by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Alanda Spence, native of Auburn, WA, taps into her personal experience of being raised by a Gay father to play a controversial character in ABC's hit show What Would You Do?
Spence will depict being a Lesbian soldier on the episode set to air March 4.
In an episode inspired by the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' the hit series uses hidden cameras to capture both positive and negative behavior of bystanders toward the ethical dilemma involving Alanda's character.
'The nature of What Would You Do? is reality television, rather than episodic,' explained Alanda. 'I have worked on the show several times. Each episode features different topics, and the work is improvisational and my characters are never the same.'
'I didn't have to go far for research,' she told Seattle Gay News. 'I just called home.' Alanda called her father, a Gay man and retired military officer.
Alanda says her dad came out as Gay when she was 6 years old, resulting in her parents getting a divorce. 'So I grew up going to Pride Parades and hanging out on Capitol Hill,' she said.
'As with any divorce, the time was difficult for everyone in the family. My mother and older siblings understandably took their time of emotional estrangement to deal with the situation,' Alanda recalled. 'But because I was so young and couldn't fully grasp the definition of Gay, I didn't take that time to consciously distance myself from my father. I think that time is actually why he and I are so close.'
Alanda was adopted. 'My father is not my biological father. My parents, Stephen Spence and Jeanee (now Jack), had two children of their own before they adopted me,' she explained. 'My sister, Alisa Santi, is the oldest; my brother, Justin Spence, is the middle child, and then me. Dad was stationed in Omaha, Nebraska when he and my mother began to dabble in foster parenting. They'd recently had an older foster child run away when they got a call about a six-week-old infant left in the hospital. They weren't so interested due to the stress of the last foster child, but agreed to house me until they could find other arrangements. And that was that. They fell in love with me, sought out parental rights, and the adoption was final when I was 2 years old. So, my family is all Caucasian, primarily Scottish and Irish, while I am half Thai and half African American.'
'My dad had newly become the black sheep of the family - and I was the literal black sheep,' she said.
Alanda says that despite the rest of the family distancing themselves from her father, the two of them bonded.
'It was a couple more years before I really understood what homosexual meant, so to my 6-year-old mind, dad was still just my dad,' she said. 'The band-aids still went on scraped knees, talking back still got me punished, and nighttime tuck-ins were no less filled with love. Dad had moved 10 minutes away, but was still at every soccer game, every baton competition, and school play.'
'Heterosexual or homosexual parents & divorces are just tough. And I got really lucky with two parents that wanted to make sure their children were raised by their two parents,' she continued. 'If any scenario could've gone Jerry Springer, this one could have! But my parents are really amazing people and even though they divorced, they raised their children with civility and respect for each other.'
To this day, Alanda and her father remain very close. 'I'd say we've grown closer over the last few years because I've turned to my father for research as I've taken on more Gay roles. I did a lot of research to play the young Lesbian, Inez, in the short film La Soledad. The subject matter of that film really focuses on one's time of discovery of homosexuality; when you know you have these feelings about the same sex, but you're existing in that gray area of 'Is this admiration or attraction? Experimentation or legitimate feelings?' During that production, I learned more about my father's coming out than ever,' she said. 'But it's a different understanding of the situation when you're an adult. You can see the confusion and pain that gets hidden from you as a child. Conversely, as an adult, you can understand the relief and freedom to finally be living honestly. My growth in understanding of what it meant for dad to come out has only earned him more compassion and respect in my eyes.'
'It's funny, though. & People think having a Gay dad must be some magical experience, like I'm gifted with a heightened pop culture-inspired social status,' she added. 'But really, he's just a dad. I'm getting married in a few months and no, my father isn't planning the whole thing, picking out my dress, running around ordering flowers. Not all Gay men are 'just Jack!' My dad is doing what most dads do: writing checks and getting nervous about his father/daughter dance with his baby girl.'
When it comes to discrimination from people who don't believe that Gays and Lesbians should raise kids, Alanda has a strong opinion of them. 'In a word: Bullshit. Frightened statements made by individuals desperately hoping their own children don't 'become Gay' because then they'd feel at fault. For that statement to be truthful it would have to work the other way around: If you're Gay, then one of your parents made you that way! And all the Gay people I know have straight parents.'
'But - to answer in relation to my upbringing and what I was personally taught - I wasn't allowed to be Gay,' she joked. 'I played softball growing up and drove the family pickup truck, and the running family joke was my father telling me I wasn't allowed to have a mullet and date women. But in all seriousness, my father has told me that he would never wish the confusion, pain, stress, and ridicule that he had experienced due to being Gay upon any of his children. He wants only us to have happy, love-filled, prosperous lives, as any parent wants for their children. Ultimately, we were encouraged to follow our hearts, be they straight or Gay, and in this case all of his kids are happily heterosexual. He knows that being Gay comes with scrutiny, so if I was encouraged in any direction it was toward the most socially acceptable option: being straight. Although had I felt otherwise, I am confident my parents would have been equally accepting.'
