How a James Franco Movie Got an 'Ex-Gay' Pastor's 'Conversion' Wrong
"I didn't want that movie to become a movie," says the doc maker setting the real 'I Am Michael' story straight.
Still from 'I Am Michael'
As far as unbelievable life stories go, Michael Glatze's is up there with that guy who lived with grizzly bears and a freely-tweeting Chelsea Manning. After devoting most of his life to gay activism, Glatze publicly denounced homosexuality on a right-wing website in 2007, left his partner of nearly a decade, and became an "ex-gay" pastor in Wyoming.
Glatze wrote he was "repulsed" by homosexuality and its "pornographic" nature. "I don't see people as gay anymore," he told a New York Times reporter in 2011. "God creates us heterosexual. We may get other ideas in our head about what we are, and I certainly did, but that doesn't mean they're the truth."
When a Hollywood version of Glatze's life starring James Franco came out earlier this year, critics weren't kind. A New York Times reviewer called I Am Michael "dramatically limp" with a "thoroughly unlikable" central character "spouting hateful religious rhetoric one minute and ogling young men the next."
Halifax filmmaker Benjie Nycum didn't like it either, and not just because the film dramatized his painful and very public breakup with the man he loved for almost ten years. "Through the process of reviewing the [ I Am Michael] scripts, I found them to be so absolutely far from the story itself, and really lacking in nuance," he told VICE.
With director Daniel Wilner and producers Gillian Nycum and Patrick Dion, Benjie went out to meet Michael and his wife in Wyoming to set the record straight on what motivated Glatze's 180, and how he really feels about it today. The resulting short documentary Michael Lost and Found just hit Netflix after its premiere at Toronto's Inside Out film festival last week.
Reached by phone minutes after learning the Netflix news, Nycum told VICE about what the James Franco version of his life got wrong, and the questions he's still grappling with after his Wyoming visit.
VICE: How did this documentary get started? Was it a counterpoint to I Am Michael from the beginning?
Benjie Nycum: The screenwriter and ultimately the director for I Am Michael really wanted to interview me. I resisted that for a long time—I just didn't want that movie to become a movie, really. Mostly because of my fear that Michael was in a state of distress more than anything else, and then a movie was going to cause problems. Through the process of reviewing the scripts I found them to be so absolutely far from the story itself, really lacking in nuance. So I ultimately reached out to Michael and asked if he was happy with this version of history being told. I Am Michael is set up as a story about a person who is making a decision—it's set up as a gay vs. straight thing. It's all about sorting out how you belong in the world, and from my point of view that is not how the story happened at all.
What was going on?
How it happened in my world, was a complex breakdown in Michael that was really related to grief he had over loss of parents and also physical illness. He thought he had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is when your heart basically explodes instantly—it happens a lot to basketball players. His father died of that when Michael was 12, so he was convinced he had that… Through that a pattern of deep anxiety emerged, where he thought he would die at any moment. By the time his health was under control, I think the mental damage had been done. I think the sum total of all those parts falling in on themselves—becoming desperate, wondering about death—maybe led to this sense of wanting to blame something outside, that being his sexuality maybe, and making those statements publicly because he could. That gave him a sense of something to hold on to.
What was going through your head watching James Franco play Michael?
They wouldn't let me have a screener, so I saw it on iTunes when it came out in January. If you look at the ex-gay movement and the power it has over people, with conversion therapy and those kinds of things, it's frightening to have a movie out there that tells people this kind of story about a conversion. In my view it wasn't about going from gay to straight, it was about the evolutionary process of mental breakdown. Frankly, I don't care who a person sleeps with, if you're gay one day and decide to sleep with girls the next, that's great for me, don't mind that at all. The problem was that Michael did it so publicly, and he made very negative statements about being gay.
