What would you do if the love of your life—whom you spent the last six years with day in and day out—suddenly died with no warning? If you were committed to each other and intended one day to legally marry, but those rights were taken away? If you had no legal rights to see your partner or get any information at the hospital as he was taking his final breath? Or, if you were forbidden to even attend his funeral for fear you would be shot by his parents? That is just a sampling of what Shane Bitney Crone endured when his beloved, Tom Bridegroom, accidentally fell off a roof while taking photographs over a year ago at the age of 29.
However, this past May, on the anniversary of Tom’s death, Shane bared his soul in a YouTube video titled, “It Could Happen To You." The video has now garnered over 3 million hits and counting, and is the inspiration of the upcoming documentary Bridegroom: An American Love Story to be produced by Emmy-winning Linda Bloodworth-Thomason—best known for her television series creation, Designing Women.
But there is so much more to this story. It is about a universal community of people who came together and believed in the message and the power of Shane and Tom’s love story. Through Shane’s unwavering efforts to get his story out there, Bridegroom has become the most funded project ever in the history of Kickstarter, a crowd-funded website for creative projects.
Ahead of the documentary’s projected October release, Frontiers sat down with both Shane and Linda in their first joint interview to discuss what brought this duo together to be the driving force of a heartbreaking documentary that will resonate with the LGBT community—and hopefully, all humanity.
Linda, as the story goes about how you and Shane and Tom came into each others' lives, it actually started in Palm Springs. What happened there?
Linda: I attended a gay wedding in Palm Springs and Shane and Tom were at my table. We struck up a conversation and I thought they were very memorable. And I remember talking about them on the way home from the dinner with my husband. I remember saying, “What an attractive and appealing young couple.” And at the time I met them marriage was legal for same-sex couples, but there was a small window. At that point their relationship was so new, and they were not ready to make that move yet, but that was their dream. Then later when I heard that Tom had fallen off of a building it really haunted me, because I knew I saw this great love between them. Now I know that sounds crazy, but I just knew, and I was so sad about this. Our mutual friend, who we were all with at the wedding, told me Tom had fallen off the building. I expressed to them how sad I was about that, but I didn’t know Shane well enough to call him. Then they told me to go online to see the video on YouTube that he posted, and I did. Of course, I was so moved by it. Then my husband and I called Shane and told him to come by and talk to us because we wanted to help him tell his story.
Shane, what happened when Linda and her husband contacted you? Why the decision to let Linda handle such a personal project and to tell your story, other than the obvious that she is an incredible producer and writer in this industry?
Shane: When they contacted me after the YouTube video was posted, of course I remembered them, from that one time. I had seen them once and twice randomly at a restaurant in Sherman Oaks, but from that evening I knew who they were and what type of people they are. I was approached by a lot of different people about this project, but after I talked with them it was like the perfect fit. It would not be anyone else who I felt could tell this story the way it should be told. For her and her experience with the loss of her mom, this isn’t just some producer who wants to tell a story. Her passion for equal rights and equality is one of the reasons I felt we were meant to do this together.
Linda, when you openly had discussed your mother dying of AIDS, and the injustice you had seen towards people living or dying from complications from HIV/AIDS back in the '80s, what were you seeing?
L: What I saw, nobody should have to see. This was 1986. There was a lot of fear and disinformation. My mom was on a floor in a hospital with 17 young men who were all dying of AIDS. They were all treated poorly, including my mother. Medicine was put in buckets and kicked into their hospital rooms. As for the nurses, no one wanted to come in. They all wore gloves and masks. They did not want to be there. The most heartbreaking thing for me is that my mother had support from me and other family members, however, most of those young men did not have any family visiting them. Many of them had been disowned. Most of them died alone with a nurse or doctor in the room. It really broke my heart and made me angry. Later, I bumped into a woman in the hall who said, “If you ask me, this disease is killing all the right people.” That made me so angry!
I was writing Designing Women, and I found out the same week Designing Women was going on the air that my mother had AIDS. So I wrote out scripts with her by her hospital bed, and I wrote that in right away. I used the “terminator," Dixie Carter, to say what I wanted to say to the woman in the hospital, but didn’t. And, it became an important episode and we got nominated for an Emmy because of it, and it got a lot of attention in the gay community. That episode became one of the top five Designing Women episodes of all-time. That type of bigotry I would not personally experience again until I met Shane, and experienced it through him. I just had a little piece of what gay people experienced on a regular basis, but it was enough for me to feel very, very angry.
