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Matthew Shepard's Father Takes Fishing Trip with Dads of Trans Kids — and They Have a Message for the Nation

Kristen O'Brien

Mar 23, 2023

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In March of 2022, six dads came together for a weekend of fishing in Broken Bow, Oklahoma. The men were racially, politically, generationally and geographically diverse — but in addition to a shared love for the great outdoors, they had one important thing in common: they were fathers of trans kids.

Award-winning director, producer and writer Luchina Fisher was there that weekend to capture the dads together as they fished, prepared dinner, and bonded over raising their children in present day America. That footage became The Dads, a short documentary that had its world premiere at South by Southwest earlier this month.

Speaking exclusively with PEOPLE at the festival, Fisher says that she met dads Wayne Maines, Frank Gonzales and Dennis Shepard — whose son Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, was murdered in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming — through their involvement with the Human Rights Campaign, one of America's largest civil rights organization.

"They were talking about taking a trip, hunting or fishing and maybe inviting others to come along," Fisher says. "And I thought, I'd like to join you on that trip with some cameras."

"I think that would be so interesting for people to see you out in rural America doing things that other dads do, but you have something different which is you all are connected by your children," the filmmaker adds. "And I just thought that was really poetic in a way. And they liked the idea. And I felt grateful that they trusted me to be able to be a fly on the wall."

Three other dads were invited on the trip: José Trujillo, Stephen Chukumba, and Pete Betz.

"It was an immediate bonding," says Shepard, a self-described "old geezer," who adds that "even though they were meeting for the first time" it still felt "like a family reunion."

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Although they had different journeys, together they were just dads, talking about "what they were going through."

The dads were also honest about their sometimes-delayed response to understanding, accepting and supporting their children.

"I'm a very conservative guy, a veteran, an NRA instructor, a kind of hillbilly," says Maines, father of actress and activist Nicole Maines, who played TV's first transgender superhero on the CW's Supergirl.Maines said that he "had this impression" of what his children were "supposed to be" and he initially "ignored it" when he was told "every day that I was wrong."

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"Then hate groups came to Maine and attacked our family. And my family had to live in hiding in America," he says. "I got on board then and we sued our school system."

"We defeated the first bathroom bill in the country. And we won a state Supreme Court case," he continues. "I've been on that journey ever since to talk to whoever will listen."

Maines says that for his part, "once I admitted that I was ashamed of my child telling me that she wanted to wear a dress, I realized, 'What the hell's wrong with that?' "

"It's like the color of your eyes," says Shepard. "It's not a choice, it's not a lifestyle. It's who that person is. Period."

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"Once people get over that, we can go on with what we have to worry about. Which is climate change, inflation, whatever it might be," Shepard adds. "But let these kids have a chance, an equal chance to succeed or fail on their own merits, their own ability to work hard. And the choices they make, not the choices we make for them."

Betz, a dad from New York City, says another reason why the film is so important is because of its message of community.

"The minute you're able to connect with other people who you can communicate with and talk about your experiences, you start to see things in a much different way than when you're getting pushback from your community and from the people around you," says Betz.

"My advice to other parents would be to allow yourself some grace and look inwardly," adds Frank Gonzales. "It is a process of learning. At least it was for me. I probably took too long to be fully on board. Once I was, I saw my daughter really flourish and our relationship drastically improved. I saw her self-confidence. And that's what we all want."

To put it plainly, Trujullo says, "believe your children."

"Believe your children because we as parents have many biases based on our upbringing," he says. "Because we aid our children with so many things in life, we think that we have authority over everything."

Maines agrees, "we definitely gotta let 'em be who they need to be, but then we need to look at our own weaknesses and work on a few things."

Ultimately, it's all about being there for your kids."One of the things that I learned in this journey is that parental support, that familial support is like the most important part of your child's future success," says Chukumba. "So be supportive. full stop period. Be supportive. That support will go so much further than anything else."

Fisher says she is open to making a larger film or series with the dads, "as I think there are more issues to explore."

"There are so many moms that are on the front lines, but there are a lot of dads too. And I think their voices need to be heard," adds the filmmaker. "And there were a lot of conversations about not just fatherhood, but manhood, brotherhood. And I think these are conversations that all men need to have regardless of who their children are."

The Dads will be shown next at BFI Flare: LGBTQIA+ Film Festival in London, the ACT Human Rights Film Festival in Fort Collins, Colorado, and at Palm Beach International in April. More information can be found here.

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