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Documentaries & Non-Fiction Series

VICE Correspondent Gianna Toboni Investigates the Fight for Marriage Equality in “Church and States” [Exclusive] 

VICE Correspondent Gianna Toboni Investigates the Fight for Marriage Equality in “Church and States” [Exclusive]
Photo Credit: HBO
Photo Credit: HBO

When the Supreme Court affirmed marriage equality in the summer of 2015, many in the LGBTQIA+ community celebrated. Since the law now protected their right to legally marry their partners, many thought that was the end of this fight. But the religious right has found a way to legally refuse services, housing and/or employment – even though the highest court in the country has made their position clear. In “Church and States,” VICE correspondent Gianna Toboni meets some of the families who are navigating this new landscape and hears from supporters of religious freedom laws.

I had the chance to talk to Gianna about the urgency of this issue, how the people she profiles in the piece came to her attention, how this fight is far from over and more.


TV GOODNESS: I want you do tell me a little bit about your process. At the beginning of this piece you’re at the Supreme Court back in June, talking to couples who are obviously so happy about marriage equality. But what is your process? When do you start doing research? When do you start filming?

Gianna Toboni: “Well before the Supreme Court decision, we knew this was an issue that both sides of the debate were really passionate about and starting to talk about more than they have in years past.

Photo Credit: HBO
Photo Credit: HBO

We started researching it, I would say, a few months before the Supreme Court decision. Then when that came down we really started – and, I guess a bit before that – reaching out to people at the center of the issue on both sides to understand the arguments from people on the religious right who were fighting for, for instance, business owners who used the religious freedom argument in order to justify not serving same-sex couples and then also same-sex couples who had been discriminated against and felt like because of a lack of laws in their state they were vulnerable to being discriminated against in the future.

The first step is really understanding what the common arguments are on either side and then from there booking people to film with. It just went from there. We looked for people who weren’t fringe, people who represented other people in the country who feel the same way or were going through the same thing, booking interviews with them, going out in the field and shooting and then, of course, bringing it back and working with editors and some of our senior producers to put the pieces together.”

TV GOODNESS: I like that you talked to so many people and I’m specifically thinking about the Jorgesons. To think it’s possible for the biological mother to have no legal rights to her own child because she’s gay is so scary. How did that story come to your attention and how did it progress?

Gianna: “We had been in touch with so many organizations and law firms and advocates, different online forums. We tried to reach out to as many people as we could.

This case came to us through a lawyer. It’s kind of complicated, but there was a case involving a death certificate through the vital statics unit in the state of Texas. It was through that case that we found Leigh and Robin [Jorgeson’s] case.

The lawyer put us in touch with them. We knew they were meant to have their baby on a certain [day]. We were on another shoot and I think they had scheduled their delivery date. We had a week to get to Austin before Robin gave birth and, of course, the baby came a week early. We actually left the [other] shoot and flew straight to Austin. We were there just a day after she gave birth.

I felt like that was an important story because people don’t necessarily think about it before it actually happens and then when it happens the consequences are so great. People across the country who don’t have any real connection to this community don’t understand that this can happen. I felt like it was important to give them a voice and tell their story just to make people aware that some of the laws in place in states across the country are this archaic. They haven’t caught up with this Supreme Court decision.”

TV GOODNESS: Alan Sears was a great get. You brought up some good points and he did a pretty good job of defending himself. Was he a prickly interview?

Gianna: The ADF [Alliance Defending Freedom], they’re criticized a lot, but I have to say I’d been in touch with them for months and they are pleasant people to deal with. I give them credit for trusting us enough to put their CEO in an interview chair in front of me. I thought he did a really good job. He’s a smart guy.

The reason I wanted to talk to him, again to the point I made earlier, is because he is one of the leaders of the movement. He’s not a fringe guy. He has tens of millions of dollars donated to him each year. He has thousands of followers, if not more. So when we sat down for that interview it was definitely contentious. I felt like I had to bring the argument of the other side and I think he did a fine job of representing his side of the debate.”

TV GOODNESS: I also love that you talked to Senator Cory Booker. He’s not the first person I’ve heard liken this fight to the civil rights movement of the ‘60s. Why was it important for you to have him talk about that?

Gianna: “I had read about that argument before talking to the Senator and, as many people who said this is a valid argument, there were people who said this is not a fair argument. So I was interested to know what the Senator thought.

