Ky Dickens remembers watching Freaky Friday as a seven-year-old in Hinsdale and praying to God that one day she'd find herself in the body of a boy, just long enough to kiss a girl. At 13 she got obsessed with the movie Fried Green Tomatoes, watching Idgie and Ruth's romance unfold almost daily. Dickens didn't come from a very religious family--her father is agnostic; her mother took them to a local Lutheran church only on holidays--but she was still scared to tell them she was lesbian. And when she tried to come out, at 16, it didn't go so well. "Mom, is there anything I could tell you that would make you disown me?" she asked. "And she said, 'Well, yeah, you could tell me that you're gay.' She said it like, 'Dinner's ready.'"
Dickens's first choice for college had been UCLA--she'd made videos since she was 14 and wanted a career in film--but her mom put her foot down. California, she said, was "that place for fruits and nuts." Dickens thought, "If I can't move to California, where can I go where I can be totally gay?" She settled on Vanderbilt University in Nashville; her idea of the south was based on characters like Idgie and Ruth and To Kill a Mockingbird's tomboy Scout. "I don't know what I was thinking," she says. "Vanderbilt was the epitome of southern conservative culture. I joined a sorority, I was a long blond-haired Tri Delt, and I dated the lacrosse captain." When she came out in the last semester of her senior year, "it was so scandalous the story ran in the Vanderbilt Hustler. The newspaper. The school newspaper!" Now Dickens, who's 29 and lives in Andersonville, is making a documentary about homosexuality and organized religion inspired by the "Bible abuse" she came up against there.
At 20 Dickens decided to start her adult life "honestly" and tell someone she was gay. She let the cat out of the bag during a class trip to Florida. "I told the person with the biggest mouth, her name was Hope, 'I need to tell you something . . . ' And then a day or two later all these southern girls were like, 'Wait a second now. Do you have a crush on me? . . . Why not? Am I fat? Am I ugly?'"
Her friends were confused but generally supportive. Conservative Christians with a deep-seated belief that homosexuality was wrong, they worried that the devil had taken hold of her and that she'd burn in hell. "And then my best, best, best friend, who would go out drinking and partying with me all the time, suddenly turned holier-than-thou." The girl's parents led a Bible group for the Florida State Congress and she couldn't reconcile the Bible's teachings with her friend's sexuality. "It completely ripped us apart. I think out of defense--maybe it was a prideful thing--that's when I really started talking to priests, ministers, and rabbis and stuff."
Dickens, who doesn't practice any particular faith herself, spent two months talking with local religious leaders about homosexuality. Time and again she was told that if Jesus were alive today, the last thing he'd worry about is who was sleeping with whom. The handful of Bible passages commonly invoked to denounce gays, she was told, were often taken out of context for political purposes. This was a message she wanted to spread. "In order to survive, I felt like my only option was to change people's minds. I thought that if they saw that their views were spoon-fed they could change." But the timing wasn't right. "It was still taboo. A lot of the priests said they'd talk to me when they were retired." Seven years later homosexuality is a major wedge issue and, Dickens says, religious leaders are looking for a forum to discuss it.
Dickens, who returned to Chicago in 2002 and produces commercials at MK Films for big-name clients like Neutrogena and Coke, started work on Fish Out of Water, her first independent feature, in January 2006. Since then she and coproducer Tristan Silverman have been recording interviews with a range of religious leaders--from Methodist ministers to Scientologists--all over the country, in cities like New York and Chicago but mainly in "real America" towns like Garland, Texas, and Valparaiso, Indiana. They're also talking with members of the GLBT community and random residents of each city, targeting barber shops and hair salons in particular, "because everybody gets their hair cut."
"We got kicked out of a lot of hair salons," says Dickens. "We'd break people in by asking preliminary questions like, 'How do you feel about divorce?' Then once we started asking about homosexuality we'd get ushered out." A lot of people said they believed homosexuality was simply wrong. "When you asked them why they'd say, 'Oh, it just is.' And if you asked them to give you a place in the Bible where it mentioned that, they'd either say the whole Adam and Eve thing or Sodom and Gomorrah."
Several religious leaders have told Dickens that many people insist on the Bible's authority in denouncing homosexuality because that authority has been increasingly dismissed by the general population, particularly when it comes to social justice issues. "Almost always the church sides on the side of justice in major issues of debate," Dickens says. "Martin Luther King himself was a minister." But things get complicated when people on the other side of the debate cite passages from the Bible to defend their arguments.
In the coming months Dickens will be interviewing former members of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a D.C.-based political think tank that aims to bring conservative Christian churches in line "with biblical and historic teachings" and puts a great deal of manpower and money into influencing legislation on issues such as immigration, welfare reform, and tax policy. The IRD itself acknowledges in its own materials that these are issues on which "there is no definitive Christian position."
Many members of the religious community, like John Shelby Spong, a liberal theologian, biblical scholar, and retired Episcopal bishop, insist the Bible will become less valid as a tool of faith and turn more people away from the church if it's used to build an argument for hate. "Preachers everywhere, most of the ones I talked to, are horrified that if they hold on to this that they will just keep losing numbers. Because you can't be discriminatory and hateful and think that people are gonna want to keep walking through your doors," Dickens says. According to a 2006 Harris Poll of 2,010 U.S. adults, only 26 percent attended weekly church services.
Dickens has hired local artists Kyle Harter and Emily Carter to create animated sequences to illustrate such points, tie together her interviews, and accompany quotations from the Bible. "Any place where I bring up religion it's animated. Because, one, it can be boring. And, two, some of these stories are so far-fetched that animation helps you realize how far we are from the context in which the scripture was written."
Dickens has bankrolled much of the project with her own money and through fund-raisers but estimates she'll need about $80,000 more to finish, including editing, licensing, and legal fees. She's applied for grants and received a couple of generous personal donations. Kristen Kaza, who is handling publicity for the film, started a monthly themed dance party at the Holiday Club this summer called Role Play to help out. The first night they raised enough to cover Dickens's and Silverman's airfare for their next set of interviews, with former IRD members in New York.
Dickens debuted the film's trailer at another fund-raiser in July (it can be seen at myspace.com/fishoutofwaterfilm) and expects to wrap up work in March of next year. After that, she'll seek screenings at film festivals and on cable and then make a traveling show of it. "I'm very lucky to have a brother who's a complete hippie and has two Volkswagen buses and knows how to fix them," she says. "We're going to get one of his buses, paint it pink, and tour the film in the most conservative, small, untouched areas of this country we can find. We're gonna put up projectors in parks, on corners, and if we get kicked out, fine, we'll just go somewhere else. This is a real grassroots production."
Dickens says one of the preachers she spent a great deal of time with, John Fellers, "fought his whole life in Texas on this issue." Fellers died the day she debuted the trailer. "I received an e-mail from Laura Young, the wife of another preacher and a woman I have formed a friendship with and ended up making a producer on this film," Dickens says. "She said, 'He lost his fight the day you launched yours.'"
Tue 10/16 and every third Tuesday of the month; this month's dress-up theme is "Boys and Ghouls." Holiday Club, 4000 N. Sheridan, 773-348-9600 or myspace.com/roleplaychicago, $5.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ky Dickens photo by Robert Drea; Fish Out of Water.