In his new feature documentary, Family Fundamentals, three-time Sundance award-winning filmmaker Arthur Dong (Licensed to Kill, Coming Out Under Fire) continues his quest to understand American contempt for homosexuality and its affects on family, culture and the nation’s political landscape. Armed with a digital camera, Dong tells the stories of three conservative Christian families with gay and lesbian children, including a Tooele County native who is the son of a former Mormon Bishop.
Brett Mathews is the son of a Mormon Bishop in the rural town of Erda, Utah. When Brett came out as gay in 1997 their relationship became estranged. Prior to his coming out, Brett was ousted from the U.S. Air Force prior to his coming out. Although he finally received an honorable discharge, he lost his security clearance and was stripped of all veterans’ benefits.
Since then, Brett’s family has sent a steady stream of letters encouraging him to change his “condition.” Angry at their response, Brett ignores their pleas although he knows that as a bishop, his father’s duty is to judge and punish any church member who is homosexual, including family. Brett is a descendent of the original Mormon settlers of the region in the 1850s and his family has since maintained a leadership role in the community. As a Bishop, Brett’s father is the common judge and presiding high priest of his ward.
Brett’s grandmother recently remarried and Dong followed Brett to Utah to attend her wedding. This was the first time in over two years that Brett spent time in his boyhood home with his parents. It was both a nostalgic trip and a tense reminder that the topic of homosexuality was off-limits. Although Brett’s family initially agreed to participate in the film, they discontinued their cooperation after one day of shooting. The filmmaker uses this turn of events to underscore factors that reinforce the strife over homosexuality.
Susan Jester, the lesbian daughter of Kathleen Bremner, a Pentecostal church leader in San Diego, California. Kathleen started the San Diego Spatula Ministries as a reaction to Susan’s coming out in 1984 and has since conducted monthly support group meetings for parents with children who have “become homosexual.” For the past 15 years, Kathleen has also organized the San Diego Christian Trauma and Sexuality Conferences in collaboration with groups such as Exodus and Focus on the Family to advocate reparative therapy for homosexuality.
Susan, on the other hand, took up the gay civil rights movement, but only after marrying twice — once to a missionary. To complicate matters, Susan has a gay son, David Jester, who during the course of filming, realizes that his love for his grandmother is undermined by her deep-rooted and outspoken contempt for his “lifestyle”.
Brian Bennett: From 1977 to 1989, Bennett served as legislative aide, chief of staff, and campaign manager for former U.S. Congressman Bob Dornan (R-California), one of America’s most strident opponents of gay rights. Brian also lived with the Dornan family for six years and was considered one of the family. In fact, Bennett called Dornan by the family nickname, “Poppy”; it was common knowledge that aside from their professional relationship, they shared a father-and-son bond as well as a strict Catholic upbringing. That is, until Brian publicly came out as gay in 1997.
Brian’s relationship with Dornan, both touching and volatile, reveals a complicated story that questions the very notion of family and loyalty . It also explores the discrepancies between private thought and political doctrine as Brian contextualizes Dornan’s public tirades against homosexuality. Brian’s role as an active and openly gay Republican further challenges the tenet that all gay and lesbian people are monolithic in liberal political allegiances.