GenEQ Spotlight: Michael Iemma
September 20, 2013 by Noël Gordon, Senior Specialist for HIV Prevention and Health Equity
Michael Iemma never set out to be a LGBT activist. His love of theater, imagery and storytelling eventually led him to question the messages he received about his sexual orientation and the depictions he saw of LGBT people. Now a senior at Emerson College in Boston, Michael is looking to break the mold of LGBT characters and take them to new heights with his short animated film, Stitch. Recently, Iemma sat down with the HRC Blog to chat about his journey to become an "accidental activist."
Q: Thank you for allowing us to do this interview. Tell me – how did you first get involved with LGBT activism?
Growing up, I had never really done any sort of activism. I had initially gone to school for musical theater. But then I got more into singing and transferred to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. While at Berklee, I started to look for unique ways to pay my tuition and and really gravitated toward film scholarships. I started writing skits, filming short films, and and something just clicked. It was the most effective way of expressing myself I had ever experienced. That’s how I fell in love with filmmaking.
During my time at Emerson, I had been writing a story that was based on a relationship I had been through. And it was just kind of ingrained in me to write about a boy and a girl. I started to question why I was doing this – started to question why it had to be a girl. And I guess I just started to look at the entire film industry in a whole new way. I started to think about how gay characters are represented in film and thought, “Holy crap! This is really bad. That I’m still programmed to NOT write about relationships I’ve had because they’re still so taboo and controversial.” And it was at that point I decided that I would much rather write truthfully. Write from my own experiences. That I would rather create honest and realistic portraits of LGBT life through the stories I tell.
Q: It sounds like you’re what some might call an “accidental activist,” but that you threw yourself into it once you became one.
Yeah! And now that I’ve arrived at that place – especially having had this experience with Stitch – I keep opening up my eyes and realizing so much about the industry. This is definitely the direction I want to go in.
Q: How do you think Stitch fits into the broader fight for LGBT equality?
Well, Stitch is a short coming-of-age adventure story about a young man who discovers a way to return to his past when change threatens to take away the people and places he loves the most. Yet what he learns in the past will forever change the way he lives in the present. It’s a pro-LGBT film about the bitter-sweet nature of growing up and letting go.
Obviously it’s great to see characters like Stanford on Sex & the City and Jack on Will & Grace, but there’s really nothing more than that. There’s no representation of our actual lives. It seems any gay character you see in film is going to be this extremely clichéd, stereotyped, stock version of what gay people actually are. It’s like the stereotypes associated with our sexual orientations are the only things that make it into film and television.
What I’m saying is, is even though there are all these positive representations of LGBT people, we need to be aware of the fact that our lives are not well represented. And I think that’s what this generation of LGBT youth needs. Something like Stitch is needed because it takes an honest look at a gay relationship. Because when you get right down to it, love is the same for everyone. It just so happens that in Stitch, it’s between two boys. A film like Stitch is extremely important because it’s the type of work that isn’t afraid to show the intimacy and complexity of our relationships.
Additionally, once Stitch is completed, we will be donating all funds grossed from the film right back into LGBT charities.
Q: That’s fantastic! Finally, what message do you want young people to walk away with after seeing STITCH?
Ultimately, I want the world to arrive at a place where there is no dividing line between gay and straight content. The stories of our lives should not have to exist on the fringes of mainstream media, away from the eyes of the masses. Growing up I could count the amount of gay content I was exposed to on one hand. It made me feel very isolated and different. So overall, it would be my greatest hope that eventually young LGBT people would be able to watch something like Stitch and not have to even be aware of the "different-ness" of it, because society has come so far that LGBT content is no longer controversial. But for now, within the society we exist, I would like LGBT youths to take away an understanding that their lives, the relationships they will share, their triumphs, pain, laughter happiness and perseverance are just as relevant, just as important, and just as beautiful as everyone else's. I want them to find comfort in my work. I want them to feel represented.
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