In August 1998, Dennis Shepard went fishing with his son Matthew for the last time during a family reunion in the Bighorn Mountains. A few months later, Matthew, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was brutally murdered. His death drew attention to the fight for LGBTQ rights and hate crimes legislation in the United States.
Now, more than 25 years later, Dennis is one of six fathers featured in a documentary short film that premiered on Netflix on November 17th.
Directed by Luchina Fisher (“Mama Gloria”), “The Dads” follows the older Shepard and five fathers of transgender children – Stephen Chukumba, Frank Gonzales, Jose Trujillo, Peter Betz and Wayne Maines, whose daughter made history as television’s first trans superhero on the CW series “Supergirl” – who met during a weekend fishing trip in rural Oklahoma. As they cast their lines into the river, the men find common ground in their unconditional love for their children, whose rights are at risk of being rolled back across the country and around the world.
“I think we always think that unconditional love looks like instant acceptance, and often it’s about going on that journey of figuring out how to love the child that’s in front of you – not the one you wanted, hoped for and the one you dreamed of, but the kid who tries to tell you, ‘That’s me,'” Fisher, who has a transgender daughter, told NBC News in a joint interview with Maines. “I always say that when one child in a family changes, the rest of the family changes, and it’s just as important that they have the opportunity to talk about their experiences and what they’re going through.”
In early 2020, while participating in the Human Rights Campaign Time for the THRIVE Summit, Fisher overheard Shepard, Gonzales and Maines discussing a possible hunting or fishing trip with other fathers of LGBTQ children. Given that mothers – and women in general – are often seen as the primary advocates of gay and trans youth, Fisher recognized a unique opportunity to shine a spotlight on supportive fathers who are on the front lines of the fight against anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and Legislation stands.
Republican state representatives introduced themselves last year More than 500 bills are aimed at the LGBTQ communityAccording to the American Civil Liberties Union, 84 of them have been enacted. Most of these bills target the transgender community, barring student-athletes from competitions and banning minors from accessing certain types of gender-inclusive health care.
For more from NBC Out, Sign up for our weekly newsletter.
That was helpful for Maines, whose daughter was a plaintiff in the Maine Supreme Court case Set a precedent for transgender people to be able to use the restroom that matches their gender identity“The Dads” offers a new opportunity to win the hearts and minds of viewers who may be unaware of the values they share.
“There are a lot of good people out there that we need to reach out to,” Maines recalled telling his daughter in a recent conversation. “They just don’t know us. They have never broken bread with us. They have never gone fishing with us. They don’t know that I love hunting and shooting just as much as they do. We are not radical, left-wing, crazy people who abuse our children. We are good Americans. I am a veteran. I want them to know that we love our children.”
This love is particularly evident in the fathers’ poignant conversations in “The Dads,” whose short 11-minute running time belies the emotional power of the various personal stories they tell. Maines, for example, is not the only father to express remorse over his child’s delayed acceptance of his child’s gender identity, and the men discuss how their children’s coming out has forced them to confront their views on masculinity and manner how they were raised, socialized as young men.
During that memorable weekend in Oklahoma, “we talked a lot about vulnerability and how if you don’t make it here, you’ll never get where you need to go,” added Maines, who testified before Congress on the Texas state legislature deals with transgender rights and teaches a “Transgender 101” course at the Austin Texas Police Academy. “I want to do it again with more dads and just say, ‘Hey, what are you afraid of?’ Let us talk about it.’ And I want to talk to senators and representatives: “Tell me what you’re afraid of and we can work it out, but you have to be willing to be honest.” There are no more secrets in my soul. Whatever you want to know, I’ll tell you.’”
In June, Netflix acquired distribution rights to “The Dads,” with former NBA star Dwyane Wade serving as executive producer.
“‘The Dads’ shows us the power of fathers who love and support their LGBTQ children, breaking barriers of prejudice, embracing diversity and coming together to have these important conversations,” Wade wrote in one Statement announcing the acquisition.
Since his daughter Zaya came out as transgender in 2020, Wade and his wife Gabrielle Union have become outspoken allies and advocates for LGBTQ youth. Although she hasn’t met Wade in person, Fisher revealed that, according to Wade’s producing partner Jon Marcus, both Wade and Union expressed their love for the documentary because “it captured a conversation he was trying to have.”
“I think so many people have approached him to tell his daughter’s story, but that’s his daughter’s story, just like the kids in ‘The Dads’ have their own story to tell,” Fisher said. “This is the story of the journey of fathers and that was something Dwyane could relate to in many ways. He said he felt like the words were literally being taken out of his mouth.”
Wade’s involvement as producer “means the film continues to reach diverse audiences, and that was always our intention from the start,” she added. “We didn’t want to have this conversation among ourselves, among people who already understand or support us.”
Since that film’s premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March, Fisher noted that many viewers have approached the film’s producers and subjects in tears. “A lot of them are young people who say, ‘I can’t wait to show this to my dad.’ I think for many people it’s the start of a conversation. It’s short enough that you can devote 11 minutes of your time to watching it and opening your heart. I always feel like through storytelling I’m trying to make the world safer for my child and other transgender youth,” she said.
Although she originally planned to create a short documentary that would make the message “as accessible as possible,” Fisher didn’t rule out the possibility of adapting “The Dads” into a documentary or full-length feature film that would allow her to delve deeper to delve deeper into each of the fathers and further diversify the men portrayed. Ultimately, it is about “creating empathy” for people who are often dehumanized and reduced to their gender identity or sexual orientation.
“My hope is that people see themselves reflected in the community and feel a little joy. And if their parents aren’t on board yet, they have six adoptive fathers here who can’t wait to give them a virtual hug,” she said. “And for the people who don’t actually know anyone who is transsexual – and transsexual people reconcile 1% of our countryit’s really a small group – I hope they understand the story of what support looks like, what love looks like and how important that is no matter who your child is or who they grow up to be.”