Until he was 55 years old, Fred Riley hid his true identity, living a secret life while married and raising children.
“All of society just told me, ‘you can’t be gay.’”
Emile Dufour’s upbringing wasn’t any different, ingraining in him a homophobia whose effects, he said, he’ll “probably take to my grave.”
But by the mid-1980s, Riley had come out and divorced his wife, and he and Dufour had fallen in love. In 2005, a year after Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage, they tied the knot and their wedding photo filled the front page of The Lowell Sun.
The two share their poignant story in the documentary Fred and Emile, which will have its television premiere June 23 at 9pm on GBH 2. Directed, filmed and edited by Christian de Rezendes, it was produced by Jerry Bisantz with production consultant Ann Garvin— who is also Riley’s niece. Garvin and Bisantz are co-founders of The Image Theater in Lowell.
For Garvin, the experience of sharing the story of her uncle, who died in 2021, was deeply moving.
“It’s so personal. They’re both wonderful people who I’ve known for years and years,” she said. “And they had a wonderful story to tell. Seeing it told in a beautiful and respectful way is amazing.”
With no narration, the film features the two men, interviewed in their lavishly decorated Lowell Victorian home, reflecting on the angst and monumental changes they’ve experienced over the tumultuous decades.
After years of facing ridicule, said Dufour in the film, “the marriage put me on a par with any heterosexual walking the face of the Earth.” It acknowledged his nobility as a human being, he said.
“It was really important to me to capture their words, their voices, their heart, rather than having a narrator summarize what they went through,” said de Rezendes. “The film is just two guys talking about what they’ve been through, how they came to love themselves and each other,” he said. “In that way, it was one of the simplest documentary films I’ve ever done but one of the most compelling.” de Rezendes also directed Raising Matty Christian and Revealed: Portraits from Beneath One’s Surface.
In telling their stories, Riley and Dufour “pretty much encapsulate the gay movement in 25 minutes,” said Bisantz.
“It was eye-opening for all of us to catch a glimpse of what it was like to be gay in that time,” said Garvin. “Today, we all take for granted the freedom to be with the person we love, the freedom to marry.”
The film delivers essential historical perspective, said Bisantz. “The documentary shows that these changes didn’t just happen overnight, and they didn’t happen without a lot of blood and guts. The riots at Stonewall, the gay bar, sure proved that,” he said.
“We worked hard for this [equality],” said Fred in the film. “We still don’t have complete acceptance.”
It’s critical for young people today to hear from this generation, said de Rezendes. “We all stand on the shoulders of whoever was here before us,” he said. “It’s important to show that they sacrificed a lot and went through a lot of turmoil and trouble in order to create the world we have today.”