Ronny Green knows all about taking risks early on in a relationship. On the way home from his first date with Brian Terczynski at the 1998 LGBT Pride Parade, Green confessed that he was an HIV-positive patient who'd lost his kidneys.
Without kidneys, Green explained, a tube hung out of his stomach, and he needed dialysis three times a week to stay alive. Even worse, since doctors considered the immuno-suppressive drugs required for organ transplants to be too risky for HIV-positive patients, he could no longer work, couldn't easily travel and would be attached to a machine for the remainder of his life.
So, did Terczynski do what so many men before him had done? Did he run in the opposite direction and never look back?
Nope. Terczynski stayed with Green, and within a few years, advancements in immuno-suppressive therapy and HIV treatments had reduced doctors' trepidations about performing transplants on HIV-positive patients. In 2004, Terczynski was able to give Green one of his own kidneys, which has functioned perfectly inside of Green ever since. The couple was legally married (in Canada) last September-apparently a perfect match, both in their hearts and in their blood.
Green and Terczynski have always wanted to make their story public. The opportunity came a few months ago in the form of the San Diego LGBT Center's Digital Media Project.
Teaching people how to produce their own short films using voice, sound and still images, the Digital Media Project provides free access to computers equipped with simple editing programs and creative writing and discussion workshops to help people “find their stories.”
One of eight couples whose films will be screened on April 17 at the Center's Red Carpet Premiere of Marriage Equality Stories, Green and Tercyznksi say they're hoping that their story will help support the cause for gay-marriage rights and “make people aware of other possibilities.”
While the Digital Media Project has just gotten off the ground within the past year, a variety of different advocacy groups nationwide have already established the value of digital storytelling as a means of providing a voice for people-especially youth-who are marginalized one way or another.
“A lot of times, what groups that advocate do is that they're out there with picket signs; they're out there writing letters; they're out there working with senators-and a lot of people aren't comfortable with that type of advocacy,” said Lindsay Sullivan, the Center's manager of information technology. “So [this project] allows people to just tell their stories, and that's what's missing.”
Michele Tuatagaloa, who leads creative-writing and discussion groups for the Digital Media Project, agrees. “The battle isn't in the courtroom. The battle isn't shaking signs,” Tuatagaloa told one family at a recent workshop. “The battle is to speak the human story that everyone can relate to, that will soften and melt away the rigidness.”
While many of the couples chose to simply let their “human stories” of love and commitment speak for themselves, others have chosen to take a more overtly political stance in their films.
Jenelle and Amy Ferhart-who merged their last names, Ferriot and Hertz, after they married in Vancouver in 2005-both teach at the same public elementary school. Their film opens with the sound of a school bell and children's voices reciting the pledge of allegiance. Over images of children-and President Bush-saluting the flag, their voiceover recounts the discrimination they face on a daily basis from peers, parents and even some of their young students.
Laura Mathis, a counselor at Mesa College who's been with her partner for 14 years, doesn't attempt to conceal her anger. In her film, Mathis reads segments of a letter that her father-a lifelong Republican-wrote to President Bush, making the case for gay marriage and demanding equal rights for his daughter.
“Before I got married [in 2004], I had the ideal life of a second-class citizen and said to myself it was OK to be second class,” Mathis said. “Getting married showed me I could never go back.... My story is about my disbelief and inability to accept that I live in a country where it is still legally accepted to discriminate.”
But though some of the stories do contain strong feelings of resentment and frustration, each one is ultimately about positive visibility. The Ferharts' film, for example, concludes with a voiceover of Jenelle's father singing the song he wrote for their wedding day. Photos of Jenelle and Amy beaming, both looking radiant in traditional white gowns, scroll across the screen as he strums his guitar and sings, “And I want you to be so happy....”
While premiering the films publicly is certainly part of an effort to gain acceptance and support for gay-marriage rights, Tuatagaloa believes that at its heart, the program is about more than just advocacy.
“I had such a profound experience making [my own] story that I discovered the therapeutic value of storytelling,” Tuatagaloa said. “There's something very empowering about the journey they get to go on.... It takes them to places they've never been.”
Sullivan has also made her own story and agrees there is inherent value in the production process itself. “Creating these stories creates such a unique dialogue,” Sullivan said. “It's not how we talk every day.”
Unique and complex as each story can be, it seems likely that the simplest statements will have the greatest impact on viewers.
“I had to do this,” Terczynski says in his voiceover. “This is my partner-my husband. And I would give my life for him.”
The Red Carpet Premiere of Marriage Equality Stories will also feature the documentary short One Wedding and a Revolution by Academy Award winner Debra Chasnoff. The premiere begins at 7 p.m. Monday, April 17, at the Center, 3909 Center St. in Hillcrest. 619-692-2077.