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July 1, 2014

LEONARD PITTS: 'Broken Heart Land' explores tragedy

His family doesn't know if Zack actually heard any of it firsthand.

Maybe he was at that City Council meeting (some people swear he was) or maybe not. Either way, they figure he probably knew about the things that were said, how his neighbors in Norman, Okla., paraded to the microphone that evening in 2010 to denounce the proclamation of GLBT – Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender – History Month. They warned of a “slippery slope” to hate-crime laws, said gay people were out to “recruit” children, claimed 78 percent of all gay people have – and die from – sexually transmitted diseases.

That last claim especially angered Zack's family. Chad Williams, a local pastor, says he got the statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; a CDC spokeswoman says no such statistic exists.

Anyway, Zack was HIV positive. His family didn't know that at the time. Indeed, they didn't even know that Zack, who had moved out of state a month earlier, was back in town. He was that kind of kid: artistic, nature-loving, gay – and secretive. Zack kept a lot of things to himself. So the first they knew he had returned home was a week later, when his father found the 19-year-old in his childhood bedroom, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

“Some things,” Van Harrington told a reporter for the Daily Oklahoman, “you can never un-see.”

The story is told in “Broken Heart Land,” a documentary premiering this week on The World Channel. Check your local listings (worldchannel.org/schedule/) for the time. Or you can stream it online at bit.ly/BHLdoc. But be warned: Its lesson is not what you might think.

“I believe I have been always a conservative,” says Van Harrington as you see him sit in his easy chair watching Fox. You think you know what that means, what it braces you to expect. But this conservative is also a grieving father who always accepted his gay son. “People make HIV a shameful thing,” he complains. “The people who are against gays, that's how they rationalize part of their hatred.” Again, he is watching Fox as you hear him say this.

Zack's mother, Nancy, says she is a Republican and, again, you think you know what that cues you to expect. But, as she tells me in a telephone interview, “I am just very questioning. I've met so many wonderful people since Zack died who are Democrats and I see more clearly their view and there are so many society issues that they are so concerned about and this is definitely one of them. ... I look at the Republican candidates and say there have to be candidates out there who are for equality. And they need to know that they have the support of people like me.”

Since Zack died, she says, “I question everything. I question ... the Bible and who wrote it and why they wrote and is this just a power and control issue. I have very strong faith. I believe in God absolutely. The route which I go through those beliefs has probably changed. So many people accept the Bible unquestioningly, and I don't know that you can really do that.”

“Republican,” “Democrat,” “"conservative,” “liberal” “faith” – we build boxes out of words and climb inside. Our politics have taught us to be hard and fast, stark and clear, black and white and never gray on issues like this, like abortion, like guns. But real life is messier and more complicated than our politics pretends. Most people, most days, just grapple for answers they can live with. And it is in that struggle that change is forged.

This is what “Broken Heart Land” captures, movingly. The film ends with an HIV-awareness march through the town where Zack lived and died. His sister, Nikki, says she's come to realize that, “Awareness is the most loving, caring thing you can do. I guess it's like coming out for me. Maybe we all have to come out.”

Indeed, maybe there is no maybe about it.

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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