If their children weren’t introduced in the opening scene of “The Dads,” you might suspect that director Luchina Fisher had joined her subjects for a weekend excursion like any other for a group of rugged gentlemen, meeting up by the river in Broken Bow, Oklahoma to fish. Over a leisurely dinner, they compare their catch of the day and sip red wine and beer, but the occasion isn’t necessarily carefree as talk drifts towards what else unites them beyond their love of the outdoors as the parents of gay and trans children. Although collectively they may appear as what an idealized version of what America should look like, coming from varied racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, engaged in a particularly virile activity, they speak about how their own illusions about the country they live in have been shattered by what their progeny have had to endure, suddenly dismissed by others upon embracing their true selves and often subject to attacks.
It turns out it’s the first time back out on the water for Dennis Shepard, the most well-known father in the group who hasn’t handled a fishing rod since a family gathering in the Big Horns in 1998, the last for his child Matthew, who died tragically shortly after, and while the men assembled can take great comfort in one another, Fisher captures an emotionally charged weekend where they swap stories about regrets they have personally about forcing certain gendered items like clothing and sports on their kids before gaining a full understanding of what they were going through and some of the advice they received from therapists for better or worse. When such a dialogue is relatively new amongst parents, let alone society as a whole, “The Dads” is bound to spark more conversation as it presents its title characters working through issues that they surely never thought they’d encounter but all come back to loving their children unconditionally, showing simply that acceptance doesn’t have to be all that difficult.
Shortly before the film’s premiere at SXSW in the Documentary Shorts section, Fisher, who previously profiled that famed transgender advocate Gloria Allen in her 2020 feature “Mama Gloria,” spoke about how she found her way into such an intimate gathering, how her own experience as the parent to a trans child guided her and preparing for anything to happen during such a sensitive production.
It seems like there might be some connective tissue with “Mama Gloria” given the subject, but how did this come about?
With “Mama Gloria,” it was looking at motherhood, and the love that Gloria’s mother had for her and how that translated in Gloria’s life to be able to provide that same mother’s love to trans and homeless trans kids in Chicago. Especially for myself as a mother of a trans child, to be able to tell Gloria’s story really fueled so much of my love and it was fueled so much by my love for my daughter, so when I had the opportunity to accompany these dads on this weekend fishing expedition in rural Oklahoma, I jumped at it. Because the conversations around advocacy for trans youth are often led by women or a mother, and I know the dads are there. I know it from my own family. But they often don’t get the opportunity to speak out, and here was a group of dads who were all very loving and committed to their kids and they talked really honestly about the journey to get there and the importance of speaking publicly and what that does for your child and other people’s children. It’s not enough just to say, “Oh, I love my child.” It’s really about how is that showing up in the world.
So this fishing trip wasn’t convened for the purposes of the film? You found out it was happening organically?
Apparently, Dennis Shepard, Wayne Maines, and Frank Gonzales had been talking for some years about going on a trip together. They all are avid outdoorsmen. They like to hunt, they like to fish, they like to camp. And I knew them from the Human Rights Campaign’s Parents for Transgender Equality Council — we had all been together at A Time to Thrive, which is the youth gathering for the Human Rights Campaign, where they bring in all these kids from all over the country, and I overheard Dennis, Wayne and Frank talking about this trip, and I was like, “I want to go on that with you. Can I bring cameras?” [laughs] “I just would love to be a fly on the wall to hear the conversations you’re going to have.”
Obviously, they’re aware of the irony that here are these dads of LGBTQ kids who like to do the things that other dads in red states love to do and they’re not separated from that just because they have kids who identify as LGBTQ, so if they could, through the ways that they interact and go through life show that they’re just like other dads in red states, they just happen to have this one thing that’s different — that their kid identifies as LGBTQ. I thought that was a really interesting conversation to be had. Then once we decided this was going to be a thing, they were like, “Well, who else can we invite? And Stephen [Chukumba], Jose [Trujillo], and Peter [Betz], I think, all brought different dimensions to the conversation. I don’t even know that they knew what was going to come up, but a lot did.
Is there any preparation you can do to capture a conversation like this?
