Film About Gay Adventists Faces Legal Challenge from the Church

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Seventh-Gay Adventists: A film about love, sex, and eternal life is a small, independent documentary being produced by my husband and me. This is a passion project that we came to after living in San Francisco for several years and becoming close friends with several Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender members (current and former) of the Seventh-day Adventist church who were really torn between the church they grew up in (and still love) and being true to who they are.

After getting involved in Adventists Against Prop 8, a small but significant activism campaign within the Adventist church to protest some Adventist leaders' heavy-handed push to persuade members to vote for Prop 8 in 2008, we were very disappointed in the final result. We were expecting our first child and felt strongly that we should do more to bring about equality and acceptance for the most marginalized members of the church we grew up in. With a background in documentary and storytelling, and because we both grew up in the Adventist church, we felt that a film focused on the stories of LGBT members of the church would be the best option to change hearts and minds both within the church and beyond.

Current Legal Issue
We recently received a letter from the law firm that represents the General Conference Corporation of Seventh-day Adventists (GCCSDA), the legal entity that holds the rights to the trademark of “Seventh-day Adventist”:

Your use and modification of the SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTIST mark in this manner is without permission of the GCCSDA and/or the church, and is likely to cause dilution by blurring the distinctive qualities of the SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTIST mark and by tarnishing the reputation of the mark. Your use of the mark in this manner is also likely to cause confusion among consumers who may mistakenly believe that the Church has authorized or approved your use of the SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTIST mark.

It’s strange to think of a church as a corporation and of members as “consumers,” but we do understand their interest in protecting their trademark. But, we aren’t starting a church using their name—we’re making a film.

It’s true that the title Seventh-Gay Adventists is an allusion to the name of the church (though it’s clearly not identical) because that’s the church our subjects grew up in. It’s the church that most of them love dearly despite the marginalization, suspicion, and often outright rejection they have to deal with.

And the title gives our viewers a hint of what’s to come. They’re likely to realize that the film is about the Seventh-day Adventist church’s policies on homosexuality, or at least the experience of gay members of the church in the face of those policies. This means, in the words of our lawyer, “The expression inherent in the title is protected by the First Amendment.”

The church may not like our title, or the inherent identity and authority questions it raises, but because we live in a country where we are privileged to have the freedom to speak our minds and question our religious institutions, we aren’t infringing on their trademark or copyright. We are making a commentary.

Interestingly enough, the church has had one high-profile case similar to this back in 1991, and it was also over the use of the church’s name in the context of gay Adventists. Back in 1991, the church sued Seventh-day Adventist Kinship (a support group for gay and lesbian Adventists) over the use of their name and lost because the presiding judge found the Seventh-day Adventist mark to be generic. It’s interesting to note that although Adventists in general are very loathe to sue, apparently groups or projects associated with gay issues have been singled out as worth prosecuting.

Personal Reflection
As I recently wrote on our film website, the title Seventh-Gay Adventists was really just a working title at first. But the more I met and talked to gay Adventists, the more the title seemed a perfect description of the excruciating challenge many face in trying to integrate their religious and sexual identity. We all know it isn’t easy to be a gay Christian, but being a gay Adventist is an entirely more challenging proposition because, to most, Adventism is much more than just a belief system, it’s an entire culture and community that’s more like an ethnicity than just a church. As one Adventist religion professor (who himself lost a gay brother to suicide) said recently to a group of Kinship members, “You have two incurable conditions—you’re gay and you’re Adventist. And it’s awfully hard to stop being either one of those things.”

Film Stats
The film is still in production. It is being fiscally sponsored by the San Francisco Film Society. We are a small production company based in San Francisco (well, based in our kitchen)!

Resources
Our lawyer, Vijay Toke, at Hiaring+Smith, LLP, is happy to field questions.

More information about the film can be found on our website and Facebook page.





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Sat, 10/25/2014 | Los Angeles Adventist Forum
October Adventist Forum
Ronald E. Osborn, Ph.D., A 2014-2016 Mellon Postdoctoral Fell ow in the Peace and Justice Program at Wellesley College (Boston), and a 2 015 Fullbright Scholar to Burma/Myanmar, Formerly an Adjunct Faculty Membe r in the Dept. of International Relations at USC, and in the Honors Progra m at UCLA. Topic: "Death Before the Fall?: A Conversation with Ronald Osbor n."

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