Thursday, December 8

Ohio filmmakers launch documentary on a groundbreaking LGBTQ+ historian whose name is fading into history

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So what if we told you that the oldest record of a Christian marriage between two people in a church, solemnized by a priest, was a marriage of two men?

Well, it’s true!

Such was the research unearthed by John Boswell, a groundbreaking historian whose life was tragically cut short in 1994 by AIDS. 

Boswell is the subject of a new documentary “Not A Tame Lion,” which tells the story of his impact on the LGBTQ+ community in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. The film has already been awarded Grand Prize Alternative Spirit Award at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, a testament to the colossal relevance of Boswell’s work on today’s LGBTQ+ movement. 

“As the topic of marriage equality is coming up again, we should really look back at our toolkit of what helped us push forward with marriage equality and acknowledge the fact that Boswell’s work changed the minds of just about every one of the mainline Christian denominations,” explains director Craig Bettendorf, a new transplant to Ohio alongside Kai Morgan, his filmmaking partner and partner in life. 

Craig Bettendorf

The Buckeye Flame spoke with Bettendorf to learn more about the relevance of John Boswell and what more we can expect from Ohio’s resident new filmmakers. 

How did you first hear about John Boswell’s story?
I first became active in the LGBTQ community in community activism in the mid-1980’s while living in Houston. It was a very vibrant LGBTQ community but it was very repressive due to the era of the moral majority.

I came from a midwestern upbringing, a good evangelical Christian family. I was having a difficult time squaring my own homosexuality and sexual identity with the church and the way the fundamentalist folks across the country were coming down hard on LGBTQ people. I initially found John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality book in a Different Light bookstore in Washington, D.C. when I participated in the 1993 march on Washington.  I just happened to be at the right place at the right time and the book was staring me in the eye and I grabbed it, took it home and began devouring it.

“Not a Tame Lion”

I used it through my advocacy work in assisting other people from like backgrounds to at least be able to have a defense of their life. That sounds ridiculous in 2022, but in the 1980’s, your very existence as a queer person was called into account. 

Boswell died in 1994 right as we were gearing up with personal home computers. Certainly his works were published and available, but the promotion behind them wasn’t there. There are very few photos of him, there’s almost no videotape of his lectures, only because the world hadn’t made the leap by the time of his death.

What did you find was most important to you about telling John Boswell’s story?
When Roe vs. Wade was upended, Clarence Thomas posed the question of whether we should look back at marriage equality. It had always been a point in the back of my mind that our acceptance has always been historically cyclical. At any moment a shoe could drop and the broad acceptance that we’ve achieved in the last 10 years might be rolled back. That’s why John Boswell is important. With his historic research, he has been one small light in a field of darkness for the LGBTQ community. And he did all of this before the digital age. 

Now as the topic of marriage equality is coming up again, we should really look back at the fact that Boswell’s work changed the minds of just about every one of the mainline Christian denominations. If he hadn’t written his books, the conversation wouldn’t have started because there would have been an absence of academic scholarship behind what people like me were trying to present to the world. 

Boswell’s research proved that the oldest record of a Christian marriage between two people in a church, solemnized by a priest, was a marriage of two men. Again: the first Christian marriage, not the first gay marriage. It truly was a case of the rest of the world catching up to that tradition and saying, “We’d really like to have some of that for ourselves.” Then the broader society adopted it and withheld it from the very people who originally established it. That’s a real irony about which most people have no idea.

How has the transition been moving to Ohio from Southern California? What has this looked like for your production company?
My partner [Kai Morgan] is my partner in life and partner in filmmaking. We both had to have full time jobs in southern California and did filmmaking on the side. That led to a very highly productive and exhausting life. After decades of that ,we had the opportunity of selling our place in southern California and looking out at the rest of the world and seeing where we could transplant and effectively be able to do our filmmaking full-time.

Craig Bettendorf (left) & Kai Morgan

I worked for American Greetings in Cleveland company in the early 90’s, and then worked in their field operations in Los Angeles. I came in and always had a positive opinion of Cleveland. I pitched Cleveland to my partner and we ended up buying our home, and it all worked out. We have plenty of space for our production, and have an entire floor of our home dedicated to nothing but that. So far it’s been a very positive move and we can’t wait to meet more creatives. I’ve met a few other filmmakers but it’s a gradual process and I hope to supercharge that.

We do have a television series called “Treading Yesterday” that has launched on Dekkoo and Tubi with its first season. We are about ¾ of the way through season 2 and I want to finish season 2 in Cleveland. This means we are going to need actors and crew so I’m hoping to do that before the end of the year. 

With moving to Ohio, what do you hope to be your focus as you continue in production? 
Each of my projects seems to influence the next one. We made “Treading Yesterday” in 2016 and it won lots of accolades. It was programmed in the UK, but we were never able to bring it back to the United States. In the interim when we were looking for a home, which was a 5 year period, that led us to doing our first documentary which was the first documentary done on the history of homophobia in the United States. 

I spent about 2 minutes in that 76-minute documentary on John Boswell. That 2-minute segment was brought up to us at film festivals more than any other part of the film.

Our next project was a television series pilot for a series that we called “Sorry We Missed You.” The concept behind this series is there were great people that have done wonderful things but for whatever reason aren’t part of our collective consciousness. Our pilot episode that we used to pitch the series was on John Boswell because of that 2-minute clip in our previous documentary. That then led to “Not A Tame Lion.”

We’ll be back and finishing season two for “Treading Yesterday” and I have a sneaking suspicion that I’ll be going back to the “Sorry We Missed You” series and creating more than just the pilot. So, more to come. 🔥

Ignite Action:

  • “Not a Tame Lion” will have it’s New York Premiere at the 13th SoHo International Film Festival (10/6-13) and it’s southeastern US premiere at the 37th Ford Lauderdale International Film Festival. More info here
  • To learn more about the work of Craig Bettendorf and Kai Morgan, visit their website or Facebook page

About Author

Rebecca Vontroba is a future Speech-Language Pathologist who has always taken an interest in learning more about people and their stories from all around the world. She double-majored in Communication Sciences and Psychology and earned a minor in Business Management at Case Western Reserve University. She is currently pursuing her Master's in Speech-Language Pathology at Baldwin Wallace University.

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