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OP-ED: Director Heidi Ewing of ‘I Carry You With Me’ pleads for portrayals of queer people in film

Director Heidi Ewing

Writing and directing I Carry You With Me (Te Llevo Conmigo) was a creative joy, especially since its origins spring from a personal relationship with Iván and Gerardo, the couple on which the film is based. The process of bringing their personal story to the screen also deepened my understanding of the ongoing struggle for the LGBTQ community in Latin America.

For years, I knew Iván and Gerardo as successful, hardworking restaurant owners and proud members of the gay community in Brooklyn. Together we enjoyed many nights in gay bars and summer weekends at drag shows on Fire Island. New York’s Pride parade was a sacrosanct occasion never to be missed. These experiences made it all the more shocking to me when, several years into our friendship, Iván and Gerardo finally told me about their past in Mexico. Both were undocumented immigrants who left Mexico in part because of its rampant homophobia; they were raised at the hands of macho fathers and had endured threats, humiliation, and violence because of their sexuality.

As I show in the film, Iván and Gerardo met in 1994, in a secret gay bar in the conservative city of Puebla, and fell in love. But for years, their relationship was a clandestine one. “Coming out was not something either of us considered,” Iván told me as I developed the screenplay. “We could have lost or jobs, contact with our families and, in my case, access to my young son.” This fear of rejection and retaliation led both of them to hide their true selves from family and friends for most of their adult lives.

As my friends told me their story, I discovered that instead of migrating only for the traditional economic reasons portrayed in most migrant stories, these men had left home and risked their lives in order to enjoy the social freedoms promised by the United States. The dream to be one’s self, to hold hands on the street free of judgement, to put an end to feelings of guilt and shame. These were the ideas and fantasies that compelled them to start over in New York City.

The actor who plays Iván, Armando Espitia, was personally drawn to the role in no small part by the homophobia portrayed at the center of I Carry You With Me. He himself was humiliated by his own father, who forced him to practice “walking like a man” by making him march, military style, around the living room. Armando had great empathy for Iván’s plight and brought this tender understanding to the role in a profound way.

Unlike the men portrayed in my film, I do not have first-hand experience with this specific type of discrimination and stand merely as an empathetic ally to the LQBTQ community. But the fact is, all of us can continue to utilize cinema to talk about LGBTQ realities. The world is still a very dangerous place to be gay, queer, or trans. In 2019, 117 lesbian, gay, bi and trans people were killed in Mexico, making it the deadliest year in half a decade. The attacks are brazen ones, multiple cases involving victims being brutally stabbed and killed in public. Prosecutions are rare. And in a moment where many have been lulled into complacency on LGBTQ rights, it is in fact more important than ever that all of us, politicians, activists and artists continue to normalize gay life in all its forms. I hope very much that my film can add to an urgent conversation of tolerance and acceptance, especially within our Latino communities.

Movies can change people’s hearts and minds. When Armando’s own father saw the film a few months ago, he broke down in tears and asked Armando’s forgiveness for failing him. The real Iván’s mother, who had never spoken with her son about his homosexuality, saw him as his true self for the first time only when watching the film. She cried at what she saw. Then she watched it again. And again. In the end, I Carry You With Me proved to be a transformative experience for these families, and my hope is that it can bring the same compassion to people everywhere who’ve struggled with understanding and acceptance.

Heidi Ewing is the director and co-writer of I Carry You With Me (Te Llevo Conmigo), which debuts this spring in theatres. Originally from Detroit, her other credits include the films Jesus Camp, Freakonomics and The Boys of Baraka.