“We Live Here: The Midwest” / Publicity photos

“We Live Here” Chronicles LGBTQ Life in the Midwest, Gay Teen Develops Crush on Best Friend in “Nathan Lee”

After filmmakers Melinda Maerker and David Clayton Miller worked for several years on a project about LGBTQ families, 2016 and that year’s infamous election happened — and everything seemed to change.

“Suddenly we were in this political climate of backlash and we [wondered] how that was affecting families now,” Maerker said. “We decided to explore that and as we did, we thought it was important to put it together as a documentary.”

The result is the new, “We Live Here: The Midwest,” which has just premiered on Hulu. It’s a documentary about several LGBTQ couples in Midwestern states. Among those are Iowa couple Nia & Katie, one of whom is transgender; Mario and Monte, one of the only Black and queer families in their town in Nebraska; Kansas goat ranchers Courtney and Denise; Russ Exlos-Raber, an Ohio choir teacher; and couple Jenn and Debb in Minnesota.

The directors made this film before the new wave of antigay bills.

“Since we filmed, it’s taken a turn for the worse,” Miller said. “This year alone saw the greatest number of bills being introduced into legislation that were antigay and antitrans. So, we have that, and recently we have the number three most powerful person in government who holds antagonistic and discriminatory views of the LGBTQ community. So, while our film is not controversial, the timing of it is. We think it is a pivotal moment for us to release this.”

Miller is a gay father of three who was elated when the Supreme Court ratified gay marriage, ensuring marriage equality for all. Yet after the election, he recognized that there was a little bit of trouble ahead.

“Flash forward to Roe v. Wade being overturned — who knows what is next? We have a Supreme Court justice who has said he thinks gay marriage should be reversed,” he said.

Finding the subjects for the project was not easy.

“We set out months before and a number of people we were put into contact with or found wanted to participate, but feared recrimination within their community, at their jobs and would not participate because of those reasons,” Maerker said. “That is why we call the film now courageous families. The willingness to share their story, knowing there may be retribution, is not an easy one. For that reason, it made it harder to find families.”

The filmmakers were clear that they did not want to go to a specific area of the country and wonder to themselves why these subjects did not leave.

“They are facing these various issues in their schools, churches and the answer is — no,” Maerker said. “Part of it is — why should they be kicked out of Dodge? There are things that are working in their communities, and they have roots and ties to the community, whether that is extended family or the landscape itself. Courtney and Denise specifically want to be in that land — that is their dream. People often think of LGBTQ folks being in urban areas, and I think that is because it is more acceptable to be LGBTQ. In the Midwest, they are kind of fighting the good fight. It’s like, ‘We want to be here and have been here for generations.’”

Hulu was not involved at the time of the filming, but came aboard later. Miller credits Hulu for giving the subjects media training for any subsequent press.

“They may be ‘famous’ now [because of the film], but there will be some haters out there too and they need to be prepared for that,” says Miller.

Maerker and Miller are hopeful of making another similar documentary in the future.

Quentin Lee’s new film, “Last Summer of Nathan Lee,” is the story of the titular 18-year-old main character (played by Harrison Xu) who discovers he has brain cancer and makes a pact to make the most of the rest of his life and summer. His best friend Dash (played by out actor Matthew Mitchell Espinosa) has a crush on Nathan, and their relationship takes something of an unorthodox twist.

The director was thinking of death a lot during the pandemic and remembered a friend in high school who got brain cancer. He enlisted a writer and later presented a script to actor Harrison Xu.

Lee was careful about the film’s tone. He grew up watching melodrama on TV, including a series about a woman with leukemia, but wanted to make this more optimistic.

“I wanted to make something completely funny, that celebrates life rather than to bog us down with death,” Lee said. “We all know death and [that] we will all die anyway.”

Dash is an immigrant from the Philippines, says Espinosa, who is asked to document and film his best friend’s death.

“The whole movie revolves around that last summer and Dash is along for the ride,” Espinosa said.

He related to the role, being Filipino, and recalls sometimes falling in love with friends.

Lee made his first short film back in 1992, and it was a queer Asian work. Unable to find actors to cast, he put himself and his ex-boyfriend in it. Eventually, he made more films, but when he and others made and cast gay films, no actors wanted to be in them.

“Thirty years later, casting an openly gay character is no problem,” Lee said. “It’s interesting seeing how the industry and acting community has evolved.”


“We Live Here: The Midwest” is now screening on Hulu

“Last Summer of Nathan Lee” is now available on video on demand