Shane, when you moved further along with Linda on the project, did you become at all reticent? You knew you would have to reveal everything about your life and relationship with Tom, and share your grief with the world.
S: Tom and I used to video chat. It’s more normal for me to talk to the computer as a video diary than just talk to the sky hoping he can hear me. Making the video and showing that side of me and the process of grieving is not something that people would have expected from me, especially my family, and so when they saw it, it broke their hearts. I felt, in order for people to understand what it feels like, and not just grief, but knowing what it feels like to not be treated like an equal and not be prepared for the unexpected, they needed to see that side of me. Obviously after I posted the video I was scared how Tom’s family would react. I was scared how my family might be upset that I did that. It’s one thing for me to be gay, but then to broadcast it to everyone. There was this fear of how people would interpret it in a negative way.
Was there a fear that this might have been perceived as an attempt on your part to gain notoriety from the making of the YouTube video?
S: I had a fear of that. Basically, I was just so grateful that the response was so positive, that 95 percent was a positive reaction. I knew that putting myself out there would be kind of risky. I knew people were going to attack me and send hate my way. So that being said, making the film scares me. I know this is going to open the door even further for people to want to bring me down. But if we can prevent one teenager from killing themselves, or change one person’s mind from the way they view gay people and anyone in the LGBT community, then it is worth it. I feel very passionate that this film will have the same impact as the video.
Through the Kickstarter campaign and the video, and what people have read so far about your relationship with Tom, tell me why was he was the love of your life. What made it work for you?
S: Tom was the most outgoing person I ever met. I have moments when I am outgoing, especially when I am around my friends, but overall I am a reserved, private, calm person. He brought out the side of me to push me to stand up for myself and to be more confident. He was a dreamer and I was more a realist. So we would have these dreams of building a company, and here we had all these grand ideas. I said, “Tom, you need to come back down to earth.” [Laughs] We were a great team together. There are so many things about him I admired. Even through his struggles after he came out with his family and how they reacted, he was amazing. That he was still such a happy and positive person, that inspired me.
Was it love at first sight?
S: I would say so. We met through mutual friends and they were setting us up and we did not know that. It was at a bowling alley and he was so irritatingly cocky, but it drew me to him, and he knew what he was doing. [Laughs] We eventually hung out again and our relationship grew so fast.
Linda, when you have gone through all the footage that exists of Tom and Shane’s life together, what themes stood out to you that will be used in the documentary?
L: Besides the equal rights part of it, after I got to know Shane and really know about their story on a deeper level, it wasn’t about homosexuality or heterosexuality. It’s about love. It was better than any love story I could write. It’s a big love story. Granted they are young, and it’s easy to be in love when you are young, and they had a lot of things to sort out. But what struck me about it was all the opposition they had experienced growing up. Shane wrote a letter to a boy in school and then he ended up being sent to an alternate high school and being banned from church because the other boy’s parents were powerful. There is so much poetry in this story. I thought of two little boys—one in Montana and one in Indiana—who prayed, “Please, God. Don’t let me be gay.” The prayer of many young people I am sure, because it is hard being gay. They lived through everything they had been through in order to find each other, and then they finally agree and had arrived at a place that they never dreamed of, or thought was possible. Most people don’t have to run that gauntlet to get to be with the person they love. So they already lived a whole dramatic and treacherous life before they fell into each other's lives. I think that enriched their love beyond measure, that finally they had a place that they could love each other. They even thought of running away together after they were together, because it was still so hard.
Shane, you were together with Tom for six years. When did you tell your parents you were gay and that you were boyfriends?
S: When Tom came out, it was a year after we were together. We both waited a little while into the relationship before we would tell. So I told my family and they were supportive. They did not know I was gay. I told my Mom when she was visiting us in Burbank. Tom was by my side when I told her. But when I tried to get the word out she actually finished the sentence for me. I went, “Mom, I’m...” She goes, “You’re gay.” So she knew, and she said as long I am happy, that is all she cares about.
L: We got a letter during the Kickstarter campaign from a man who said, “Shane, I have been reading all of the emails and support from your mother. You are so lucky to have a mom that supports and loves you. But unfortunately, my brother and I are both gay, and we came out to our parents and they chose Catholicism over their gay sons. So please give your mother a big hug for all of us orphans out here.”