I think he’s the perfect person to have an opinion on that. It was important to at least ask him if he would make that comparison, which he actually did several times before I even had to ask him. But I thought it was an important point to make because a lot of people, I think, don’t feel the weight of this issue. They think that we have gotten past it, that LGBT rights are no longer something that people have to fight for and in reality there’s a lot of discrimination.

As Senator Booker said, it’s insidious. It’s not outward. There aren’t employers who are necessarily saying, ‘I’m firing you because you’re gay,’ but the person will still get fired and they’ll never know why. I thought he was very articulate on the issue and made a really good case for why that’s an appropriate comparison.”

TV GOODNESS: If you were to do a follow-up or a companion piece to this story, what would be your focus and why?

Gianna: “I don’t know. [Pauses.] There was one scene that we didn’t put in that I was so inspired by. Several of us in the room while filming this scene got emotional. We went to a LGBT youth homeless center and we spoke to some of the young people there who had been kicked out of their homes after coming out to their parents.

I talked to the executive director and I said, ‘Have there been less kids to have shown up here since the Supreme Court decision?’ He said, ‘Our numbers have tripled since the Supreme Court decision.’ And the reason was because young people across the country said, ‘Ok. The highest court in our country says it’s ok to be gay, which means I’m now comfortable coming out to my parents because it’s ok.’ So more kids, I guess, at least in the Southeast came out to their parents, their parents kicked them out and they ended up at the LGBT youth homeless shelter. That made me so sad because they were all struggling, [but] had positive attitudes. I hadn’t heard much about that so I’d be interested to follow up on that.”

TV GOODNESS: After people watch this piece, what is one thing you’re hoping they’ll take away from it?

Gianna: “The fight for LGBT rights is not over and as [Dana Nessel] said, before we go forward we’re gonna have to take a couple steps back. I think that’s the biggest thing. This is still a debate that’s on-going and just because the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage doesn’t mean that people aren’t living with discrimination.”

TV GOODNESS: I know you got your start at ABC News and you wanted to devote more time to news story outside the mainstream. Why is that important for you?

Gianna: “There’s such a freedom in having more time to tell a story. I always felt a sense of guilt when I would interview someone and I knew the piece would only be 3 minutes long and I knew that their story deserved more time than that.

It’s really a luxury at VICE and for this HBO show that we get to have 15 minutes and sometimes more to give people a voice and to help them tell their stories. Telling stories, and this is something that when I worked at Al Jazeera was a big thing- we should be telling stories that aren’t told anywhere else.

The mainstream is covering A, B and C stories. We should be covering the next four because there’s so many people around the world who are facing injustices who don’t get a voice and who will never see change in their lives because nobody knows what those injustices are. It’s our job as journalists and filmmakers to reach out to those people and help them and give them a platform to tell their stories.”

TV GOODNESS: I know you can’t say much, but what else are you working on?

Gianna: “This is always a controversial question because I’m like, ‘Can I talk about what hasn’t aired yet?’ [Laughs.] I’ll tell you about one story. A couple years ago I went down to Guantanamo Bay and took a tour of the prison with some of the guards and other military personnel who worked there and then went to Bosnia and met with a former detainee and a former guard in Arizona. Now with the President talking even more frequently about closing the detention center, I think it’s a good time to be talking about that issue again.

We’ve been filming with detainees in several different countries and giving them a voice to talk about what happened and to talk about how their lives are different now and how they’ve been affected. We’ll have a story on Guantanamo Bay, which I think is an important one and can’t be talked about enough.

Edited for space and content.

Photo Credit: HBO
Photo Credit: HBO

The other piece in this episode is a follow-up story by VICE correspondent Ben Anderson. He returns to Yemen, where he reported “The Enemy of My Enemy” back in Season 2. In “Return to Yemen,” he documents the death and destruction visited upon the civilians of Yemen by Saudi Arabia. Last year, Yemen’s Houthi rebels launched a massive military campaign that overthrew the Yemeni government and sent the Arabian Peninsula into turmoil. Now, Saudi Arabia – nervous about the insurrection near its southern border – is trying to push the Houthis back with a ruthless bombing campaign. This is one of the world’s most bloody and underreported conflicts.

VICE airs Fridays at 11/10c on HBO.

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