Anti-LGBTQ sentiments have long been upheld as a core belief of Christians for time immemorial. But what if parts of that Biblical homophobia are based on a 20th century mistranslation of the word homosexual? Such is the eye-opening assertion of Sharon Roggio‘s debut documentary 1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture. Following its recent win of DOC NYC’s Audience Award, Awards Radar caught up with Roggio to learn more about the filmmaking and the true story behind this history-changing moment.
Shane Slater: The idea of Christian homophobia being partly based on a lie is so fascinating to me. Can you tell me about the process of getting the crucial documents and key individuals involved in this film?
Sharon Roggio: Homophobia has always plagued our society. And as we learned in the film, struggling and working and being involved in patriarchal cultures that permeate our reality, this is just how it is. And we’ve been fighting these things for very long. But this is where it got amplified and then weaponized and then politicized.
For me, the journey began when I first was on an exploration to try to find affirming scripture. Some way to communicate with my parents through the Bible. That’s the only way to really communicate with them and try to get them to recognize me as a full human and fully affirming in my identity. And so I started to dig into the Bible, much like Kathy Baldock with her experience in the movie looking for a way to connect with her friend and say, “How could God not love my friend?”
So my journey started with my parents. And while I was digging into the Bible, I learned of Kathy Baldock’s work. And her discovery that the first time the word homosexual appeared in the Bible was 1946, which is a fact. She wanted to answer the question, was this a theological decision, or was it cultural? And her assumption was, it was cultural. But as a researcher and a journalist and a historian, she needed to find out the facts.
So while she was giving a seminar one day, she had somebody in the audience at Oxford, who found that very hard to believe that 1946 was the first time ever, so he started collecting all these Bibles. And he was the one that discovered that, through his own research, the team that made the decision was the Revised Standard Version. And they were commissioned in the early 1900s, to do this new English Version of the Bible to modernize the King James, and they left their archives at Yale University. So he tries to become friends with Kathy Baldock. They become friends and they go to Yale.
After I learned of Kathy Baldock’s work randomly, my non-affirming parents who I’m trying to connect with come to Los Angeles, and Kathy’s speaking at an iconic church. So I was like, “well, let’s just go all in a room. I’m a filmmaker.”
So I literally just started filming it, because I was on this exploration on my own. But that’s where I discovered for the first time that Kathy and Edie went to Yale. That was when I first learned of 1946. Because prior to that, I only knew of Kathy’s work, where she looks at the discrimination of LGBTQ people throughout history. And she does this amazing evaluation of 2000 years of human sexuality and history and this discrimination of LGBTQ people. Then she looks at it at different levels, like what’s going on in the military, society, culture, medicine. And how are these things evolving? How are they changing and shifting throughout time. And that’s what led her to 1946, which led her to Ed, which led her to Yale, which led her to me filming that day in Los Angeles.
So once we got all of those pieces in motion, I stopped everything that I was doing. I was like, this has got to be the story that I’m going to do for the documentary and four years later, the documentary is done. And it took many twists and turns as you can imagine, trying to then, for myself, work to make sure that Ed’s fact checking this. I did my own fact checking, which is what we do in the film, where we follow my journey as the filmmaker fact checking. So I spent two long years finding the right scholars to put in the film, to make sure that we’re offering a ton of different notes and the right message, but also good scholarship, you know?
SS: Your dad is so firm in his beliefs, yet he seems so comfortable on screen. How did you approach your dad to be involved in this film?
SR: It was a very tricky assignment, as you can imagine. But my father, when he went to the world premiere and answered the same question, he jokingly told the audience that he feels he was tricked into being in the movie. But it’s a joke, you know? He loves me and he is on this journey with me. And I invited him and he was brave enough to step into the journey, which I’m very grateful that he did. But my dad is a minister and ministers like to be seen.
And also, I’ve dealt with him my entire life. So I know how firm he is, and his convictions, and he continues to dig his heels into the ground. And then we’re talking about data over dogma. And I’m very convicted too. So if he feels so strongly, I feel so strongly. So let’s talk about it. And then I was brave and said, “Okay, let’s step into this.” And now here we are.
