This New Documentary Shows Empowered LGBT Athletes

Openly gay filmmaker Michiel Thomas explains the rationale behind 'GameFace.'

Michiel Thomas (right) speaks to retired, openly gay NBA player Jason Collins at the Queer Documentary Festival in Portland, Oregon, on May 14. (Photo: Facebook)

May 18, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Michael Schramm is a University of Michigan student covering social justice and economics. His work has appeared in USA Today and The Michigan Daily.

The movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights is gaining traction. The U.S. Supreme Court may soon legalize same-sex marriage. Last weekend, President Obama marked the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia by insisting that we must “keep fighting, for however long it takes, until we are all able to live free and equal in dignity and rights.” In an ABC interview last month, Bruce Jenner—a celebrated athlete and reality television star—came out as a transgender woman. Yet, despite these victories, LGBT people still face many barriers in many areas. One of them is the sports world.

Consider the challenges faced by Michael Sam, the NFL’s first openly gay player, and Jason Collins, the NBA’s first openly gay athlete. Robbie Rogers, who plays for the L.A. Galaxy soccer team, is among the few openly gay athletes who have managed to sustain a professional sports career. In the 2012 LGBTQ National College Athlete Report, 39 percent of LGBTQ athletes surveyed said they had been harassed because of their sexual orientation.

Enter Michiel Thomas. The 29-year-old, openly gay Belgian has created GameFace, a documentary film that tracks two LGBT athletes—Fallon Fox, a transgender MMA fighter, and Terrence Clemens, a gay college basketball player. The project recently premiered at a Miami film festival and is making the rounds at festivals across the U.S.

TakePart recently interviewed Thomas about the film. Here is an edited excerpt of that conversation.

TakePart: First—tell us, where did your love of basketball come from?

Michiel Thomas: When I was 12, I touched a basketball, and it was just like the movie Space Jam—there was magic in that ball. It’s just been my sport. I love everything about it. Growing up, basketball was my life. If I wasn’t going to school, I was practicing basketball. I’ve been following the NBA since I was a kid. I played on a professional basketball team in Belgium as a youth player when I was 16 to 18.

TakePart: Did your love for basketball ever interfere with how you thought about your sexuality?

Thomas: Yes. When I was on that team, I was putting everything on basketball. While my other friends were going out, socializing, and experimenting with who they were as a person, I just put all my time into basketball and was denying my sexuality.

TakePart: You’ve said you were spending so much time with basketball that you weren’t thinking through your sexuality. Did you feel uncomfortable with the thought of being gay?

Thomas: Yeah, because definitely back then, when I was 16 or 18 years old, I did not have any role models, and I didn’t know any athletes who were out. It just seemed impossible for me to bring those two worlds together. That just didn’t make sense. But then, [the British former NBA player] John Amaechi came out in 2007. I sent him a message through Myspace back in the day. I was very surprised that he actually responded, and it was great. I immediately bought his book and read about his life, and it was easier for me to know that it is possible [to be an openly gay athlete]. After a few years, I wanted to bring all those things together. I just decided, why not make a film about it?

TakePart: Why did you make GameFace?

Thomas: A couple of years ago, there was a wave of teenage suicides of LGBT youth, and that really touched me. Then one of my friends committed suicide. I know that he wasn’t fully accepted by his family. I had been freelancing and editing videos as a filmmaker in Los Angeles, so when his death happened, I felt like I needed to do something. That’s when I got the idea for the film.

TakePart: What was the toughest part of making the documentary?

Thomas: The biggest difficulty is that it’s my first feature project, and that I didn’t have the connections that I have right now. I really had to start from the bottom. But I was able to build up such a great network, and every day my network’s expanding. But that was really tough in the beginning.

TakePart: Tell us about how you developed the project. What was your breakthrough moment?

Thomas: I was living in L.A. doing some freelance film and editing work, and when I had the idea for the project, I started reaching into my network to see if anyone was interested in being filmed. I met Fallon through Kye Allums, the first openly transgender NCAA athlete. I asked if he knew any closeted athletes who wanted to tell their story in this film. A few weeks later, he replied back introducing me to Fallon, a transgender MMA fighter.

The breakthrough was when I found the two athletes—Terrence Clemens and Fallon Fox. Back then Robbie Rogers and Michael Sam were not out yet. There were no other out athletes, so it took me a while to convince Clemens. Since I started shooting with them, I was able to pull together a little reel. And when I showed that to people, they were like, “Yeah, this could be great.” That’s when I started getting money from sponsors to help me produce the film.

Filmmaker Michiel Thomas, Terrence Clemens, and Fallon Fox at screening in Portland. (Photo: Facebook)

TakePart: Where are you showing the film?

Thomas: We’re doing film festivals first. But we absolutely want to do a lot of schools as well. We’re reaching out to sports teams and sports organizations. We really want to reach a broad audience, because we feel this is a message that the sports culture needs to hear—and the broader public too. Not just the LGBT community. I recently did two screenings in Belgium for high school seniors, and the response was amazing. Teachers and students came to me afterwards and said how impressed they were with the film. I’m also hoping that we’re able to air this documentary on television.