When it came to 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and her father's career, Alanda says that her father tried his best to explain. 'I remember having a special talk with my father when the divorce first came about about the word 'Gay.' I think my mother had asked him to explain the situation to me when it was clear my young mind had no idea what Gay meant,' she said. 'And I clearly remember him saying 'You know Alanda, Gay also means happy.' It was explained to me that there are different types of love and 'Daddy would always love mommy in a special way, but it was OK for daddy to love men in a different way.'
She said she remembers thinking that being Gay meant that 'you were just nice to everybody.'
'Men loving men was OK, women loving women was OK, and women loving men was OK - they were all just different types of love. Again, this is what I was taught,' she continued. 'Because when you're a child and emotional situations are too heightened for you to understand on your own, you look to your parents to teach you what you're supposed to feel. And both my parents taught me that being Gay was fine, it wasn't weird, it wasn't unhealthy or unnatural - it was just different, as in another option. And for me, being a little black girl in a white family, I knew all about being comfortable with different.'
As for publicly discussing his sexuality, that didn't happen so much as a young child. 'I mean, I still had a mommy and a daddy, so I could still refer to them as such and it was perfectly acceptable socially. And as far as sexual orientation goes, at 6, I didn't know what sex was, let alone how to speak about my parents' preferences,' she said.
'But it did come up when I was a bit older, around 11 or 12 years old,' Alanda recalled. 'My dad simply said, 'You don't have to tell anyone.' My dad could carpool, host a sleepover, meet at parent/teacher conferences, and none of those things ever had to involve 'My dad is Gay' in the subject matter.
'In time, I told close friends, and they were fine - and why wouldn't they be? They'd grown up with him being Alanda's dad, so why would that change? However, I did become a good judge of character at a young age as a result of this. As kids get older, comments randomly come out using Gay references in a negative sense, and I learned quickly to simply not share my family secret with them.'
'As for the military brass,' she said, 'we just didn't go to many military functions. Dad never allowed himself to open up his personal life to his fellow soldiers. With DADT, he couldn't. He couldn't risk being friends with any of the soldiers, or even just going out for beers with the gang, because friendship leads to openness, and open was something he couldn't be on base. So we stopped by to pick up shopping at the BX, grab things from the office, but that was it. So I never knew he wasn't 'out' on base as he was in his personal life.'
Alanda says that she believes that Americans are becoming more accepting of the LGBT community. 'The climate is changing. Slowly, but I hope surely. Prop 8, DOMA, DADT - it's just heartbreaking. And during a time when I am considering my own nuptials, I really don't want to give the validation of my love for my fiancé to a state that doesn't accept my father's love for his partner,' she said. 'I'll do what I can based on my geographical realities, but in the least I've sought out an officiant that is supportive of same-sex unions. In terms of the repeal of DADT, I am so thankful that it will alleviate the official discrimination so soldiers of the LGBT community don't have to live in fear of losing their military careers. And for many soldiers, their military career is their way of life, way of thinking, and whole world. And I can only hope that it will in some way positively impact the unofficial discrimination amongst the troops.'
Currently, Alanda is working on more projects geared towards the LGBT audience.
'I produced and played the leading role of Inez in the short film La Soledad. I am currently in post-production for that project and hope to complete it by the end of the year. La Soledad is the story of a teenage romance between two girls, Soledad and Inez. Being raised a part of a Hispanic family in NYC, Sole struggles against homophobia within her culture and family,' she explained. 'The Morales family loves Sole, yet have a growing discomfort in her 'friendship' with Inez. As Soledad struggles to define herself, investigate her feelings, and fight for love, Soledad's family each react to her relationship in different ways - some more forgivable than others. '
Alanda recently completed work on an indie film called We Are the Hartmans that will appear on the festival circuit. 'In this project, I play a nurse to an ailing Richard Chamberlain. It was an amazing opportunity to work with Mr. Chamberlain, he's just a sweet man. Some old friends from NYU, director Laura Newman (of irREVERENT Films) and actor/producer Ben Curtis (formerly known as The Dell Dude) made the film, so it was a lot of fun getting to spend time on set with old friends,' she said.
'I am always eager to help the LGBT community,' said Alanda. 'As much as one might have hometown pride, I feel that way about the LGBT community. Of course, one side of me was raised in your standard, run-of-the-mill suburbia. The other side of me has been positively colored by my experience of being raised as part of the LGBT community. If, in my craft, I am able to help raise that bar of social understanding of the LGBT community and their need for equality, I'd jump on it. And so I did when ABC offered me this opportunity. Moreover, I was excited to get the privilege to honor my father in my own way.'
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