A weekend retreat held by local gay spirituality group Queer Spirit will be featured on the gay cable network Logo as part of a documentary series that follows gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals going through major life changes.
Premiering on April 28 this half hour segment of Be Real focuses not on the seasonal spiritual retreat at Wind Walker Ranch in Spring City, UT, but on a man who traveled several miles – both geographically and spiritually – to participate in it.
“For this particular segment we followed [San Diego resident] Steven Romande as he got ready for the retreat and also after the retreat when he went to meet with his conservative Mormon sister and brother-in-law in an attempt to reach out to them,” said Be Real producer and episode director Sean Kaminski.
As Kaminski tells it, he had previously wanted to direct a segment on gay shamanism. In his search for a subject he came across one of the retreat’s co-founders, Salt Lake City therapist Jerry Buie. Along with running a retreat designed to help gay men explore their unique spirituality, Buie regularly pours Sweat Lodges for members of Utah’s gay community.
But Buie said he didn’t want the documentary to be about him. Instead he asked Kaminski if he would focus on the journey of a retreat participant.
“In general, we thought it’d be better to have someone come in from the outside,” said Kaminski. “Steve was perfect, because he had this issue with his family. He had a lot going on in his life that he was working through.”
Romande had previously been in touch with Queer Spirit’s other co-founder, John Cottrell. He said he wanted to do the workshop because it would mainly involve Utah and Idaho men who could understand his Mormon background.
“[Kaminski and the film crew] came to San Diego and shot here for about a week and then we went up to Utah and shot at the retreat, which was completely different than I thought would be in a really good way,” said Romande, who works primarily as a musician, singer and vocal coach.
Before Kaminski could film Buie made him agree to one term: The producer/director couldn’t just stay behind the camera; he would have to participate in the weekend’s spiritual exercises. Kaminski agreed and did everything the other men did, from the opening bonfire where they set their intentions for the weekend (and where Romande threw in hateful letters he had received from his family) through touch workshops and movement workshops. Kaminski even filmed the men entering and leaving the Sweat Lodge Buie poured – although he did not film inside the Lodge out of respect for the sacred space.
Although Romande said the idea of being in front of a camera made him a little nervous at first, he soon got used to it.
“What’s great about Sean is he wasn’t just a camera walking around,” he said. “He would actually look at you while he’s talking. So if you look his way there are eyes of understanding that are participating. It made us feel like we weren’t being voyeur-watched.”
Kaminski said participating in the weekend and making himself just as vulnerable as the other men taught him a lot about his own spirituality.
“I loved the sweat lodge,” he said. “[It] was a dark, hot, small space with a large group of men packed inside and I'm mildly claustrophobic. I ended up crammed into the very back in a tiny corner no 6'2" guy should ever be required to contort himself into for two-plus hours. It was a chance to get beyond my fears and ignore the discomfort – which I did – and felt mentally and physically rejuvenated afterward.”
The experience left Romande rejuvenated as well. He said that his weekend at Wind Walker Ranch taught him that although much of his Mormon family had alienated him, he had also played a part in driving them out of his life. He truly realized this when he meet with his youngest sister and her husband. Romande hadn’t spoken with her – or with any of his family – in several years, because of their discomfort with his sexuality.
“I think most shocking thing to me was I thought they [my youngest sister and my brother-in-law] weren’t keeping in touch with me,” he said. “When I told them that, they said, ‘Steve, we always email you and you never email us back!’ I said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s true!’” The resulting meeting went so well, he said, that even the camera crew wept.
“The crew was like, ‘We never cry,’” Romande laughed. “It was a pretty cool ending and I thought it could totally go the other way, but it didn’t. It turned out really wonderful.”
“I want to be close to my family and they want to be close to me, maybe we’re reading too much into it. Certainly the religious stuff can scare both of us,” he continued. “We need to train each other. We need to train our families how to love us and they need to train us how to love them without all this, ‘I love you, but I don’t accept who you are because you’re gay or because you’re religious.’”
Romande said that he and his family have continued to reconcile. His two oldest brothers have asked to see him and his partner of 13 years. Also Romande has continued to explore the ways in which he had separated himself from others in the past, including other gay men.
“I hope I’ll continue to unveil these things that keep me separated from other people and that everybody else will have similar experience of opening up and learning to love each other and not judge each other,” he said.
Kaminski had similar hopes.
“I think there are a lot of lesbians and gays who have their own fears around dealing with religious family members,” he said. “I hope that the segment inspires others to take a risk and reach out to their families from a non-judgmental place. I also hope that viewers will be intrigued by the workshop – I think there are a lot of gay men who could gain something from leaving urban existence behind for a time and checking out a retreat like Queer Spirit.”