Living in Limbo: Lesbian Families in the Deep South The Exhibition

The film Alabama Bound grew out of a photography exhibition by co-director Carolyn Sherer who describes her initial inspiration for the series.

In Alabama many of our peers still struggled to keep jobs, child custody and acceptance from families of origin because of sexual or gender orientation. Who would allow me to photograph them, who would put the images on the wall for public viewing in the conservative state of Alabama?  What might the consequences be?  I emailed an invitation to participate to all of my friends, and my friends’ friends.  Even those who considered themselves out of the closet said they felt a little anxious about presenting their identity in such a public way. 

I took the initial five images to the leadership at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) and they said they had been thinking of addressing this theme for a long time, and that they believed this was the right project, and the right time to do it.  They also offered a huge gallery that I was not sure I could fill!  That critical partnership led quickly to an energized community of lesbians and supportive allies, all committed to the power of art as a tool for advocacy. The collection grew to include 40 families to represent a cross-section of a previously invisible and largely marginalized lesbian community with Alabama roots— many families turning their backs to the camera out of fear.

Exhibited at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in 2012, it opened just ahead of President Obama and the NAACP endorsements of gay marriage.  The fact that the BCRI—in the heart of Birmingham’s Civil Rights District—was the venue for Living in Limbo did make a tremendous statement about the magnitude of this groundbreaking exhibition. 17,000 visitors saw it during the 2 months it was hung on the walls, demonstrating community hunger for this conversation. 

The process of creating photographs of my community for Living in Limbo: Lesbian Families in the Deep South was an intimate, emotionally challenging experience. The boundary between observer and participant blurred, and I vacillated between fear of consequences and defiant pride. Most of my peers did refuse to take part because they were afraid and worried about public recognition. But after the exhibition, the work and related events served as a pivotal point in the shifting conversation about LGBTQ equality in Birmingham. Participating in the exhibition was an empowering act for me and for the participants. It was the coming out party for our community.

I was then invited by the Magic City Acceptance Project to create a sequel to celebrate the next generation of the LGBTQ community in the Deep South. Called Family Matters: LGBTQ Youth Perspectives, it also debuted at the BCRI. The BCRI decided to travel the exhibitions to other venues, and images from both series have been included in shows at the Dallas African American Museum, Miami Art Basel, the Stonewall National Museum, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and the Tacoma Art Museum. 

The portraits in my exhibitions were indeed a gateway to a story waiting to be told, and people wanted more…so, our team started brainstorming about what that would look like, the result being this documentary.

Co-Director Lara Embry

This project began when I met Carolyn Sherer, who had traveled to West Hollywood in 2013 with her exhibition of photographs of lesbian families in Birmingham. I had long carried a deep curiosity about how life would have been had I stayed in my home state of Alabama.  My departure, at age 18, had been hasty and, I imagined, final.  Now, in my 40s, I wanted to know what happened to the people who stayed: what were their lives like amidst such entrenched oppression where forces of discrimination claim the moral high ground?  

Carolyn shared stories of a community that was bound together, of a strong, resilient group of women, who continued to rally in the face of endless, unnecessary degradations that seemed to pass as ‘normal’.  Carolyn’s stories were of the home I longed for, of good values and genuine concern for one another. Yet, the stories were also of being subjected to inconceivable loss and insult, apparently supported by the rule of law.  The distinction between where I was living in California -- which has done such a good job of providing freedom from discrimination but within which a supportive community had become a unicorn -- and the reality of life in Alabama was profound.  We were residents of the same country, but we were of two diverging worlds.  

Our discussion quickly turned to the idea of a documentary.  We began filming, and the first interview we did was with Kinley, who was in a custody battle for her son in which the only ‘issue’ about her parenting was her sexual orientation.  Her story had me on my heels because I had experienced something similar in 2007, when I was living in Florida.  My first ex attempted to use the state’s anti-gay public policy to undo my adoption of our older child.  After almost three years, an appellate decision, and a custody evaluation, I was finally able to be in the same room with my child.  Leaving Kinley’s interview, I realized this film could be about more than living within Alabama; it would be about the conviction of the subjects to defend their families.  Kinley’s story brought so firmly into focus how personal the damage of a broken system can be, and how vulnerable our families, and our children, are to mistreatment in the guise of religious devotion.

As we proceeded to film and interview other families, we encountered several women who were fighting relentlessly, yet compassionately, for the rights they could see being assumed by families much like theirs in other parts of the country. These women would not let their families be left behind, nor would they abandon the communities they called home.  As we filmed, we found ourselves in the midst of a legislative battle and a federal marriage case.  We saw our elected officials come out against our families, and most profoundly, we saw our families stand up for themselves and their loved ones, and in doing so they changed Alabama.  

About a year into the filming, I moved home to Birmingham.  We are still, in this community, in a precarious state with regards to legal protections.  Before I came back, I would have thought Alabamian’s efforts were Sisyphean - living here, I can see how their efforts are contagious and emboldening and it fills me with hope.  I am overjoyed to share the remarkable women whose fight we captured, and I hope you enjoy getting to know them as much as I did.

Co-Director Carolyn Sherer

I am a still photographer who explores issues related to identity.  I work in series, creating images of individuals within a group, compiling a mosaic portrait of a frequently marginalized community to represent both diversity and shared humanity. But I was afraid of the consequences of turning the camera on my own lesbian community that lived comfortably in a don’t ask, don’t tell state— until a crisis pushed me to take action. 

One day, a friend was keeping vigil by her partner’s hospital deathbed when the family of her beloved locked her out of their home.  My friend had to be escorted into their home to retrieve a change of clothes to wear to the funeral, and pick up her computer to pay their bills.  She was never allowed to move back in.  But worse, at the funeral her close, heterosexual friends said they did not realize that the two had been a couple or that gay people could be treated that way. Even devoted allies didn’t know that we live in a state that lacks a single LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinance or law.

In response to that tragedy, I created a series of portraits of my community, Living in Limbo: Lesbian Families in the Deep South.  The exhibition debuted at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in 2012, becoming a defining moment in the conversation about LGBTQ non-discrimination in Birmingham. The exhibition put a face on a previously invisible community, and people now wanted to hear our stories— the documentary film was born.

I made this film because I wanted to be sure the story was told from an authentic insider viewpoint, not because I wanted to be a filmmaker. The process was a surprise. I am used to editing the environment prior to a photo session, and then focusing on the decisive moment when everything comes together to visually, in a single frame, tell the story.  With documentary film, the task was to follow the continually shifting social and political landscape with little control over the environment.  And the people move! 

It was interesting to follow the narrative and decide what footage we should capture. While I enjoyed the editing process, the most difficult part was editing the number of participants down to three families. We decided to focus on the legal ups and downs of lesbian families in Alabama.  Lara Embry was passionate about following families that, like hers, faced legal battles for parental rights.  And although our state adoption laws require parents to be married, Judge Roy Moore actively blocked recognition of the federal mandate to recognize same sex marriage. We worked together to create Alabama Bound in a conservative state where religion has been used to legislate morality, and some politicians stir up prejudice in others t to create divisiveness.

When I started this film, my goal was for America to understand that conservative states needed Federal protection to secure minority human rights. Now, I think these stories illustrate what could happen to Americans everywhere when the lines between church and state are unclear. We refer to this new concern as the potential Alabamafication of America, and it does keep me awake at night.