It’s similar to unscripted projects where a lot of what happens is in the casting, and who you decide is going to be a part of the weekend. Then we had this group of guys, many of whom had met each other, but some had not. Wayne and Peter were connected for a long time. They were two dads on the front lines back before this was really widely known or understood or even covered in the media, so it was all these really interesting, different connections they each had and geographically, they were coming from different regions, so I just knew if we put them in to this really lovely rural setting, and have them go fish, that was an original idea. Because this is something that Wayne Maines loves to do. He’s an avid outdoorsman. He loves taking people out into the woods and that was his refuge during the most difficult times in his life, so he wanted to show them that experience. So I knew that he had that potential to guide them and ultimately, the conversations went where they went, and I let them have a day of fishing, seeing what bubbled up. We conducted individual interviews the next day and we kept them short, but then I just did want to talk to each of them individually [which] I didn’t want so much on camera, but to have as their inner dialogue.
Is there anything that you get particularly excited about when it starts to take on a life of its own?
The conversations about their own masculinity being called into question, I wasn’t expecting that. I had no idea that this was something that many of them had experienced and they had professionals actually questioning whether their profession as a chef or an artist was, in part, the reason for why their kids identified as trans. I knew that this was going to be part of a conversation around fathering a child who is LGBTQ, but I was frankly surprised that they were getting that pushback from other sources and what also really struck me, were these conversations that they were able to have across racial and geographical lines because of this common experience of having a child, who for all purposes right now in our country, [that is] under attack. Their identity, their healthcare, their livelihood and wanting to be part of their classroom settings and part of their school sports teams are being called into question right now for these men. And [this is] for cis white men, frankly, who come from this place [where] it doesn’t get more privileged than that, but suddenly, they understood that [identity] did not shield their children from the bullying and hateful rhetoric that’s happening right now.
For many of them, it’s really been a point of deep reflection about what does it mean to be in this country today if their children are not treated equally with the same rights that they have and opened this door to things that perhaps they never had to think about. I thought, “Wow, to have that experience and recognize the connections now between each of them just makes for a more human experience.” Stripped of all of these identities that we have, we are ultimately having this human experience and so these men now have a much deeper empathy [when] this is part of a journey that they never expected to be on.
As you mentioned, you’re a parent of a trans child. Did that give you something to hang on to or made something particularly important to convey through relating the experience of your subjects?
For me it’s such a part of me that it’s hard to even separate how I might have shaped this differently if I had not been a parent of a trans child. Any kind of storytelling that I’ve done throughout my career is based on a foundation of trust with the person that I’m working with, so because I had this connection with these fathers, there was an inherent trust there and once I have that, I do not take it lightly, so I knew that it was important to really convey what was central to their experience and I was really listening for that. Some of that is familiar to my own experience of parenting, so it was really just being able to hear what they were experiencing and the truth of it and not putting my own judgment on it.
What’s it like getting the film into SXSW?
That was a moment. I have never been to South by Southwest. This is my first time going as a filmmaker, and when I made my first short going on 11 years ago. I think I submitted to South by and, you know, got the nice little rejection. [laughs] But when my team was finishing up the edit, it was like, “Come on, guys. We’ve got to get it done in time for the South By deadline” because it was in Texas, but also they have a history of films about trans issues — the premiere of “Mama Bears” was there — so I just couldn’t think of a more appropriate place right now, because it’s really at the center of this battle. Wayne lives there, Frank is there, Jose’s next door in Arizona, and Dennis Shepard’s not too far in Wyoming and when I got the [acceptance] e-mail, I was losing my mind because this was the dream.
And there’s going to be a whole bunch of us there — all of the dads, plus their spouses, some [of the] children, and some folks from the Human Rights Campaign who partnered with me on this, [such as] the executive director Kelley Robinson, who is a fierce, fierce advocate. Already, there’s been so much interest because it’s on the South by platform and the possibilities [are exciting] for this message to reach people who would not normally engage with these issues, but might be interested in hearing from a bunch of dads on a fishing trip in rural Oklahoma. They might hear something that shifts something in their heart. and ultimately moves the conversation in a new direction, so that South by Southwest can give that kind of platform for those things to happen is just extraordinary. I’m so, so grateful.
“The Dads” will screen at SXSW as part of Documentary Shorts Program 2 on March 12th at 2:15 pm at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center and March 16th at 6:45 pm at the Alamo Lamar D.