In October 2019, True/False Film Fest made the decision to end its affiliation with longtime sponsor The Crossing, a local Evangelical Presbyterian church. The change came after Pastor Keith Simon gave a sermon that, in part, questioned the validity of transgender identities. Simon said that “God is not pleased when we blur genders” in a sermon called “Male and Female. Ancient Text. Modern Debate.”
The fallout was immediate; 1,158 people signed a Change.org petition calling for a boycott of local businesses affiliated with the church. Later that week, Ragtag Cinema and True/False announced they would be severing their relationship with the church.
Tracy Davis, a board member for LGBTQ community hub The Center Project, says the sermon was saddening and disappointing. “It was insidious that they would use that platform to highlight some of the same discredited and biased propaganda that has been used to deny transgender people their rights for far too long,” she says. “It was condescending to be told that transgender people are confused. We’re not confused. We know our gender just as much as a cis person knows what their gender is.” (The term cisgender, or cis, refers to people whose gender identity corresponds with the sex they were assigned at birth.)
The Crossing produced an FAQ document following the outrage. It noted that the sermon had been misconstrued and was not intended to offend the transgender community. “A lot of misrepresentation and misinterpretation of this sermon has done harm to others,” the FAQ reads. The Crossing did not respond to requests for comment.
Davis says she doesn’t trust the polite wording of the FAQ. “They gave an apology that I read as a PR thing, but I found the apology lacking,” she says. The FAQ restates some of the topics from the sermon. “I don’t think they learned anything from the feedback they got from the community,” Davis says.
The controversy put True/False in a difficult position, says True/False Director Camellia Cosgray. The Crossing had been a substantial and steady donor to True/False for 10 years. The organization donated $40,000 to the festival in 2019 alone. Cosgray says the church’s donations totaled about 1.5% of the organization’s overall budget.
The organization hadn’t made any plans for addressing a sponsor with such a position, Cosgray says. “We don’t have an ideological or political stance,” she says. Not considering the impact of that was possibly one of True/False’s biggest missteps, she says.
But donors seemed to appreciate True/False taking a stand, Cosgray says. “We certainly had a few people reach out and donate where they hadn’t before,” Cosgray says. “I’m not aware of anybody who dropped a sponsorship or dropped a donation.”
True/False has now filled the financial gap left by The Crossing, says Holly Smith-Berry, True/False director of sponsorship. Say Insurance has come in as a major support of the art program and is a sponsor at the highest donor level. National Geographic Documentary Films and Bulleit Bourbon are also joining as sponsors at the highest level. Although The Crossing still has its name etched on theater seats at Ragtag, its name and logo no longer make it to the screen, and Cosgray says True/False is developing a set of guidelines it will pursue with future partners.
When addressing the controversy in October, the Ragtag Film Society released a statement about its values. “Ragtag Film Society values inclusivity and celebrates diversity,” the statement reads. “We embrace the voices and views of LGBTQ+ citizens, artists, and leaders in our organization and our programming. We will not give a sponsor’s place of prominence to any organization that discriminates or explicitly devalues LGBTQ+ citizens.” The statement continues that members of The Crossing and of all faiths are welcome in its spaces and community.
Davis says she was pleased with the stance True/False took. “They were moved to act rather quickly,” she says. “True/False and Ragtag have been a partner to the queer community in numerous ways.” She points to events at the cinema for World AIDS Day and other film showings about conversion therapy.
At this year’s festival, the True Life Fund film, which has historically been sponsored by The Crossing, is Welcome to Chechnya. It focuses on the ongoing genocide and persecution of LGBTQ+ citizens in the region.
Davis is happy with the community’s overall response to the controversy. “It was truly heartwarming to see that people in Columbia wouldn’t tolerate that sort of bigotry and intolerance that was being delivered in this sermon,” she says. ￼