If you’ve not been near a film festival showing of the award-winning Game Face documentary, the good news is that it’s now on Video on Demand on Netflix; at the Online Store on iTunes, Google Play and Amazon Instant Video; and will also be available soon in DVD format via Passion River.
Beginning a year ago this month, the documentary made its world premiere at the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival and has been touring over 45 film festivals and screenings worldwide ever since, winning 12 awards in the process. The film documents the stories of Fallon Fox, the first MTF transgender professional fighter, and Terrence Clemens, a talented gay college basketball player with a criminal history for credit card fraud looking for a second chance. Both athletes realize that for their own peace of mind and sense of personal integrity they need to come out.
But there is no path for gay athletes to follow, no out gay athletes as role models, no guarantee that their personal revelations about being LGBTQ will be will positively received. Also included in the narrative are Jason Collins, the first openly gay NBA player, and Kye Allums, the first openly trans NCAA Division 1 athlete, who act as mentors, offering sage advice to Fallon and Terrence on their com- ing out journeys.
The untold story, however, is the face behind Game Face, that of Michiel (pronounced Michael) Thomas, the film’s director and executive producer who is himself an out athlete. Growing up in an athletic family outside of Brussels, Belgium, his dad was a marathon runner and his brothers played soccer. But playing in a local sports club, Michiel fell in love with basketball at age 12 and with hard work and motivation to better himself, he moved up through the sport. He wound up being chosen to play with Bree, a Belgian first division team at age 16. He spent the next three years playing professional basketball at his country’s highest level.
After years of denying his sexual orientation, the need to be true to himself began to push Michiel to come out even though he had no openly gay athlete to emulate. Once it also dawned on him that at just 6 foot-1 he would never be tall enough to have the pro basketball career he wanted, he first spent a year in Costa Rica as part of an American Field Service (AFS) intercultural program where he earned certificates in Spanish and photography, and the next year went to the University College in Brussels where he was graduated with a B.A in audiovisual techniques, including TV, film and video.
Always fascinated by the U.S., especially Hollywood, in 2008 Michiel made his way to Los Angeles to work in the broadcasting industry and found himself at home there. He has continued his love of basketball, playing with the gay L.A.-based Lambda Basketball league and as part of a traveling team playing in the National Gay Basketball Asso- ciation (NGBA) tournaments. It’s what offers him his fun in life.
Having met both Fallon and Terrence before they came out publically, he realized that his need for a gay sports role model to help him during his coming out dilemma was a universal one. It showed him that with his background, he could fill an important need. Here is how Michiel explains his desire to make the Game Face documentary:
“I realized many are still misinformed about LGBTQ players in sports. And that’s why I want to make this documentary: to inspire closeted athletes, but also to educate society on these very impor- tant issues and topics. … I wanted to bring stories of active LGBTQ athletes coming out during their career, to create a better understanding on the hurdles they have to overcome in finding their true selves and acceptance in society.”
The absolute challenge in this project, he says, was always money. But he has lots of very supportive friends who believed in him from the beginning and helped him to believe in himself. Using his savings, he began the documentary by working a grueling seven-day-a-week schedule and eventually some sponsors came aboard the project. Filming required two years to provide an unvarnished, real life look at what these athletes had to go through and then a summer was spent editing it, getting the film ready for its 2015 debut in Miami. And while it took lots of blood, sweat and tears, he says he enjoyed every second of the process.
Michiel’s desire to educate the public continues to bear fruit as many colleges and universities continue to request a screening of the film along with its cast members as part of a discussion on the changing face of homophobia in sports. It has opened the doors for Fallon Fox, Terrence Clemens, Jason Collins and Kye Allums to become the positive role models they all wish they had had when they were anguishing over coming out publically. And Michiel’s own family has been extremely supportive and understanding of his life’s work.
When asked what he’d like to share with his 12-year- old self today, he said he wouldn’t share too much of what he knows now because everyone has his or her own journey, needing to experience both the good and bad in life because there’s lots of beauty in the struggle. What he would tell his younger self is this: “Treasure that basketball because it will give you everything in your life – that universal game is what will enable you to find your life’s work and meet all your friends,” something he’s most grateful for as an adult.
With the realization that he can help start and elevate important conversations through his gifts as a storyteller, Michiel wants to do more documentaries. But for right now, he’s enjoying having a little free time. After ending a four-and-a-half-year relationship on a friendly basis, he says he is now “single and ready to mingle.” But don’t be surprised if you hear that there’s a new documentary underway, one that perhaps helps define and support the importance of LGBTQ athletes being able to be out and proud – not as gay people playing sports but rather as athletes who happen to be gay.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF OF GAME FACE
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