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MISSION: Coming Out
Saturday, January 12, 2002

Brett Mathews' portrayal of himself in "Family Fundamentals," a Sundance Film Festival documentary, explores Matthews' and others' homosexualty amid a conservative family upbringing. (Sundance Film Festival photo)

    Brett Mathews' life was full in June 1996.
    He was a week from graduating from Utah State University. He was in the Air Force ROTC, about to go on active duty. He was the Elder's Quorum president in his campus ward, which served about 280 young adult members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- and he felt responsible for "the spiritual welfare of all of them."
    And, Mathews "quit fighting the feelings I was having" and admitted to himself that he was homosexual.
    After fighting the Air Force in court for an honorable discharge, after coming out to his mother, after enduring a barrage of letters from his father -- an LDS bishop in Mathews' hometown of Erda in Tooele County -- and after letting his life story be told on film, Brett Mathews today will arrive at the Sundance Film Festival as a walking symbol of the divide between conservative Christian parents and their gay children.
    Mathews, 30, expects the consequences of appearing in the documentary "Family Fundamentals" -- and of being interviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune -- will be harsh.
    "I will probably be excommunicated, I'm sure," Mathews said this week from his Los Angeles home. "My extended family -- I'm related to half of Tooele County -- and all of my childhood friends growing up, they're all going to find out [that I'm gay]. . . . The consequences are going to be severe for me, and it scares the hell out of me."
    Mathews' story is one of three told in "Family Fundamentals," a documentary competing at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. It has its first screening tonight at 9 at the Yarrow I theater in Park City. It screens Sunday at noon at Sugarhouse Movies 10 in Salt Lake City, and four more times in Park City next week.
    In the film, director-producer Arthur Dong interviews Kathleen Bremner, an organizer of a Christian outreach program for parents of children who have "become homosexual" -- and whose daughter and grandson are gay. Dong also interviews Brian Bennett, a gay Republican activist who worked closely with conservative California congressman Bob Dornan.
    But it is Mathews' story that "is very symbolic of what happens quite often with families like this. It really points out the conflict that families have," Dong said from his L.A. office. "[There is a] disconnect that they can't come to terms. My feeling is that his parents and Brett and his siblings, they all have a deep love for one another. However, there is this one issue that separates them."
    Growing up in the LDS Church, Mathews (who is now inactive in the church) was taught that homosexuality "was wrong, that it was an evil second to murder -- and that it was encompassed with any kind of sexual sin whatsoever: masturbation, adultery, fornication, heavy petting."
    Moreover, he says the LDS Church denies gays their identity, because it is "careful not to recognize, and therefore validate, that there is such a thing as being gay. . . . They didn't refer to it as being homosexual, but committing homosexual acts."
    The language used by Mormon leaders to describe homosexuals seems to bear out that denial of gay identity. In a General Conference speech in October 1998, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley referred to "those who consider themselves so-called gays and lesbians" as people who "may have certain inclinations which are powerful and which may be difficult to control."
    "If they do not act upon these inclinations, then they can go forward as do all other members of the church," Hinckley said. "If they violate the law of chastity and the moral standards of the church, then they are subject to the discipline of the church, just as others are. We want to help these people, to strengthen them, to assist them with their problems and to help them with their difficulties. But we cannot stand idle if they indulge in immoral activity, if they try to uphold and defend and live in a so-called same-sex marriage situation."
    Mathews came out to his parents in April 1999, and soon the letters started coming. "They all said I was being influenced by the devil, and he had control over me," Mathews said. "I had to be saved and cured, or I was going to go to hell."
    Last February, Mathews came home to Erda for his grandmother's wedding, and Dong tagged along with his camera. Mathews explained, in vague terms, what Dong's documentary was about -- and the family gave tentative permission to be filmed.
    "I was hoping they were coming around a little bit," Mathews said.
    But when Dong arrived in Utah and brought out the release forms for the family to sign, the family asked whether his movie would denounce homosexuality. "Arthur said he wasn't going to be pro-gay or anti-gay, he just wanted to find some common ground," Mathews said. "They said 'no way.' They said their belief and the church had counseled them, and their actions were not going to have anything to do with anything that was not anti-gay. They told Arthur that if I went through the church's deprogramming course, and started to live a straight life -- if I were 'cured,' if I became an 'ex-gay' -- then they would participate in the film. . . ."
    "That was the last straw for me," Mathews said. "I thought, 'Oh, boy, they're worse than ever.' " Mathews has not spoken to his father since, and has talked to his mother only once, around Christmas. Mathews' family is never shown directly in the film, and scenes of his grandmother's ward-house wedding are blurred to avoid identification. A member of Mathews' family said they did not want to comment for this article.
    Dong's past Sundance documentaries explored issues involving gays and tolerance -- in the military in "Coming Out Under Fire," and with prison inmates convicted of gay-related hate crimes in "Licensed to Kill" -- and he hopes "Family Fundamentals" can spark dialogue between homosexuals and conservative Christians.
    "My films are not usually happy endings. They're more 'Where do we go from here?' endings," Dong said. "I want common ground. I'm not sure if it's possible. . . . Maybe there is no common ground, maybe this is just the way this has to be."
    Mathews said he is ready for whatever happens as a result of his appearance in "Family Fundamentals," because he "hopes that somebody might see it somewhere and it will prevent the same thing happening to them. They won't have to go through the same school of hard knocks." [an error occurred while processing this directive]