In August 1998, Dennis Shepard went fishing with his son Matthew for the final time during a family reunion in the Bighorn Mountains. A couple of months later, Matthew, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was brutally murdered. His death drew widespread attention to the fight for LGBTQ rights and hate crime legislation in the United States.
Now, more than 25 years later, Dennis is one of six fathers featured in a documentary short film that premiered Nov. 17 on Netflix.
Directed by Luchina Fisher (“Mama Gloria”), “The Dads” follows the elder Shepard and five fathers of transgender children — Stephen Chukumba, Frank Gonzales, José Trujillo, Peter Betz and Wayne Maines, whose daughter made history as TV’s first trans superhero on the CW’s “Supergirl” — who bond during a weekend fishing trip in rural Oklahoma. As they cast their lines into the river, the men find common ground on their unconditional love for their children, whose rights are at risk of being rolled back across the country and around the world.
“I think we always think unconditional love looks like immediate acceptance, and often, it’s about going through this journey to figure out how to love the child who is standing in front of you — not the one that you wished and hoped for and dreamed of, but the child who’s trying to tell you, ‘This is who I am,’” Fisher, who has a trans daughter, told NBC News in a joint interview with Maines. “I always say that when a child transitions in a family, the rest of the family transitions as well, and it’s just as important for them to have those outlets to talk about their experience and what they’re going through.”
In early 2020, while attending the Human Rights Campaign’s Time to THRIVE Summit, Fisher overheard Shepard, Gonzales and Maines discussing a potential hunting or fishing trip with other dads of LGBTQ children. Given that mothers — and women in general — are often seen as the main advocates for gay and trans youth, Fisher recognized a unique opportunity to shine a spotlight on supportive fathers who are on the front lines of the battle against anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legislation.
In the last year, Republican state representatives have introduced more than 500 bills targeting the LGBTQ community, with 84 of them being passed into law, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The majority of these bills target the trans community, with student athletes being banned from competition and minors being prohibited from accessing certain kinds of gender-affirming health care.
For more from NBC Out, sign up for our weekly newsletter.
For Maines, whose daughter was the plaintiff in the Maine Supreme Court case that helped establish a precedent for allowing transgender people to use the bathroom that matched their gender identity, “The Dads” presents a new opportunity to win the hearts and minds of audiences who may be unaware of the values they share.
“There’s a lot of good people out there that we need to get to,” Maines recalled telling his daughter in a recent conversation. “They just don’t know us. They’ve never broken bread with us. They’ve never gone fishing with us. They don’t know that I love to hunt and shoot just like they do. We’re not radical, left-wing, crazy people abusing our children. We’re good Americans. I’m a veteran. I want them to know that we love our kids.”
That love is particularly evident in the poignant conversations that the fathers have in “The Dads,” whose short 11-minute run time belies the emotional potency of the different personal stories they share. Maines, for instance, is not the only father to express remorse over his delayed acceptance of his child’s gender identity, and the men discuss how their children’s coming-out has forced them to grapple with their views on masculinity and the way they were raised and socialized as young men.
During that memorable weekend in Oklahoma, “we talked a lot about vulnerability, and how if you can’t do it here, you’re never going to get where you need to go,” added Maines, who has testified in front of the Texas state Legislature about trans rights and teaches a “Transgender 101” class at the Austin Texas Police Academy. “I want to do it again with more dads and just say, ‘Hey, what are you afraid of? Let’s talk about it.’ And I want to talk to senators and representatives: ‘Tell me what you’re afraid of and we can work it out, but you’ve got to be willing to be honest. There’s no secrets in my soul anymore. Whatever you want to know, I’m going to tell you.’”
In June, Netflix acquired the distribution rights to “The Dads,” with former NBA star Dwyane Wade attached as an executive producer.
“‘The Dads’ shows us the power of fathers loving and supporting their LGBTQ children, breaking through the barriers of prejudice, embracing diversity, and coming together to have these important conversations,” Wade wrote in a statement announcing the acquisition.
Since his daughter Zaya came out as trans in 2020, Wade and his wife, Gabrielle Union, have become outspoken allies and advocates for LGBTQ youth. While she has yet to meet Wade in person, Fisher revealed that, according to Wade’s producing partner, Jon Marcus, Wade and Union have both expressed their love for the documentary because “it captured a conversation he’s been trying to have.”
“I think so many people have approached him about telling the story of his daughter, but that’s his daughter’s story to tell, just like the children in ‘The Dads’ have their own story” to tell, Fisher said. “This is the story of the fathers’ journey, and that was something that Dwyane could relate to in so many ways. He said he felt like they were taking the words literally out of his mouth.”
Wade’s involvement as a producer “means that the film continues to reach different audiences, and that was always our intention from the beginning,” she added. “We didn’t want to have this conversation amongst ourselves, among people who already have an understanding or are supportive.”
Since debuting this film at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March, Fisher remarked that many audience members have approached the film’s producers and subjects in tears. “Many of them are young people who say, ‘I cannot wait to show this to my father.’ I think for many people, it is an entrée to a conversation. It’s short enough that you can give 11 minutes of your time to watch it and open your heart. I always feel storytelling is the way that I try to make the world safer for my child and other trans youth,” she said.
Although she originally set out to create a short documentary that would make the messaging “as accessible as possible,” Fisher would not rule out the possibility of turning “The Dads” into a docuseries or full-length feature, which would allow her to delve deeper into each of the fathers and further diversify the men depicted. At the end of the day, she said, it’s about “creating empathy” for people who are often dehumanized and reduced to their gender identity or sexual orientation.
“My hope is that people who are within the community see themselves reflected and find a little bit of joy. And if their parents aren’t yet on board, they’ve got six adopted dads here who can’t wait to give them a virtual hug,” she said. “And for those people who don’t actually know somebody who’s trans — and trans people make up 1% of our country, it’s really a small group — I do hope that they see the story of what support looks like, of what love looks like, and the importance of that, no matter who your child is or who they become.”