What happens when fundamentalist Christian parents have children who are homosexual? Family Fundamentals is filmmaker Arthur Dong’s personal attempt to answer that explosive question. Armed with a digital camera, Dong takes viewers into the private and public lives of three families who have responded to gay offspring by actively opposing homosexuality. Family Fundamentals is a battlefield report from America’s profound and disquieting culture war over gay issues.
Family Fundamentals goes to the heart of today’s debate over homosexuality, where the personal is inextricably — and dramatically — bound up in the political. In today’s contemporary society, sometimes even the most liberal families must find it discomfiting when gay children come out. For fundamentalist Christian families, the event can be polarizing and devastating.
Dong tackles his subject by looking into three divided families. Susan Jester is the lesbian daughter of Kathleen Bremner, a Pentecostal church leader who responded to her daughter’s coming out by forming a Christian parents’ ministry and organizing the San Diego Christian Trauma and Sexuality Conferences. In collaboration with such groups as Exodus and Focus on the Family, Bremner promotes faith and “reparative therapy” as a cure for homosexuality. She is not shy about expressing her views of homosexuality, and in exhorting her daughter, who is conversely outspoken in support of gay civil rights, to repent.
Brett Mathews, a former Air Force First Lieutenant discharged for his homosexual orientation, is the son of a Mormon bishop in rural Erda, Utah. Mathews’ family reacts to his coming out by sending him a steady stream of letters calling on him to change. His grandmother’s remarriage brings a challenge and a crisis as Mathews returns to his boyhood home for the first time since declaring his homosexuality. His family, which had agreed to participate in the film, abruptly changes its mind after one day of shooting and withdraws.
Brian Bennett’s story reveals a different kind of family — and an even more surprising chain of events. From 1977 to 1989, Bennett served as chief of staff, campaign manager and legislative aide to former California Congressman Bob Dornan — one of the nation’s harshest and most vocal opponents to gay rights. So close was Bennett to Dornan, with whom he shared a Catholic upbringing and political views on everything except his closeted homosexuality, that Brian became a virtual member of the Dornan family. He lived with them for six years, calling Dornan by the family nickname, “Poppy.” When Bennett came out in 1997, that close relationship was abruptly terminated and he was left to struggle with the contradictions of being a gay Republican and of still loving a father figure who rejected him for his sexual orientation.
Family Fundamentals takes us inside the struggle over homosexuality in the heartland of the American family. The film, which never succumbs to easy answers, manages to convey bittersweet humor as well as deep pain over a seemingly intractable family divide.