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When Family, Religion and Sexuality Collide

First-time filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo’s “Memories of a Penitent Heart” is many things. It’s a love story and a family history. It’s an investigative report and a warning. But first and foremost it is the story of Miguel Dieppa, Aldarondo’s uncle.

Conflicting forces were at play in Miguel’s life. He was an immigrant in New York City, separated from much of his family in Puerto Rico. He was brought up staunchly Catholic by a mother who felt she owed her life to God. He was a gay man in an open relationship at the height of the AIDS crisis.

His death in the late ’80s is a story told different ways by different people, and it’s the truth at the heart of the conflicting memories that drives Aldarondo’s exploration of her uncle and family. The film is premiering on PBS’s “POV” this month.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bO_vboZquoE]

The intersectionality of Miguel’s story makes it accessible to nearly any viewer.

I tried to make it a film that virtually any viewer could access in different ways depending on where they come from,” Aldarondo said to Rewire. “There’s a way in for a queer family member, or there’s a way in for the mother of that queer person, or for someone who survived the AIDS crisis, or for somebody who is grappling with religion. It’s an intentionally intersectional film in that way.”

A life lived in two halves

While the film tackles LGBTQ issues, the AIDS crisis and religion—all heady topics in their own right—at the heart of the film are relationships and how they’re affected by differences in belief.

Miguel’s life was a dichotomous one. He was in a decade-long relationship with a man named Robert, but his Catholic Puerto Rican mother insisted that he repent for his sexuality on his deathbed so he could be accepted into heaven. Miguel was angry at his family for not supporting him, but Robert says in the film Miguel himself grappled with internalized homophobia. Miguel’s mother always said Miguel died from cancer. Robert insists it was AIDS.

The myths and legends that colored the vague memories of Aldarondo’s uncle are what led her to tell his story in full, and the result is a piece of filmmaking both personal and powerful. It’s one family’s story, but it could just as easily be a another family, in another place, in another time.

“It’s kind of an anatomy of a conflict, and my hope is that viewers can see themselves and look at their own lives and that maybe it causes them to pick up the phone, or give somebody a break, or let go of a past resentment,” Aldarondo said. “That would be my goal with the film: that anybody who watches the film takes it as an opportunity to think about what they would maybe want to resolve before they end up on their own deathbed.”

Are you struggling to connect with family members because of differences in beliefs? Below are some starting points to help families separated by their differences.

PFLAG: Founded in 1972 by Jeanne Manford, who saw a need for parent support after participating in a march with her gay son, the group offers a network for the parents and family of LGBTQ folks and provides a safe space for these family members to work through difficult feelings. The organization has been recommended to families by Psychology Today and “Dear Abby,” among others. There are PFLAG-affiliated support groups all over the country; find one in your area. The organization also offers online resources that can help you work through tough conversations with parents. (A similar option is My Kid is Gay, a website launched by hilarious YouTube personalities  Kristin Russo and Dannielle Owens-Reid. Their book “ This Is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids” is helpful but humorous and approachable.)

Unitarian Universalist Association: Some find religion and sexuality at odds with one another, but UUA works to form welcoming and inclusive congregations that “make sure lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people are full members of our faith communities. Being welcoming means striving for radical inclusion, and creating spaces that honor every part of our identities, backgrounds, and experiences.” The organization’s website allows users to search the UUA database of more than 1,000 welcoming congregations in the U.S. Here’s a long list of other Christian denominations that are also LGBTQ affirming.

Family therapy: The Mayo Clinic lists family therapy as an option to “improve troubled relationships with your spouse, children or other family members.” Finding someone to help explain familial conflicts and facilitate their solutions can be a good option for those who feel they’re not making progress on their own. Family therapy can help evaluate a family’s ability to solve problems and express thoughts and emotions, explore family dynamics that contribute to conflict and identify strengths and weaknesses within the family. If you’re looking for an LGBTQ-friendly therapist, there are databases online that can help you select the right person. Just do a Google search for LGBTQ therapists in your area.

Want to work through a serious clash of opinion with people you love? Here’s what family therapists recommend.

Watch “ Memories of a Penitent Heart” on PBS. Check your local station’s schedule for broadcast dates and times. Or watch online at PBS.org.