I really wanted people to understand there's nuance, that Michael is a complex person, that potentially he felt remorse for what happened, which is what you saw play out in Michael Lost and Found. I hoped he might have been able to describe his experience as an episode that had symptoms much like a person with mental illness. I'm not a doctor, so I had to ask my question carefully. I asked, "Do you think you were exhibiting symptoms of someone suffering from mental illness?" and of course he said, "Yes, but it was more than that." I wanted that to be part of a story. Not just this inner search for belonging in the world, that had to do with the Bible, because frankly I feel those are just props in the story.
What were some of the negative things he was saying publicly?
He said that his gay relationships had made him sick and would make him go to hell, those kinds of things. In I Am Michael he makes those statements. As he explained in Michael Lost and Found, that garnered following and interest—he got 600 emails. In a way it gave him a sense of purpose, which can be a very important thing for someone on a downward spiral. Unfortunately it was on a very negative platform.
Was it strange to be in the same room as Michael and his wife when their version of what happened is so different from yours?
Well for starters I adore his wife, I think she's an amazing woman, she's someone I would love to hang out with, I could see myself being attracted to her. So from that perspective I was so relieved that Michael had this person in his life. Secondly seeing him yes, it was full of emotion to go see him, and we were also trying to actually record a doc and keep our team focused.
Seeing him again, and connecting those things together, it was strange, it was awkward, but it was also a great release in many ways. My biggest concern was for his health, that he become a healthy person who is at peace, and at the same time see a way to reverse some of the public damage he's done. So as far as who he's in a relationship with, that doesn't matter to me at all. I just want his happiness.
So then do you think it was a best case scenario? Was he at peace?
On the one side you might see Michael Lost and Found and think maybe Michael had answers ready. On the other side you might think this is the moment for him to start the journey back—not to being gay—but a journey back to where he could exist in a healthy way in society without making problematic posts on a blog, or giving an interview to some Christian right fundamentalist organization that really wanted to tell his story of conversion. Instead, he may be able to say there's more nuance than that, it's way more complex, that no "conversion" really happened. I think everyone has capacity to love anybody, and I feel like he knows that too. All things he said publicly, that were perhaps suggesting that a total conversion sexually was possible, I don't think he believes that. I just think that was part of a complex problem with his mental health at that time. I was hoping so see some of that progress, and I think we achieved that.
Can we talk about your activism while you were together? What was your mission?
Our primary mission, and it evolved, began after I wrote a book called the XY Survival Guide, for gay teens. It was written in 2000, kinda pre-internet, and was published through XY magazine where Michael worked. That set the ball rolling for establishing this notion that queer youth were going to be OK in society. It was before the "It Gets Better" movement got underway. Our goal was to really make a claim that queer youth were normal people and deserved all the benefits of anybody else at their age, and were going to grow to be productive members of society. We started our own website Young Gay America, went on the road, and interviewed kids to show you don't have to move to New York or San Francisco, or some big city to be out and gay. You can do it in your hometown.
Are you still left with questions? What are you still processing?
I think this story goes on, it's very alive. The first thing I wanted to do was have some kind of record, that I Am Michael was not the end of the story. I have people emailing me thinking everything that happened in that movie went down. There's a three-person sex scene, and I have nothing against saying I was in a three-person relationship, but we didn't just pick up at the bar one night. It was a six month courtship where we were all friends for a really long time. He didn't want to break us up, and so we were just three guys living together.
Partly because the movie wasn't very successful, I'm OK. I was really concerned it would be a big hit. But it took them a long time to sell it, they didn't make a big theatrical release, and all I was trying to do was make sure there's something we could upload to Youtube for people to look at if they're curious. I don't think a lot of people care about this story, but the ones that do care, really care. Understandably, especially people who have suffered from conversion or the ex-gay movement. For kids subjected to conversion there's real harm done, it's murderous. For those people it is very important that the right story be told. So I admire the artistry and the attempt to tell a story [in I Am Michael], it's just that everybody has a different version of truth. I lived it, I went through it and saw it happen every day. I know how and why it happened, but even the screenwriter would say, that's just my version of truth. So what can you do? All I could do is say shit, I gotta make a movie.
Interview has been edited for style and clarity.
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