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Love story, 'Bridegroom,' sends a message to a nation

Documentary 'Bridegroom' airing Sunday on OWN

Steve Johnson

Tribune reporter

10:11 AM EDT, October 25, 2013

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The new documentary "Bridegroom," which gets its TV debut Sunday on the Oprah Winfrey Network (9 p.m.), tells a tragic, hopeful story: Of Tom Bridegroom, who fell to his death from a Los Angeles roof while taking pictures of a friend, and of his partner and love of his life, Shane Bitney Crone.

It's about the classic themes of love and loss, but with the added twist of the lovers being gay and unable to marry at the time. It makes a powerful point for marriage and equal rights and also for parents accepting their children. After Bridegroom's death, the film details, his Indiana parents, who had trouble accepting their son's homosexuality, denied Crone access to the funeral and cut off access to Bridegroom's records and papers, though the two had shared a home and a business.

Veteran TV producer Linda Bloodworth Thomason ("Designing Women") was moved to make the film after she saw a 10-minute YouTube tribute to Bridegroom, "It Could Happen to You," which Crone posted in May 2012, a year after the accident.

We talked to Crone, 27, during a recent visit to Chicago. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q. What's the lesson of the film? What do you want people to come out of the theater, or off of their couch, /away/ with?

A. I just hope this film helps parents understand their children better, and I hope it helps people struggling with their identity to not be ashamed of who they are and to be proud and show that love is love and loss is loss, and at the end of the day we all just want to be happy and that everyone deserves that.

I guess the main goal was to open hearts and minds of people who maybe don't know anyone who's gay, personally. So you kind of put a face to a lot of these human rights issues. That's one thing the director felt passionate about: She wanted people to come face to face with who and what they're opposing. I feel like a lot of times it's harder for people to hate something that has a face to it.

Q. You see that in the film, the journey of your family in particular.

A. My family's really not that different from Tom's family in a lot of ways. I honestly think that my dad and Tom's dad could be friends. But my family has been completely supportive of me and our relationship, which I didn't always know that they would. It's a powerful message to show the difference it makes in kids' lives when parents love them unconditionally.

Q. I think it was your dad in the film who said something like, "I realize I'm not making any more kids. I'd better stay in good with the ones I have."

A. My dad struggled with it a little bit. I'm like the only son, and, of course, they would prefer that I wasn't gay. But at some point they have to either accept it, like he's saying, or not. I'm grateful that he accepted me.

Q. While we're talking about family, the film paints a pretty rough portrait of Tom's family, especially the actions after his death. What do you want people to take away about them?

A. I don't want people just focusing on Tom's parents and just being angry with them. I want people to be inspired and to maybe help parents like Tom's understand their kids better. I felt very strongly, so did Linda, that we didn't want to paint this picture of them as evil people. We just wanted to tell the truth. What happened, happened. At some point I hope that they allow themselves to watch the film.

Q. The truth is pretty hard on them, and some of the reaction publicly to them has been harsh.

A. I wish them the best, and I don't know what it's like to lose a child, and I know that it probably hurt them. But I like to think they would be proud of the fact that their son is helping so many people, and his memory is living on.

Q. So Linda Bloodworth Thomason approached you about doing the film after seeing that video?

A. Right. And, ironically, Tom and I had met Linda and her husband at a friend's wedding. Fast-forward four years. She saw the video. She called me into her office. She said, "Shane, this is a story that needs to be told. It's a story that has unfortunately happened many, many times to thousands of people."

Q. You were all in right away?

A. I literally handed her all the footage we had. You know, our generation, we film everything. It's a little awkward. I never thought people would see a lot of the footage I shot. I mean, in high school my mom got me the video camera. The video diaries became like an outlet for me. I'd forgotten about a lot of them. There's some of them I wish I wouldn't have given, but I felt like I wanted her to have everything so she could tell it in the most effective way possible.

Q. That's part of the story, too, what you go through as a teenager trying to come to terms with yourself, especially in a conservative (Montana) community.

A. I definitely struggled with being gay in high school. It wasn't just the fear and rejection from my peers. There were parents and faculty who treated me differently because I was gay. I wasn't even openly gay. People just suspected it. So it's hard. I'm just fortunate that I didn't give up, as many times as I wanted to. Had I given up, I wouldn't have met Tom. That's one very important message I want to share: For those teens in these small towns, don't give up.

Q. "Bridegroom," by the way, is such a potent name for the film on so many levels.

A. I never thought about it other than, this is an interesting last name. It wasn't until I sat with Linda, and she was like, "You realize his last name is 'Bridegroom.'" She said it's clear to her that Tom is standing in for something even larger than himself.

Q. So even in the short time since his death, a lot has changed in society. How do you feel about the changes?

A. When I posted the YouTube video on the anniversary of his accident, on May 7, 2012, it was just a few days later that President Obama came out to support marriage equality. That was a moment that just felt really good. It just seems like the progress is happening really fast. I'm so grateful. But it's still up to each state. A lot of work has to be done. I hope this film is like a tool people can use.

Q. Are you getting comfortable with a spokesman's role?

A. It's not always easy. There's so much support and love sent my way. But I also hear daily from people that tell me to kill myself, that I should be murdered. A lot of that stuff really bothered me at first. Now I try not to even read that stuff. I do know there's a lot more love out there than hate.

Q. Do you still keep a video diary? And do you think driving and filming yourself sets a good example for the kids?

A. No. (Laughs.) I don't think that anyone should film themselves driving. Those moments of me just singing in my car and filming myself, I look back: Why was I filming that? It kind of makes me think sometimes that everything happens for a reason. Is there a reason Tom and I filmed so much footage together? Is there a reason why I filmed these videos in high school that I never thought would see the light of day?

Q. How are you doing now?

A. I am in a much better place than I used to be. To be honest, it wasn't until I posted the YouTube video that I started kind of feeling better. You know, losing Tom really made me question a lot of things about life in general. I just was trying to make sense of what happened. I realized this isn't going to make sense. So for me, posting the YouTube video and seeing that it was helping people, it made me feel like, OK, maybe something good can come from this. I'm just so grateful for all the positive things that have happened.

Q. This is a tragic story, but there are some very uplifting moments as well: — literally coming out of the closet to surprise your dad, for instance.

A. When I brought Tom home to Montana to meet my family, I don't know what we were thinking by hiding in the closet at my dad's house to step out and surprise him. I think that's one thing people are surprised by when they see the film: There is humor in it. There were a lot of fun times and good memories we had.

Q. I literally laughed out loud, when your great-grandmother Pat said, "That's right. They're Romeo and Romeo. Get over it."

A. I mean, my grandma Pat's like 92 years old. Who would ever think she would have accepted our relationship? But she did. For her to see it so clearly and understand it is remarkable.

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson