It should have been a boy-meets-boy love story for the ages, but instead a terrible accident turned the lives of Shane Bitney Crone and his partner, Tom Bridegroom, into a desperate and poignant plea for respect and equality that has won the attention of such global heavyweights as Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton.
Shane and Tom were typical boys from rural Montana and Indiana who met in Los Angeles, after fleeing communities that rejected them for being gay. They formed an instant bond and built a new life together in California, saving up to buy a house and travel the world.
And then one day, Tom slipped and fell off the roof of their apartment building and died. He was just 29.
Shane was overcome by grief that was worsened by the realization that because there was no legal recognition of their seven-year relationship, he had no rights in the most difficult time of his life.
He wasn’t allowed to see Tom’s body in the hospital until Tom’s mother had flown in from Indiana. Tom’s family took all of his possessions out of their apartment, flew his body home and warned Shane that he wasn’t welcome at the funeral and would face violence if he tried to attend.
It’s a rift that still hasn’t healed.
“We reached out to [Tom’s parents] to participate, and unfortunately they didn’t respond,” Crone says. “I think that it’s a film that Tom would be proud of. I hope that the world gets to see how amazing their son was and that his death is helping a lot of people.”
In his grief, Shane posted a video testimonial on YouTube called “It Could Happen To You," which attracted more than four million views and the attention of writer and filmmaker Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, best known for creating the TV series Designing Women.
“Linda Bloodworth-Thomason called me and invited me to her office and told me that this was something she really cared about,” Shane tells me over the phone from California. “Coincidentally, we’d met at a wedding four years prior, and Tom and I had talked with her and her husband about how we wanted to get married someday.”
Together, they assembled a documentary that’s a poignant and heart-wrenching saga of love, loss and hope — and one that’s almost too perfect to be true. From the obvious symbolism of Tom Bridegroom’s name, to his history as an Eagle Scout who went to military school and sang in his church choir, to his fidelity to his partner, to his all-American good looks, Tom seems almost built to be the perfect martyr for gay marriage.
And yet the raw emotion and genuine humanity on display in Bridegroom is impossible to deny.
“It’s pretty incredible how the film is resonating with people,” Crone says. “There are teenagers who’ve come up to me and said they’re struggling and contemplating suicide and said this film has made them want to live. And there have been people who’ve said, ‘I’m a straight man and I’ve never supported marriage equality, but now I do.’ The whole point of making the film was to open people’s hearts and minds, and the fact it’s happened to a few means we’ve done the right thing.”
The film has travelled around the world on the festival circuit, where it’s picked up a slew of honours, including the Audience Choice Award at Toronto’s Inside Out Festival, and got an endorsement from former president Bill Clinton at its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
“It was incredible because his voice and support will ultimately help us reach so many more people. I’m so grateful for it and grateful that he believes this film will help so many people,” Crone says.