Cindy Abel took a break from jet-setting across the country to tell The Seattle Lesbian about her newest film, a documentary revealing the strength and struggles of out leaders and politicians. Breaking Through captures breathtakingly personal revelations from some of the nation’s top policymakers. Through tales of crushing obstacles and resounding successes, these leaders give hope to a generation of young people growing up in an era of unprecedented exposure and rapid political change. The film will screen Wednesday October 16 at 5 p.m. at Harvard Exit Theater as part of the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
Tell me about your latest project, Breaking Through.
In Breaking Through, openly LGBT elected officials at all levels—including the first gay U.S. Senator, Tammy Baldwin—share their stories of struggle and triumph over barriers ranging from race and poverty to gender and sexual orientation. It reveals a more personal, rarely-seen side of gay politicians. This is not a film about politics, it’s about people who feel fear and shame, yearning to live meaningful lives. They reveal how they broke through internal and external barriers to achieve the future they envisioned and by showing that anything is possible. They impact people from all walks of life.
What inspired the film?
Breaking Through was conceived in response to the high number of teens who were taunted because of being gay or perceived to be and committing suicide. I struggled with coming out 10 years after college—begging God to change me by any means necessary if there was something wrong with me—and the few gay friends I had told me I’d better stay in the closet if I wanted a good career. I chose to ignore their advice, and though it was challenging. I met Barney Frank shortly after that and his example proved that my vision for an open and successful life was possible. I served on the Victory Fund board for eight years, two of those as co-chair of the national board, and had been so inspired by the openly LGBT elected officials I met. I wanted to highlight these leaders living authentic and fulfilled lives. It is our hope that Breaking Through will encourage those from all walks of life who are struggling to break through barriers, be proud of who they are, and live authentically.
What impact do you hope the film makes?
I hope people enjoy it. It is, after all, entertainment. Of course it goes beyond that, for those who want more than terrific production values and a good story. We would like people from all walks of life to come away from Breaking Through realizing that despite what appears to be in their way, they can have the life of their dreams. To dare to imagine the life they would like, and then to take at least one step in that direction. To know that others have faced similar or the same challenges and found a way to break through and they now live authentically and joyfully.
Breaking Through shows anyone struggling with any sense of difference or disenfranchisement what is actually possible, regardless of the messages they hear on a regular basis. San Diego interim Mayor Todd Gloria says, “If the son of a maid and a gardener can become an elected official in the seventh largest city in the country, the American dream is alive and well.” After a screening at DePauw University a few days ago, a young Hispanic woman stood up, in tears and shared that she was struggling with her identity as a Hispanic woman who grew up in poverty, and that seeing the successes of a Hispanic Man and a woman who grew up in poverty let her know that she didn’t need to feel ashamed. This type of response occurs every place we’ve screened, whether festivals, Pride events, corporations or colleges.
You interviewed some truly inspirational figures. What made the biggest impression on you?
I am so honored that these leaders shared their stories with us. Some told how they struggled as young people and the ways they dealt with their pain. Others revealed how they sometimes feel shame from a long time ago creeping up. Kathy Webb, the first openly LGBT elected official in Arkansas became the first woman Chair of Joint Budget committee, one of the most powerful roles in legislature. She shared that on the first day of session, she felt like she was walking on the moon, going where no one had ever gone before—but when she sat down in a meeting and seats around her were open, she wondered if people weren’t sitting next to her because she was a lesbian, even after years of being confidently out. She had colleagues tell her she was going to hell, including Georgia State Representative Karla Drenner. During her first terms, would often be asked by her colleagues to take a different elevator. Yet many of those same folks have now apologized for their words and behavior.
Houston Municipal Court Judge Phyllis Frye, who is the first transgendered judge in the US, shared that despite the pain and sorrow that she’s experienced, she wouldn’t change a thing, and has led a wonderful and productive life. That is a state of mind to which I aspire. She has been to hell and back several times and yet she embraces all of it, recognizing that, if it weren’t for all the things she went through, she wouldn’t be where she is today, a judge with a wife of 40 years, who’s been instrumental in changing attitudes, perceptions and laws.
Personally, one of the most impactful lessons learned is the power of vulnerability. When one is open about something that causes them shame or they wish to hide, it creates a space for others to be open as well. We interviewed leaders who’d been carefully trained to stick to talking points and not reveal anything too personal; it wasn’t possible to sit in their presence, as they shared experiences they’d rarely or never told publicly told, and not be transformed by their openness. It broke my heart wide open and encouraged me to become more authentic in all areas of my life. Despite one elected official’s communications director almost falling off her chair during one revelation, they did it in order to show they didn’t hatch here fully formed, [and] they, too, had barriers to break through.