Premiering on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) on October 27th, Bridegroom is a simply told but intensely moving documentary directed by Linda Bloodworth Thomason that reveals the emotional journey of Shane Bitney Crone and Tom Bridegroom, two young men in a loving and committed relationship that was cut tragically short. The story of what happened – of how people without the legal protections of marriage can find themselves completely shut out and ostracized – is poignant, enraging and examines important issues of marriage equality and human rights.
In our exclusive interview, Shane talked about growing up in a small conservative town and moving to L.A., his six-year relationship with Tom, what transpired in the aftermath of Tom’s death, how his video tribute to his partner went viral and attracted the attention of George Takei, Neil Patrick Harris, and others including Thomason who convinced him to share his story in a larger way, the extraordinary amount of personal footage and photographs they compiled together to give the movie an intensely personal edge, how the cathartic process has transformed him into an activist using his voice to help others, and why he’s grateful to former President Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey for supporting the film and helping it reach a global audience. Hit the jump to read the interview.
SHANE BITNEY CRONE: It was definitely very hard in a small town like Kalispell, Montana. I struggled in many different areas. I wasn’t out, but people suspected that I was gay just because I wasn’t like all the other guys and I didn’t play sports. There was bowling that happened. Even just at church, there would be a youth group and they would talk about how gay people are going to hell and homosexuality is a sin, and then just messages in the media and films. It was really hard to be okay with being who I am. What got me through it was just the idea of hopefully someday I could get out of there and maybe fall in love. Who knows? I convinced my family that I wanted to be an actor to move to L.A. But it wasn’t really about wanting to be an actor. It was just more about getting away to a place where I could be me.
You and Tom were together for six years. How would you describe your relationship?
CRONE: He’s the only guy that I’d ever dated, and we experienced so much together, like coming out to our families together which is such a huge part of being gay. It’s those years of your life, because I met him when I was 18, so the early 20’s is when you really start figuring out who you are. We figured out who we were together. He was my biggest supporter. He was definitely more confident than me and he believed in himself. He was always trying to encourage me to believe in myself. I struggled a lot with shame more so than he did, even though my family was more supportive. I’m just so grateful that I found him.
Did you expect your video tribute to Tom to go viral and to attract the attention and support of people like George Takei, Neil Patrick Harris and Linda Bloodworth Thomason?
CRONE: When I made the video and I posted it, I was so nervous about posting it because I just didn’t know how people would react. I didn’t even tell my mom that I was posting it because I didn’t want anyone to stop me. I knew I had to do that for myself and to hopefully help other people. So, for it to go viral like it did was pretty unimaginable. I didn’t anticipate that happening. I thought that maybe it would be shared among the gay community in L.A. But to have George Takei and Neil Patrick Harris and all these different people from all over the world sharing it, and to have it affecting people in such a positive way, that was amazing. It really made me feel like I did the right thing by posting it.
CRONE: It was about two or three weeks after I posted the video that she called me. Ironically, Tom and I had met her about four years prior at a friend’s wedding in Palm Springs. We sat at her table and we talked about how Tom and I wanted to get married someday. So, after she saw the YouTube video, I went in and met with her, and she convinced me that this was a story that needed to be told and she wanted to be the one to tell it. At the time, I didn’t know that her mom was a victim of transfused AIDS, and that, for her, this wasn’t just a random film. It wasn’t just some director wanting to make a film. This was a woman who is very passionate about equality and human rights. I felt like she was the perfect person to tell the story and I was just so grateful that she wanted to.
Linda drew on a lot of material including interviews, photographs, excerpts from your video log, home movies, text messages, and a 911 call to create a surprisingly well-rounded view of your life together. How did the two of you collaborate on that?
CRONE: She’s brilliant on so many levels. She asked me to give her everything – all the videos and photos — and I gave her everything. I think she was overwhelmed and surprised that I had so much footage. I felt like it was important for her to have everything so she could tell the story in the way that she wanted to. I think that having so much footage of Tom and me really helps people feel like they know him, and I’m just so grateful that I have all that footage. I’ve heard from people that all they have from a loved one that they lost was the cassette from an answering machine. So, to think I have all of this, I am so lucky. And the cool thing with her, too, was she let me be in the edit bay every day and she wanted me to be there. And so, for me, that was incredible that it really was a collaborative effort. I gave her space, but overall I felt like we made it together.
CRONE: Even just things from when he passed away and being at the hospital and the nurses telling me that I can’t see him, and then, having his mom come in and take his body back to Indiana, and there’s nothing I can legally do to stop her, to trying to get a death certificate. There are so many things that I don’t have access to because the government and his parents just viewed us as roommates and I was powerless. Of course, with marriage, the symbol of marriage means a lot. One of the main reasons we wanted to get married was to commit our lives together, but there are so many protections that come along with marriage. Had we been married, I would have been able to be by his side. I would have been able to be at his funeral. And I would have been able to say goodbye. Even just things like them deleting his Facebook page. It broke my heart. In our society and our generation, Facebook is so important and everyone shared all these stories about him. And to think that I’m the one that has his password and they can still delete his pages is definitely hard.
How do you hope this film will raise awareness and inspire people as well as encourage those with negative or pessimistic views to rethink their attitude?
CRONE: I’ve heard from some straight men that have been at the festivals and said, “My friend brought me along. I didn’t know what I was getting into. But I have to say that I never really understood that gay people are able to love each other just as much as any man and woman.” For me, I hope that people just watch the film and see that we’re really all not that different and that we all just want to be happy and we all just want to experience love. I hope that it helps parents understand their children better and to love them unconditionally. And with teenagers struggling with their identity, I hope that it helps them embrace who they are. I don’t know how we’ll get this film in front of the people we want to see it. I think it’s going to be a lot of people saying, “Hey! Please watch this.” And hopefully, they can watch it with an open mind.
Bill Clinton introduced your film at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year and now Oprah Winfrey is premiering it on her TV channel, OWN. How does that make you feel to know that people like that are involved in supporting it and helping it reach a global audience?
CRONE: Even just making the film and finishing it was a success for us. That was a huge accomplishment. And then, to have the former President of the United States want to introduce it at Tribeca, it was incredible, and I was so grateful, and then, to have Oprah Winfrey now supporting it. Someone tweeted her recently and they said, “What made you want to air this documentary?” and she said that it’s her job to open hearts and minds and that Bridegroom is one more way to do that. Them alone, and then the thousands of supporters, it’s going to allow us to reach a lot of people in a way that’s kind of hard to comprehend. I’m just grateful.
Can you talk about how the film has transformed you into an activist and how you feel about that?
CRONE: That was the one thing. The idea of being an activist scared me to death. I thought you had to be some political expert and just so knowledgeable about the history of the equal rights movements, and for me, I’ve realized that anyone can be an activist really. We all have a voice, and just by speaking up and standing up for what you believe in and just sharing even your story, you help a lot of people.
What do you think Tom would think if he could see what has happened?
I think that Tom would be proud of me for standing up for myself, and I think that he would be proud of the film.
Is there anything that you would like to say to Tom’s parents?
CRONE: I just hope that they can see that their son is helping a lot of people. I hope that they’re healing. Hopefully, at some point, they can turn around and make the most of this and help a lot of people. I wish them the best. I don’t wish them any ill will. I also hope that people don’t attack them or go after them after they see this film. I hope that people see the bigger picture. So we’ll see.
Congratulations on last night’s premiere of your film at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre here in Los Angeles.
CRONE: Thank you. It was great. My mom was there and all my friends.