In 2010, Emerson assistant professor Benoit Denizet-Lewis headed out to Wyoming to write a New York Times Magazine piece about a former colleague who, in the space of a decade, had gone from being an ardent champion for the LGBT community to an anti-gay fundamentalist Christian pastor-in-training.
The resulting 2011 article, “My Ex-Gay Friend,” did not produce any easy answers about what caused Michael Glatze to not just abandon, but actively reject, everything he was and stood for.
But it did, improbably, result in a feature film starring James Franco, Emma Roberts, and Zachary Quinto. I Am Michael premiered at Sundance in 2015 and gets a theatrical release on Friday, January 27.
“As interesting a story as it is, the piece didn’t have ‘film’ written all over it,” said Denizet-Lewis, who teaches in the Writing, Literature, and Publishing Department. “But James [Franco] is sort of obsessed with identity and is always looking for new, quirky, interesting, unusual LGBT storylines and ideas, so I wasn’t that surprised because of James’ interest in these things.”
Denizet-Lewis said his goal in writing the article was to try to understand what had happened to his friend and the “dumbfounding, confusing change” that he went through. He was confident that the filmmakers – many of whom are gay themselves – had the same basic goals in mind.
“I knew they were interested in doing a film similar to my article in one sense, in that they didn’t want to mock him or make him seem like an insane person, or say that there can’t be some fluidity in someone’s sexual desires,” Denizet-Lewis said.
But when it came time to approach Glatze – who had married a woman and written some “truly mean spirited and dishonest things” about gay people – about making a movie based on his interior struggle, it was anyone’s guess how he would react.
Denizet-Lewis said Glatze, who has since apologized for some of the anti-gay things he wrote, didn’t necessarily love the NYT Magazine article, but he did respect it and felt it was fair. And back in San Francisco, when he and Denizet-Lewis worked together at a gay magazine, Glatze was a huge fan of I Am Michael producer Gus Van Sant’s work.
“We were all surprised when he saw the film and gave James Franco a big hug and told us it really captured the pain and confusion he was in,” Denizet-Lewis said.
As the article’s author, Denizet-Lewis said he was given a little bit of input on the script, and a production credit. (He also appears in the film as a minor character played by Blake Lee, which is “kind of fun to see yourself there.”). But in the end, the the film is “not [his].”
It is “nuanced and complicated,” however, and will likely be read in different ways, depending on the viewer, he said. Christian fundamentalists could watch it and see it as evidence that gay people can turn straight; gay people and allies might see a man who is not being honest with himself about who he is.
Denizet-Lewis said for anyone who doesn’t know Glatze, it’s easy to be angry with him, but it’s important to recognize what a source of inspiration he was to a lot of young gay people when he was writing for XY Magazine, and later, Y.G.A. (Young Gay America).
“LGBT people have incredibly strong and powerful reactions to conversion therapy and to people who say they are ex-gay, because church and religion has done so much psychic damage to so many LGBT people. So I think it’s really understandable that someone who claims to no longer be gay then writes really awful things about gay people [it makes them angry],” Denizet-Lewis said. “It certainly made me angry and made me confused. But I also have this memory of Michael as this incredibly important and kind and inspirational figure who helped a lot of people.”
I Am Michael, which screened for Emerson students last year, opens Friday in theaters in 11 cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C., and VOD.