Many people attribute inexplicable life events to God. Others think it’s simply nature performing a scientific balancing act. Some think Karma rules, some believe in coincidences, and some don’t feel fate exists at all. But I believe with every fiber of my being that everything happens for a reason, and here is my story explaining why.
Hello, I’m Shane.
I didn’t always used to believe in the mantra “everything happens for a reason.” It seemed cliché and like an oversimplification of faith; and as a young man, struggling with bullying, depression, and internalized homophobia, I found little reason to believe in anything.
I grew up in Montana.
I was lucky enough to grow up in one of the most beautiful places in the country. With great landscapes, however, came a very conservative community and family, which made my closeted childhood very painful.
Junior High was Rough.
In junior high school my mom bought me a video camera. Although I had a few friends, I often felt alone and depressed, and even contemplated suicide many times. Filming video diaries became an outlet for me. I never showed anyone my video diaries; they were just for me.
Theatre Camp was my annual escape.
Each year I attended a two week performing arts camp, where I met nearly 200 young people who were just like me: struggling with their sexuality, longing to fit in, hoping to forge meaningful friendships, and yearning to perform. Some of the people I met here would impact my life greatly later on.
I eventually moved to California.
I had always dreamed of living in Southern California. So in 2004, just a few months after high school graduation, I packed up my most prized possessions and moved to Los Angeles. One of my friends from that aforementioned theatre camp allowed me to sleep on the couch in her dorm room. And another friend from that camp helped me land a very cool job: working as a production assistant on a popular entertainment news show. (The hair…I know…don’t ask)
Meanwhile, in Indiana…
A young man named Tom was struggling with his sexuality as he grew up in a small, conservative town, was raised by a very religious family, and attended a private military academy.
New York State of Mind.
Tom ultimately escaped the conservative boundaries of his hometown as well, and found refuge at Vassar College in New York. There he met his best friend, who would later become one of my best friends, Alex. Tom admired Alex because she was deaf, but she and her parents refused to let that stop her from becoming the best person and student she could be. Tom always tried to live life that way, and encouraged those around him to do the same.
Back in California…
I was having the time of my life working in the entertainment industry. It was an exciting time for me as I learned how to be myself and to be more comfortable with being gay (and out). During this time I became very good friends with a woman at work, who would later invite me to a night of bowling that would change my life forever.
Shane, meet Tom.
Tom was confident, intelligent, and witty. He was almost annoyingly good at bowling, and was happy, care-free, and so damn cute. I was immediately attracted to him. Through a series of fortunate events following that night at the bowling alley, Tom and I became very close, very quickly.
We’re just roommates.
Even though Tom and I were falling in love quickly, we made sure to keep our relationship private (even amongst our closest friends). We had a secret code: any time we wanted to say “I love you” in public or around our friends and family, we tapped three times. Eventually we would just say “tap-tap-tap.” We even had separate bedrooms in the apartment we shared.
Tom and I did everything together, though, including making silly YouTube videos before YouTube was even popular. We dreamed of one day making a documentary, most likely about visiting all of the World Wonders. Together we hit Machu Picchu in Peru, Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.
Tom and I agreed that we wouldn’t come out to our families until we were with the person with whom we wanted to spend the rest of our lives. We believed we had found that in each other, and decided to come out in 2006. After all, we lived together, had started a business together, and even adopted a dog together. My family members were worried–they knew we would endure difficulty as a couple, but in the end they were very accepting, and hardly surprised. Tom’s parents (who were ultra conservative and deeply religious), threatened him, threatened me, and tried to pray the gay away. They would never truly accept Tom or our relationship.
In 2008, Tom and I attended a wedding in California. We were seated at the same table as writer/director Linda Bloodworth Thomason, creator of Designing Women. We had a lovely time with her that night, and talked a lot about how Tom and I dreamed of getting married one day, when we would be ready and it would be legally-recognized.
Christmas Bells are Ring-ing.
For Christmas in 2010, Tom bought me a promise ring (even though we had agreed to save our money for a trip to South America!).
With it came a card on which he wrote, “I have a feeling 2011 will change our lives forever! Love forever & always, Tom.”
Ode to OWN.
In January 2011 Tom tweeted about loving the Oprah Winfrey Network. I wouldn’t discover this tweet, or realize Tom’s eerie foresight, until the fall of 2013…
Everything did change.
Tom’s Christmas card mentioned everything changing in 2011. He had no idea how painfully true those words would be. That May, he went to the rooftop of a four-story apartment building to take pictures of our friend Alex (that same Alex from Vassar).
