When Jay and Bryan Leffew started making YouTube videos in 2008, their motivation was simple. They didn’t plan on making more than 500 short films showcasing their family on the Gay Family Values channel. They didn’t plan on being the subject of a documentary and blazing a trail for gay parents nationwide. They were simply frustrated with the debate over Proposition 8 in California; they didn’t understand why pro-gay marriage advertisements shied away from the people they were supposed to help.
“Our side was very scared to show gay couples and gay families with kids,” says Jay Leffew, 43.
What’s more, the Leffews found the anti-gay marriage side’s talk of “family values” appalling -- they had two children of their own and thought their values were just as good. Indeed, their loving home exemplified the best of those values.
The Proposition 8 ads were “saying things about who we were as people,” says Bryan Leffew, 42. “It was extraordinarily frustrating for us.”
The couple turned to YouTube, looking to find videos of gay families. They were surprised by the number they found: zero. Jay said that someone should put up a video highlighting a real-life gay family. Bryan agreed -- then said that Jay should do it.
“It was very off-handed and not serious,” Bryan says.
But Jay found a camera and recorded the family’s first video. Uploaded on Oct. 4, 2008, It was just over two minutes long and introduced the two dads and their children, Daniel and Selena. Even though they had no idea at the time, it was the start of something big.
An Audience Responds
The simple video caught on. It has nearly 30,000 hits today, and within a few months the Leffews had 1,000 followers. But the volume of the response wasn’t the only surprise. It was who was doing the responding.
“We had made the video for straight people,” Bryan says. “What we didn’t expect to get was feedback from gay people.”
“So many young people wrote us thanking us,” Jay says.
They heard from preteens who were coming to terms with their sexual orientation and glad to know that having a family was an option. They heard from these children’s parents.
The Leffews had hit a nerve.
“We said, ‘Let’s just do this and make a video every week,’ ” Jay says.
And they have. Over the years, the family has posted videos on a staggering range of subjects. Some show their vacations. Others feature members of the family (including Daniel and Selena, both of whom are adopted) answering viewers’ questions. Some feature political commentary and advocacy. Still others are simple slices of life in their native California.
“What we like best about our videos is that they’re not scripted or made up,” Bryan says. “It’s our life being documented.”
One of their most viewed videos thus far is a direct message from Daniel, then 12, to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. At the time, the Supreme Court was taking up the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, and Daniel’s pro-equality words went viral. The video made CNN, and more than a quarter-million people watched it.
But not all of the response has been positive.
“We get a lot of hate mail -- almost as much from gay people as straight,” Jay says. Some people call the family heteronormative. Some younger gay viewers think they’re preaching morals and values.
“I just want people to know this is an option if they want it,” Jay says He engages in the famously over-the-top comments section of YouTube, deleting only the responses that contain outright hate speech.
“I don’t take any of it personally,” Jay says. “I don’t internalize it.” Bryan, on the other hand, prefers to let his husband deal with more outspoken online feedback.
The Big Picture
The YouTube videos have also opened a world for the Leffews. They were grand marshals in the 2013 San Francisco Pride Parade. And a documentary about the four, The Right to Love: An American Family, came out the year before.
Work on the film was done at the Skywalker Ranch, the production facility created by director George Lucas. Visiting was one of the highlights for Jay and Bryan, who are both huge Star Wars fans.
“That whole part will always go down in our memories as very special,” Jay says.
But Bryan points to the relationships forged through making the videos as the most valuable part of the whole experience.
“We’ve met so many people that we never would have had a connection with,” through the videos he says. As for Danel and Selenda, “their childhood is being affected by all the people they’ve met.”
Jay says the plan is to continue doing a video a week until Selena is 18. She’s 9 years old now. Bryan hopes that eventually the kids will want to take on the project.
“It’s taking the journey to see where it takes us and our family,” Bryan says.