leave the church, when it was the church that taught her to love Nia. I mean, they were high school sweethearts. They married, they had four children, and then Nia transitioned. And then they had a fifth child, and they stayed together, which I thought was a fascinating story in and of itself.
We were unaware until we actually started filming how upset Katie was with the church, and how hard of a time she was having with that.
Q: Did anybody hesitate to talk about these issues on camera? We’re coming off years of steady progress for gay and trans rights, but then you see things like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signing the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law.
MM: Yes. In fact, there were a number of families who did not feel that they could participate. They were interested in the project, but they feared any sort of retribution within their communities, particularly at their jobs. You know, that’s your livelihood, which we understood — which is also why we refer to our families as courageous.
Q: I was struck by the diversity in what people do for a living and where they are in the Midwest. You show us cities, very small towns, a military installation, and the Minnesota House of Representatives.
MM: Some people were facing discrimination within the church. Other people were facing that within the schools, or just within their own families.
Even before marriage equality passed, if you were an out LGBTQ+ person, you often had to present as the perfect family in order to be acceptable. And we were hoping that we got to the point where families could be like any other family, which also meant messy.
For example, with Deb and Jen, we wanted to show how Jen’s transition affected the whole family and reverberated throughout. Sometimes it’s not such an easy process, and they also have children handling the effects of divorce. So we didn’t want to shy away from that.
Q: For the couple you mentioned, Deb and Jen, it wasn’t just like they transitioned, and then cue the credits and the happy music.
DM: Part of our goal here was to show that these families are very much like any other — they have financial burdens, they have health issues. It was important for us to go to the heartland of family values, because these families also have family values.
Q: Mike Johnson wasn’t House speaker when you started this project. But what was going through your mind as you watched his rise? He has been very clear that he opposes gay rights — some of that was years ago, but he hasn’t really backed away from those positions, either.
DM: He hasn’t. When we started this film, it was in reaction to the 2016 election. Two years later, there is more fear now among LGBTQ people. This year alone saw [hundreds] of anti-gay and anti-trans bills [in state legislatures], as well as the No. 3 most powerful individual in government holding these discriminatory views. I think there’s a real danger.
Q: What do you think it would take to get someone like Mike Johnson to empathize with the people in your film?
MM: Nia says in the film, “We’re not just issues, we’re people.” If you fall into the story, you’re rooting for these people, you’re understanding these people. It’s not necessarily changing your views — it is thinking past the limitations of what you’ve thought before. Now, extremist views around any topic are extremist views. I don’t think there’s too much you can do about those.
DM: I heard an interview with Secretary Pete Buttigieg. And he said, ‘Well, I would love the speaker to come to my house and see me and my husband, Chasten, and how we deal with our kids.’ I don’t know if the speaker will take him up on that.