S: My mom had wanted to make sure I know she is proud of me. She had been very vocal about supporting this project, and that is incredible. Without her support, I don’t know how I would feel about doing it.
There is a special bond between gay men and their mothers!
S: In regards to Tom and his mom, she eventually came out to visit us. She never apologized for what happened. But she came out a handful of times in the last six years, which made it all the more shocking that after he passed away, that she reacted the way she did, because I thought finally she found a way to accept us. She was visiting us a month before he passed away. I sent her flowers on Mother’s Day.
L: Tom’s mother Martha was living a double life. She would be going back to Indiana pretending Tom wasn’t gay, and then coming out to L.A. to try to have a connection with her son. I think there are a lot of parents in this country living that way. We are trying to say in the film, maybe you don’t need too. Maybe you can find a way to be true to yourself and your child.
How are you going to deal with the issues surrounding Tom’s parents in the documentary? Are you somehow going to attempt to get them to participate?
L: I have my feelings about it, and fortunately, I did not have to convince Shane of anything. I wanted to treat them with respect and dignity, and Shane would not allow anything else. Shane is young, but he understands that there is a mother who loved her son. They spoke frequently, and were emailing and talking every day. I have no doubt his father loved his son in his own way, too. I don’t know them. I think that makes the story richer and relatable. This makes it an even bigger tragedy because Tom loved them back. The fact that these people all loved each other, and they got so on the wrong side of each other because of societal influence. They used the Bible to reject their son, without perhaps really understanding what the Bible means, and how we are being selective in order to oppose young people who are a gay. We will address religious themes in the film, but the tragedy to me is they did not seek any information, or knowledge, or help about this. They just were willing to get the shotgun out and say, “This is not OK. Nothing you have ever done matters now. You are now going to burn in hell.” I guess our question would be to Tom’s loving parents: “Is Tom Bridegroom the choir-winning, trophy-winning, all-American son who was a hero on his MySpace page?” As someone says in the film, “If Tom is not in Heaven, then none of us will be going.” So that is a conversation in the film.
What we know is that Tom fell accidently from a roof and then he died. Shane, what happened that day? Were you able to see him at all in the hospital and say goodbye to him?
S: Basically, Tom was taking photos on one of our best friends' rooftops. We had been up there 50 times. He was just taking photos and got too close to the edge and lost his balance and fell. The ironic thing was, for the first time ever in our six years of being together, I was stranded at our home. Tom had managed to take both sets of car keys and that had never happened before. I was not able to get there in time where he had fallen. So by the time I was able to get a ride to go there, he was already actually in the hospital. When I got to the hospital, I did not know how bad it was. Eventually, the doctor came in and told me he did not make it. I was able to say goodbye, but it was not the type of goodbye you can say at a burial. It wasn’t the proper way to say goodbye. I did not think it was going to be my last opportunity to see him. The nurses tried to stop me from seeing him. Fortunately I had people there to support me. Technically, they could get in trouble for letting me see him because I am not legally related.
L: Shane was not allowed back there, and if Shane had legal rights and human rights, he would be right back there with Tom, and that is a big thing for him.
S: And that was another thing. They could have told me what happened and what they were doing to try to save him, but they wouldn’t tell me anything because I had no right to know, legally. That was another reason I posted the video. It does not matter if you are gay or straight, you have to protect yourself as much as you can, so in a situation like that, you have some rights. It’s sad that you may have to carry your documents around everywhere you go, but in case there is an accident, it’s better to do that than to try and fight with the hospital.
When you later were on your way to attend Tom’s funeral and were threatened to be killed by gunfire if you showed your face in Indiana, how did you find out that piece of information?
S: My mom and our friend who was with Tom when he fell, we were on our way to the funeral and had a layover in Arizona. That is when one of his relatives called to let me know that the family members wanted me to know that if I showed up to the funeral, I would be attacked, and they wanted me to know they had guns. It did not seem real. But I did believe they had guns. This wasn’t a situation where they were saying these things to just scare me. I knew his dad had pulled a gun on his own son, and so what would stop him from pulling a gun on me? My mom was with me and we were all scared. So we just decided for our own safety it would be best if we didn’t go any further.
