BY PATRICIA SAGASTUME AND STEVE ROTHAUS
In the short film The Denied, a gay cop is not allowed to visit his dying husband in a Florida hospital room because he’s told by an angry nurse that, “This is not D.C.”
That’s a reference to the Washington, D.C., law allowing same-sex marriage that passed in 2009. In real life, the film’s creator, Wil Jackson, is a local actor and a 19-year veteran of the Hialeah Police Department. He wed his partner two years ago in Washington because Florida bans gay marriage and civil unions.
Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has invalidated a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) there are questions about how the ruling will change the legal landscape in Florida.
“I am a citizen like everyone else. I pay my taxes. I’m a good person. I donate to charity,” Jackson said. “I don’t see why we should be treated differently from anybody else.”
For nearly two decades, Jackson, 42, has seen his share of domestic violence, burglaries, fraud and deceptions as a sergeant detective in Hialeah. But with all his experience protecting people, he says, he still couldn’t prevent the inequities he saw happening to victims with whom he felt a strong bond — gay people.
“What I’ve seen at work, the news, my life experiences made me want to make a film that educates people about gay marriage in a dramatic way,” Jackson said.
His film depicts the struggle of a policeman whose life unravels after his husband, a fellow police officer, is killed in the line of duty. In the film, Jackson plays the lead character, Andrew.
“There aren’t many black gay actors in films, so I wanted to show that,” Jackson said.
“It’s a tragic love story. What you see are tender actions and the pain that goes with losing someone,” he said.
South Florida actress Merry Jo Cortada portrays the bitter homophobic mother of the dying officer. Five years ago, she portrayed singer Anita Bryant in the world premiere of 1,000 Homosexuals, a play commissioned by what is now the Adrienne Arsht Center for Performing Arts.
“Back then there was a referendum to deny gay rights in Miami-Dade County, and now I’m playing this woman who doesn’t recognize gay marriage. It’s interesting,” Cortada said.
Same-sex marriage is legal in 13 states and the District of Columbia. Florida and 28 other states ban it, but the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA created more momentum to change that. Recently, the group Equal Marriage Florida announced it is collecting signatures to put an amendment on the 2013 ballot overturning the ban.
Jackson says his film couldn’t have come a better time. Making the 13-minute short cost about $15,000 — of which $4,000 came from the social funding site, Go-Fund Me. The rest was paid by Jackson.
“I knew no matter what I was going to make this film. I wanted to tell this great story for my country and South Florida,” he said.
That patriotic tone reflects Jackson’s decades of work in law enforcement and earlier, when at the age of 17 he got his mother’s permission to enlist in the Navy. Eventually he served in two conflicts, Desert Shield and Desert Storm, but he says it was only after he returned to South Florida that he faced his toughest decision.
“My mom had a cancer scare, and it felt like a fire was eating inside of me. I come from a Southern Baptist upbringing, and when I told her I was gay that’s when that fire was quenched,” he said.
At work, Jackson says, tolerance of gay police officers is a nonissue.
“Amazingly, 99 percent of the officers don’t care. If there’s a riot going on, all we see is a brother in blue, not the personal stuff,” Jackson said. “We have protection now and a lot of people are more relaxed. That’s what it has been for me and I’ve never had any problems,” he said.
In the film, Rey Hernandez plays a racist, homophobic cop. In real life, he’s a 15-year veteran police officer and South Florida SWAT team member. Hernandez says the film depicts law enforcement officials differently from what he sees every day on the job.
“Absolutely things are different,” Hernandez said. Cops in South Florida are accepting and in a better place in regards to the homosexual community.”
Before hiring a writer, Jackson already knew the plot points he wanted in the film. But he was shocked to learn that almost the same thing happened to his co-star.
“Wil had no idea it kind of hit home to me, because I lost my ex in the line of duty,” said Michael Verdugo, a former Hollywood police officer.
Verdugo’s character Alex is named for his real-life ex-boyfriend, Alex Del Rio, a Hollywood police officer who died in a fiery car crash while attempting to stop a speeding motorist on Nov. 22, 2008.
“I know this is going to strike a nerve with some people,” Verdugo said. “We put his name in as a tribute.”