But preachers like to be seen. He loves being in front of the camera. He’s charming. And he’s a great man, he really is. And that’s one of the wonderful things about my dad. In the film, you do recognize he’s not purposely trying to hurt anyone. So that’s why I say also, our oppressors are victims of bad theology, just like we are. And hopefully, as we journey on this together, we can start to break down those walls.
SS: As a queer person yourself, I assume the process of exploring this film could have been either a relief or infuriating. What was the emotional journey like for you?
SR: I’ve always felt it was a lie. And once I had tangible evidence – which are the letters discovered at Yale and then the story that was created around it – that was enough for me to be ignited to start this whole process. So I’m more encouraged than anything. I didn’t really go through too many cycles. The cycles that I go through are the things that I see out in our culture today, and on social media and the stuff that I engage with every single day. Even just as recently as the Club Q shooting in Colorado. These things are fueled by homophobia, and they’re fueled by dangerous rhetoric that started because of this mistranslation. And because people are throwing their dogma around and not listening to each other and causing great harm in our society.
So I get more emotional about how do we fix this problem now in our society. And I hope that the film plays a small role in that. But beyond the movie, we are working on launching an impact campaign to start working in the communities and in the trenches and really start, for lack of better word, penetrating our culture with this reality. That words have power, translations matter, and how we use and abuse scripture has real implications in our society. And we see it every single day.
So that’s what gets me more emotional, you know? And then, as far as some of the emotional journeys in making the film, while looking through all of the footage and seeing and replaying some of the scenes with my dad, sometimes I would get emotional, just feeling that he’s stuck. And I know why he’s stuck, because I know where he comes from. I know religion plays really amazing roles in people’s lives. But it could also mask other things that are going on and there are other reasons that people get addicted to religion. So that’s a hard thing for me too, because I feel sometimes people get trapped in their dogma because it’s their safety net.
So, in making the film, I wanted to make sure that we’re not hitting people over the head in a way, where they’re feeling their whole world is being stripped from them, you know? Because if this is a mistake, what else is a mistake? And I know that these are real issues for people who are in that evangelical world.
SS: How was the world premiere? DOC NYC is presumably a liberal-leaning audience, but was there any pushback against the film?
SR: There was no pushback, which is good. But yes, it is probably more of a liberal-leaning community. Overall, I feel the experience couldn’t have been better. I’m very grateful that DOC NYC was our premiere festival. I think that was the right festival for us. And it couldn’t have been any better. I was able to hang around with my peers, I watched most of the films that they gave us on the virtual portal and was able to learn more and really grow as a filmmaker. And then also step into this documentary world, because I’ve never really been into it before. I never thought I’d ever make a documentary, let alone about the Bible.
Then to come out of it and be the most screened film in DOC NYC history, we have a definite demand for this film. And that was a bit of a risk too. We don’t want too many people to see the film before we get distribution. But at the same time, I know that this is a film that has global distribution appeal. So the comments have been super encouraging, super positive. Really overwhelmingly inspiring. And so I just hope that momentum grows. We won the Audience Award at DOC NYC. It just couldn’t have been any better.
SS: What are your expectations for distribution and the overall impact of the film?
SR: I hope everybody sees this movie. And I know that people on both sides are talking about it. And I’m sure that the other side – as much as they’re already writing books, articles, YouTube videos and sermons against our movie saying that they can debunk it – is going to watch the film. Now, whether we’re going to be able to sell a theater in the South, I don’t know. But I do know that we will be able to do very select theaters and do very well, I would imagine.
And people that have seen the movie already will want to see the movie again because of the way that it’s structured, you know? Not only is it a fun journey, it’s emotional. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, but you’ll learn things. And there are real, heavy things in there that we wanted to try, to add levity and humanity so that people can sit through that stuff. But I feel very strongly that people will watch the movie more than once.
And so these are the themes that we’re going to continue to build. And hopefully the audience will continue to show that. We’ve been getting people doing TikTok videos that I’ve just been replaying on our feed to get that message out there. And internationally too, there’s a church community in New Zealand, they have a conference every two years with LGBTQ Christians, and they want to see how we can do an impact campaign with the film. So that’s something that’s in the works, but we’ve been in touch with countries in Africa and Australia, Canada, the UK. And I’m very excited to see what festivals we can play at and then hopefully get some sort of theatrical and then streaming.