I also did not want to go to a funeral where I was not wanted, or more importantly, that I did not exist. I was not mentioned in the funeral program. It really was as if they were erasing me from Tom’s life. I don’t know what it is like to be a parent and to lose a child, and so I cannot relate to them on that level. However, I do know what it is like to lose someone, and no matter how angry or sad you are over losing someone, I think the most important thing is to honor their wishes and know what they want. Tthat was what was so upsetting for me. I knew that everything that they were doing was what they would want, not what Tom would want. I was just like, 'Forget me. Just really think about what your son would want'—and they didn’t.
Why has this collaboration between the two of you on this documentary “clicked”?
L: It has been a big surprise because I didn’t think I would have my own love story to tell, and now I do. I have fallen in love with Shane. I think he is such a remarkable young person. I think he is top-of-the-line with stellar character, and he is such a producer without knowing that he was. The truth is Shane’s video was so good. I don’t know if he wants to make a career in this business, but if he does, he could absolutely carve quite a niche for himself. He is obsessed. There is no detail too small. He wrote the Kickstarter fundraising campaign and showed he is a graceful writer. At first our campaign was slow to gather funds. He just stayed on it and did everything he could. He got celebrities to help tweet about it. He was the master of the campaign. He gets all the creative sides of what we are doing and all the themes in the film. He thinks of so many creative things that could happen on the film, and he has always been right on the money. So for somebody who had had no experience in this business, it’s like he fell out of the Hollywood sky.
And next he will be the VP of Paramount, or something like that!
S: I don’t know what my future holds, but right now this is the most important thing. It is not just about me making a movie; it’s about my life and there is an opportunity right now for me to help people. So for me, not to invest my whole being in this would be not right. I want to give it my all and I wanted to do it right. And, I want Tom to be proud.
Shane, how has it been working with Linda? Were you at all intimidated because this is the Linda Bloodworth-Thomason?
S: It’s not that she is intimidating; it’s that I am not used to the medium and talking so much! She made the process a lot easier than anticipated. She made me feel at ease. Just knowing from Designing Women and some of the things she had written, Linda is incredible. In just meeting with her and talking, she is brilliant at telling a story. I could not imagine telling this story with anyone else. She believes in me and the message. She is allowing me to be a part of it, and she wants me to be a part of it. I think that says a lot about who she is. She wants this film to be good, and it’s an honor to work with her.
L: There is another theme in the film. That throughout Shane’s youth he could not find his voice, but he wrote that love letter and he was nearly killed for it, and almost has a nervous breakdown of what transpired after he got the courage to tell a boy on paper that he loved him. So I think he was struggling to find his voice, and I don’t think he had it until that YouTube video, and it shocked his family and friends. They all say if this had been reversed, and Shane had fallen off the building, that Tom would have been screaming from the first day, “You are not taking his body,” etc. Tom would have been all over it. But Shane basically let everyone kind of walk all over him. But it wasn’t until a year later that he was still grieving so badly that he said, “Enough.” He said, in the video, “They say I should talk. Well now I am talking.” People that knew him said, “We were worried about Shane. We were worried if he was ever going to speak up.” And then, when we speak, he really speaks!
Shane was so courageous and brave to bare his soul in his YouTube video.
L: That is what I think was so amazing, and at his ability to cry and open himself to be completely vulnerable to the people who took his lover back to Indiana and said, "You are not welcome here.” He allowed them to see him at his absolute lowest grieving. There was such strength in that. You had to be so strong to allow yourself to be that vulnerable … and, on the Internet! Tom’s death has had an amazing impact on Shane. It is almost serendipitous that Tom’s last name was Bridegroom, and that this little boy Shane from Montana never had a voice until he found his love, and then lost the man he loves and then he really found his voice. I don’t think he would really have found his voice if he hadn’t lost Tom.
So what can we expect to see in Bridegroom: An American Love Story? How are you going to paint the story in the documentary—through videos, interview footage?
L: You are going to see a bit of everything. Shane had documented the history of his love affair with Tom. They traveled the world and they had a bucket list of where they wanted to go. They paid for it all themselves. I have so much footage of them that I could create my own television network! We may need some supporting footage, but it won’t be recreating anything. Shane had also a year of footage of him grieving—it breaks my heart. My editor will be wiping a way a tear, and it’s very draining. I don’t know how Shane lived through it. We could barely get through it ourselves. There is footage of Shane talking to Tom through the camera.