Moments after Tom and I had been texting about him being careful, he misstepped and fell. Tom died later that night. When I was finally admitted into his hospital room (after fighting with nurses who said “only family members can see him”), I did one final tap-tap-tap on his leg not knowing this would be the last opportunity to say good-bye.
Tom’s mother took his body from California without telling me. His parents forbid me from attending his funeral in Indiana, and even threatened violence if I showed up. As if losing Tom hadn’t been painful enough, I was wiped from his life completely and they failed to honor Tom in a way that was true to the person he had become. We eventually held a memorial service for Tom in Los Angeles.
One Year Later.
The year following Tom’s death was miserable, to say the least. I grieved silently, or made video diaries, like I did in junior high. I didn’t want to burden my friends and family, and talking to the camera made me feel like I was connecting to Tom. I went to India by myself, so that I could visit another World Wonder in honor of Tom.
It felt strange, and yet oddly appropriate, to visit the Taj Mahal without him, as it was a monument built to honor a dead loved one. On my way home, I made a pit-stop in Rome so that I could see another World Wonder, the Colosseum.
I also spent months working on a tribute video that I hoped would honor Tom and encourage other couples, gay and straight, to take precautions and avoid going through a similar experience. On the one year anniversary of Tom’s death I released the video, called “It Could Happen to You,” on YouTube. That same website that had once allowed me and Tom show the world how much fun we were having as “just friends” was now an outlet to show the world how much love we shared as a couple. Interestingly, President Obama would publicly support marriage equality just two days later.
Equal Love Equal Rights.
My video went viral in a couple of days, garnering a couple million views on YouTube and thousands upon thousands of shares on Facebook and Twitter. I was astonished; a video that I imagined would reach just a few hundred or thousand was circulating the Internet and impacting people from all over the world. I received an outpouring of support and yes, a little hate mail. I appeared on major news networks and tiny radio programs, and was even featured on the front page of my hometown newspaper (no small feat, considering how conservative that place is).
From introvert to activist.
The experiences of losing Tom and making the video changed my life in countless ways. I marched in my first gay pride parade, and have continued to partake in as many as possible since then. I work with Love is Louder, GLAAD, and the Human Rights Campaign. I meet people, from teenagers to the elderly, who have gone through similar traumas or benefited from watching my video and were able to take precautions. I used to be afraid of admitting to myself that I was gay, but through Tom’s love, and the love of so many friends, family, and even strangers, I am able to travel the country and world as an openly gay man, advocating for LGBTQ rights.
Linda Bloodworth Thomason, the woman who sat with me and Tom at that wedding discussing our future, approached me about turning my story into a documentary. We had shared similar experiences with discrimination and prejudice (she watched her mother die of transfused AIDS in a ward with many gay men). I knew she would tell my story with passion and honesty, spreading a message of love and equality.
Our Kickstarter campaign became the most funded film project in the history of crowd funding with 6,508 different contributions from people all over the world. We also received support from prominent celebrities like George Takei and Neil Patrick Harris. I like calling Bridegroom “the peoples film” because had it not been for the generous backers there wouldn’t be a film. To me this documentary represents all people who have been condemned and ostracized just for being who they are and loving who they love.
We decided to name the film Bridegroom, not only to honor Tom (it happens to be his last name), but to hint at the film’s strong message of marriage equality.
From Tragedy to Triumph
It might not be the documentary Tom and I once dreamed of producing, but Bridegroom has found tremendous success and is inspiring audiences all over. Bridegroom has been accepted into many prestigious film festivals, including Tribeca, which is held in New York. We were further honored by having President Bill Clinton introduce the film before the screening, and were additionally honored when it won the audience award. Bridegroom continues to be screened, and will soon stream on Netflix and be available on iTunes and Amazon.
And on October 27, 2013, Tom’s and my story will premiere on the Oprah Winfrey Network–that very same network he tweeted about loving just a few months prior to his death.
So why do I think everything happens for a reason? Although I would trade in everything that has transpired to have Tom back, I do not see any of these incidents as mere coincidences. I truly believe that if I hadn’t been bullied in junior high, I wouldn’t have felt the need to attend a sleep-away camp each summer. And I wouldn’t have met friends there who would help me get settled in California. And I wouldn’t have taken the production assistant job, at which I wouldn’t have met a new friend, who wouldn’t have introduced me to Tom. And if I hadn’t met Tom, well…nothing in my life would mean as much now. His love and support gets me through the good and bad days. Tom inspired me to be myself and live honestly, and I will strive to spend the rest of my life helping others do the same.
Call it destiny, kismet, pure dumb luck, whatever you want–but I believe in it, and always will.