On May 7, 2011, a freak accident would change the life of Shane Bitney Crone forever. His best friend, business partner and soulmate, Tom Bridegroom, fell to his death from a rooftop in Los Angeles at the age 29. ‘Bridegroom’ is the tragic, but life-affirming emotional journey of these two men, whose profound relationship was cut short by a heartbreaking twist of fate.
Tom Bridegroom died alone in an emergency room while his partner of six years, Shane Bitney Crone, pleaded with nurses to let him into the room to say goodbye. The house they shared, the dog they owned together, the memories, the six long years that Shane and Tom spent together meant nothing in the eyes of the law.
Both Tom and Shane were transplants to Los Angeles. Tom, a promising young actor and TV presenter, was the product of an ‘all American household’. Popular, athletic and handsome, his military family couldn’t face the fact that their golden boy was in a gay relationship, and subsequently erased any trace of Tom’s life with Shane from his eulogy.
The conservative Bridegroom family went one step further and warned Shane that if he was to attend his partner’s funeral service, he would be physically attacked. With no legal standing, there was nothing Shane could do but stand at a distance from the graveside, hoping not to be spotted while his life partner was laid to rest.
With tremendous strength and understanding, Shane doesn’t vilify the Bridegrooms. “His parents really did love Tom in a lot of ways,” he says, and pauses to take a breath, having spoken Tom’s name. “They were trying and struggling like a lot of parents do when they have children that are different. That is a really an important message in this film – to show how important it is for parents to love their children unconditionally.”
Despite many attempts to contact the Bridegrooms about taking part in the film, they never returned a phonecall or email. “I’m sure it would be hard for them to watch the film with an open mind,” says Shane, “but I think maybe that they would be surprised that we made a point not to demonise them. We really just wanted to tell the story.”
From a desperate situation, Shane flourished. He didn’t get angry or fall into a pit of despair. He turned his grief into positivity and is now determined to share his story to anyone who will listen, in hopes that it will prevent this happening to any other gay couple.
Shane took to YouTube and posted his emotional plea for equal rights for gay couples through telling his story. ‘It Could Happen To You’ was posted a year after Tom’s death and struck a chord worldwide.
“Linda Bloodworth Thomason, the director, saw the YouTube video and called me to meet with me in her office. She convinced me that this was a story that needed to be told,” Shane tells me, on the line from his family home in Montana.
What’s striking about Shane is his apparent selflessness. He is not a man carrying his grief on his backor holding grudges; instead he’s transforming frustration and sadness into positive action. Shane, I was told prior to this interview, is inexperienced with media attention, so he is obviously nervous. His voice shakes, and he stumbles over words, but his passion is clear.
“Unfortunately what has happened to me has happened to thousands of people. The main purpose in making the film was to try and open as many people’s hearts and minds as we could. I also saw it as a testament to Tom and the relationship we shared.”
Shane does admit that the process of making the film poured salt on old wounds. “It wasn’t always easy at times, everyday working with the director and seeing all of the footage of me and Tom on vacation or fooling around. Doing interviews… it’s very hard talking about it.”
For Shane, however, it also felt like a form of therapy. “It was healing in a lot of ways. Just knowing from the response to YouTube video I posted, and how sharing our story has helped people, it didn’t make it so sad; it became something more inspiring and hopeful.”
Unlike Tom, Shane has an immensely supportive family unit. But like any adolescent questioning their sexuality, he also struggled.
“The only exposure I had to gay people was in movies and on TV,” he explains. “Unfortunately, at the time there wasn’t a lot of positive representation of the gay community in the media. All I saw were stories about gay men that were dying of Aids – like the movie Philadelphia. I genuinely believed that if I was gay, I would ultimately die from Aids.”
Shane suffered from panic attacks regularly, but they stopped once he met Tom. “I think it is so hard growing up in general, trying to figure out who you are, and then being gay on top of that it’s extra challenging,” he says. “I really wish I had been more proud of who I am.”
Through telling his story, Shane has put a face on what many gay couples experience. He shows that being gay is (to paraphrase Anne Hathaway) not a political statement, but a human experience. Since being given the Oprah Winfrey stamp of approval, and its streaming on Netflix, Bridegroom has already touched gay and straight audiences the world over. “I am so grateful for everything that has taken place, for having such huge support system, and now with Oprah Winfrey supporting it as well…
“But at the end of the day with this film, even if we didn’t get into Tribeca, or get streamed all over the world, I’m still proud of it. I think that Tom would have been proud.”
Since Tom’s death, Shane has been involved in the anti-bullying charity Love Is Louder. It’s omething he never imagined himself doing. “I never used to think that I could be an activist. I thought you had to be some legal expert, and know everything about the gay rights movement.
“I have learned that it doesn’t matter who you are as long as you have a voice you can use it to make a difference. I thought that nobody would ever want to hear what I have to say. It just goes to show, that if you stand up for what you believe in it might help people.”
Bridegroom is available to stream on Netflix now.