Lance Bass, the 34-year-old former member of NSYNC, has expanded his résumé from boy band bass singer to executive producer. His harrowing new documentary, Kidnapped for Christ, just premiered at Slamdance this past weekend; the film captures the plight of three American teens sent to a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic.
"All of them are sent there for different reasons," a visibly energized Bass told BuzzFeed over lunch in Park City, Utah. "One is drugs, and one for just not getting along with their parents. And then there's this guy, David, who was gay, and his parents were convinced that he needed to be sent away so they could change him."
David's story lurks at the heart of the documentary; a clean-cut, smart kid, one who never got into trouble, was taken out of his senior year of high school and shipped abroad to "cure" him. For Bass, David's story is all too familiar, as he knows exactly what it's like to hide who you truly are.
"I was very much like David," Bass said. "The first memory I ever had was that I was attracted to boys, and not to girls. But I knew at a very young age that I had to hide that, thank god."
He managed to hide his sexuality up until 2006, when he made the decision to publicly come out on the cover of People magazine. And prior to that point, the only people who actually knew he was gay were his close friends.
"My friends knew I was gay," he said. "I wasn't hiding that at all. But my family still didn't know in the beginning."
Bass recently published a letter that his mother, a devout Southern Baptist, wrote to her church, in which she describes the "miracle" of her son coming out of the closet. In the letter, his mother, Diane, describes the journey of finding out her son was gay and realizing that the true Christian thing to do would be to accept and love him unconditionally.
"My mom cried for about a week," Bass said, after he came out to her. "What I learned then about Southern mothers is that they're not against gay people, and they're not against being gay. They're against half of the world hating you. That's what scares them the most. They just know how much hatred their child is going to have to go through."
Bass experienced that hatred firsthand back in 2002, when he was training with the Russian cosmonaut program to be the youngest person ever to fly in space. He spent three months at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, and that was enough time to figure out how the Russians at the center felt about the LGBT community.
"I was so scared the whole entire time that they would figure out that I was gay," he said of his time at the program. "I was always worried that they were going to figure it out at any moment, and kill me. Just come in the middle of the night and kill me."
It's no secret that Russia is a scary place for LGBT people right now. For years, gay pride parades have been met with violent protestors, anti-LGBT laws have been passed, and even public figures, like Russian celebrity Ivan Okhlobystin, have made anti-gay comments without fear of repercussion.
"It's really sad, I grew to love Russia," said Bass. "I lived in old communist Russia — I wasn't in Moscow — I was in the 1960s real Russia. So I really got to know them and appreciate their culture, and even then I knew how much they hated gays. That was one of the first things I realized, was how much they made fun of it. It scared me how much they talked about it, and how offended they were by gays."
One moment that sticks out for Bass in particular was during his medical testing before the training even began. "They had to give me a colonoscopy to test everything," he explained. "They did it. I was completely awake. It was very barbaric — their medical testing is very barbaric — and I'm sitting there and they're doing the procedure with lots of doctors in the room. So I have tears coming down my eyes, because it hurt so badly, and they all start laughing. And I asked my translator, 'Why are they laughing?' and they said, 'Well, they know now that you're not gay.' And they were all laughing because my colonoscopy hurt so much, and they were all happy because I wasn't gay."
The trip into space never panned out, and was the subject of a lot of tabloid fodder — his funding fell through, and the Russians promptly removed him from the program. It was the same year that NSYNC went on an indefinite hiatus.
"When NSYNC ended — and I didn't know it was ending — I didn't know what to do. I had always been the bass singer of NSYNC," he said. "I didn't know what else I was good at."
Bass felt "burnt out" from music and took a break to pursue television and film projects. "Ten years later, here I am with all these noodles I slung everywhere. And now in 2014, half of those noodles are actually sticking."
One of those "noodles" is Kidnapped for Christ, a project that took eight years to film. Bass got involved with the project after a friend and fellow producer on the project, Mike C. