My mother loved me better than I ever loved myself.
Coming out to her was something I put off repeatedly and then did rashly: In the summer of 1994, I made a phone call from my dorm room at NYU, where I was enrolled in a summer session studying film. I was 19.
"It doesn't matter; you're our son, and we love you," she said as we both cried. My Italian immigrant mother, who'd only gone to school through fifth grade, whose education in this country came courtesy of Sesame Street and 20/20, instinctively quelled my fears. She was on my side.
She approved of my first boyfriend, who was handsome and wore a suit to work and drove a Lexus. She could see the "picture" of us and had come to terms with it. I hadn't.
Subsequent relationships were a grab bag of troubles. "You can't keep tripping up the same step," she said one day in her Calabrian dialect.
I know, I thought. But what do I do?
I looked for role models on TV, at the movies, in books. I looked for two men in love, engaged in their communities and families and making a go of it, but I came up empty-handed. The gay male characters I found were tragic figures, their stories ending in isolation and brokenness, or in death, from suicide or AIDS. I didn't want that. I wanted love. I knew that many people had forged the path themselves through that wilderness, but for some reason I wasn't one of them. Maybe some of the terrors of my adolescence, the bullying and the name calling, had scarred me at my core. I was at a loss.
I threw myself into work. In film production it's easy to get lost in the 16-hour days and the instant camaraderie. My mother supported my film work unequivocally. She was my backbone, and her advice was stern and ambitious: "Send HBO your script"; "Talk to those producers about your idea"; and, frequently, her favorite Italian proverb, "Travel with those better than you, and pay their way."
Years passed, but this lingering childlike longing, this ongoing hunger to understand love, remained. At the beginning of 2011, I started shooting The Devotion Project. What started out as one short film about a 54-year love story between two men became a series of 10-minute documentary portraits, available for free online, telling six diverse stories of LGBTQ love. Love as it's being lived now. Love that's missing from the landscape of stereotypes, comic relief and victims. Couples who, in their casual bravery and inspiring self-acceptance, give voice to what is real and true about LGBTQ people today.
John became proficient with Bill's medications as Parkinson's crept into their 50-year relationship. Paul and Brian built a successful business together, step by step, over 25 years. Jaime and Laura navigated the unthinkable when their newborn ended up in intensive care. Anne became the breadwinner while Eric balanced getting his Ph.D. with being a stay-at-home dad. Daniel encouraged Vitor to move to New York and follow his dreams. Gail pursued Audrey, introducing her to a new kind of love at 61 years old.
Caretaking. Teamwork. Nurturing. Support. Inspiration. Open-mindedness.
Filmmaking captured my imagination from a young age because I didn't fit in anywhere and needed to tell stories in which I could see myself reflected. My mother's love succeeded in extinguishing much of my self-doubt. The Devotion Project couples welcomed me into their homes to show me what I'd been longing to see.
Sadly, my beautiful, resilient mother isn't here to see the films. After a long illness, she passed away a few years ago. I can imagine how proud she'd be, though, how incisive her notes would have been on each cut, how she'd say to me, "See, I told you you'd do something good. Now send them to HBO!"
As for true love in my own life, I've seen glimpses that have been blissful, and I've made mistakes that I still regret. But my hope remains, nourished by the love I've witnessed making these films.
True love. In the flesh. Not make-believe. It's out there for us all.
Watch the first five films from The Devotion Project (the final film premieres on Valentine's Day on our YouTube page):