S: I think another thing for me is that I really hope Tom’s family decides to be a part of this. We really want to give them every opportunity to participate. I don’t know how they are feeling about it, so it would be interesting to see what they want to do. But I hope they decide to be a part of it.
With the issue of marriage equality being another big theme in this film, this seems like the perfect time in our nation’s consciousness to get the word out on what transpired in this young couple’s life.
L: These guys came along at a very important period in gay rights. It would be a crime not to use it. We would rather have Tom than this film, I know Shane would. But we cannot bring Tom back. The greatest way Shane can honor him and all people who may have gone through something similar is through this film. And what we want to say to his parents is: “We are not trying to attack you. This film is not to make you look bad. We are only telling the facts. But it’s not a good story, it’s a bad story, and you look bad in it.” We can’t bring Tom back, as he is dead. But we can change the ending of the story, as the movement forward and this story can have tremendous meaning now. If they are willing to come and talk to us and talk to Shane, and show other parents across America and all the other countries we have heard from that it doesn’t have to be this way, what a beautiful redemptive possibility that is! If they would only be willing to embrace it. We are going to offer it.
S: When Tom and I met Linda and her husband Harry, we were not at the moment ready to make that commitment to marriage. But at the time too, we did not think if it was legal at that moment it would be taken away! Right away when they overturned it, we said, we should have done it. But a few months before he passed away, at Christmas, Tom gave me a promise ring and we vowed to marry when we could. Yes, there were legal steps we could have taken and spent $10,000 to have documents drawn up, or we could have spend $100 on a marriage certificate, and I would have had more rights. For me, that is why I am really passionate about the issue now of marriage equality. Without those rights, it’s hard to feel that you are not a second-class citizen.
What is the projected launch date for the film? And, when it is released, are you going enter it into the documentary category for this year’s Oscars? You should!
L: October is when we want to get this film out. It’s an election year and this national debate is really heating up, especially since President Obama came out and supported marriage equality. We think it’s going to come to a head soon, and so we would love to have this film out and available. We want to get this in theatres across the country and make it available to groups who want to see it. We would definitely try to put it in contention for the Oscars, but that is a reward, and would be fabulous and would garner more attention to it. Everybody has to say that after mentioning the Oscar. You can’t just say, “I would like an Oscar.” [Laughs]
S: The idea of an Oscar would be incredible, for the reason that it would get so much more attention and so many people would see it. So for that alone it would be worth it, but that is not our main goal.
L: But I do like the idea of a couple of kids, who were greatly opposed, and there was a horrible tragedy, and there was this YouTube video where he found his voice and he is accepting at the Academy Awards. That is a great Cinderella story! And Shane is the Cinderella Kid, he really is. He has been knocked flat and not only gotten back up, but he is running a race. I expect him to go over the finish line victorious, because that is just the kind of kid he is.
So now when you go home at night, Shane, are you still missing Tom everyday? How is it when you are alone with yourself in the middle of the night? How are you coping with it all a year later?
S: After posting the YouTube video, life became a little more bearable. I felt like for the first time in a year that something positive came out of this. There was meaning to my life again, and through making this film, it makes me happy that Tom is still kind of here and still alive in a way. Because you know when someone passes away, you don’t want people to forget about him. So this is an opportunity for the world to see how wonderful a person he is. When I go home now, it is definitely not as depressing. It is easier to focus on the positive and the good times, but it really does depend on the day. It can be one little thing that can trigger it and the sadness in me takes over. But fortunately, those moments have become less and less. For some people six years in a relationship is not a long time, but that was a quarter of my life. I am not trying to portray that our relationship was perfect. We had our ups and downs, but I think that definitely the hardest moments for me have been doing those everyday activities. We spent every moment we could together. We would go to work together and go home together. We really didn’t have much separation in our lives. So for me, it was a challenge to live this new life, and do those daily routines without him here. It was a definitive transition, and very hard.
It is stunning that what you have gone through with your grief has turned into something that rallied people from all over the world, and throughout the LGBT community. And that you were able to make Bridegroom the most funded project ever on Kickstarter! Were you amazed at the outpouring you had in support of your project?
S: We did not go into this saying, “We want to be the most funded film!” It’s incredible that it happened, and the support we received from people all over the world. Everyone was so passionate about the project, and that led it to be the most funded film in the history of Kickstarter. It’s just incredible! This is not just about money, but the power of this is the message of people coming together to fund this film, and the story that will be told because of it.