Young LGBTQ people find Room To Grow
In a new documentary series, filmmakers Jon Garcia and Matt Alber are chronicling the experiences of young LGBTQ people in the US.
The series, titled Room To Grow, begins with the story of Savannah — a teenager excluded from the Mormon church because of her sexuality.
I caught up with Jon Garcia for a behind-the-scenes look at the series.
What was the inspiration for the Room To Grow series?
Matt and I met working on another project — my film, The Falls: Covenant of Grace. I’d licensed his song End of the World for the film and trailer. When we realised we both lived in Portland, we met up and became friends.
It didn’t take long for us to realise we had a lot in common, especially in the stories we wanted to tell. Matt was very clear that he’d always wanted to create a documentary about what it’s like to be a queer teenager. He shared with me some of the tough times he had growing up in St. Louis, and having to hide the fact that he was gay through his childhood. Having just closed out a trilogy of LGBTQ films, I’d been thinking about how I could tell universal stories about the LGBTQ community in a different way, a more proactive way.
I think Matt and I crossed paths at the perfect time in our lives. Shortly after we began to discuss creating Room To Grow, we connected with Bridging Voices — a queer youth chorus here in Portland. We started going to rehearsals and spending time with this organisation, the singers, and their families, and it all happened pretty organically from there.
The story of Savannah is inspiring but also raises some flags about the role of religion in the lives of LGBTQ people. What drew you to the story of Savannah?
Savannah’s story is one I’ve been exploring for many years. The roles of religion in the lives of LGBTQ individuals is something I’ve spent a lot of time researching — I’ve known so many in the community who have been compromised trying discover how customary religious doctrine applies to them as queer members of their church.
The LDS church has been the topic of many conversations on their views towards the LGBTQ community. It seems that their messaging confuses marginalised members of the church who are trying to find their place. For instance, when the church says it’s okay to be gay, but you have to be celibate, or that the children of same sex marriages can’t be baptised in the church.
I think Savannah’s story represents the strength of young voices in the LDS community. She’s a young liberal Mormon who hasn’t given up on the LDS church, though she herself has experienced intolerance from it. In her testimony to her church that was cut short, she says — “I know that Jesus Christ loves me even though I am a Lesbian.” Her testimony was so well written and so powerful, I think she’s letting young people know that you can be who you are in your own way and even if your community or church doesn’t support you, she will, and people like her will, and there are many who will love and support you for who you are.
How does the story of Savannah fit with The Falls trilogy of films that you created?
I think it’s a continuation of the types of stories I want to tell about individuals who have the courage to find strength within themselves when everything they believe in is turned upside down. If you’re told that God doesn’t love you, but you choose to listen to your own heart, you discover that there’s no possible way that can be true. One of the film’s themes is that love conquers all, and I think Savannah is a perfect example of that.
Do the other episodes in the series have a similar tone and style?
Yes — I’m so excited for people to see them.
- Cody is a 25-year-old African-American rapper. He’s out and proud. His parents were absent much of his life and still he has found success.
- Eden is a 15-year-old gender non-binary Jewish teenager, and a wonderful singer.
- Tyler is a 14-year-old trans teenager that discovered he needed to end a relationship with someone he loved, because he knew he needed to work through personal issues he was having.
- Zach is an 18-year-old track star and scholastic athlete, applying to Ivy League schools.
- Myles is a 15-year-old teenager with a very supportive dad. When he was questioning his sexuality he joined an LGBTQ youth chorus that
helped him through it.
How did you source the stories that are featured in the series?
We discovered many of the teenagers who are in Room To Grow in Bridging Voices Youth Chorus — an LGBTQ singing group here in Portland. We found most of our brave young people here. We met with some families only once or twice, others we visited a few times over the course of a year and a half.
We initially created a documentary feature with the same name, but had so many different youngsters that we couldn’t put it all into one movie. Since global queer streaming network, Revry, was our distributor, we all were so inspired to share more stories that we created this series as well.
What does the series tell us about the experiences of young LGBTQ people in America today?
That there’s a new generation of powerful, outspoken teenagers that are paving the way for a kids to be their authentic selves, no matter what.
What do you hope that people feel when watching the Room To Grow series?
I want people to feel hopeful. I want youth to say — “That’s me!” and “I’m not alone.” I hope parents can feel the same thing. I hope Room To Grow can inspire an open means of communication between schools, churches, adults, and the gender-fluid teenagers who are part of these institutions.
After all, these young people are just regular teenagers, but they need to be more seen and heard and they need to have safe spaces to do so.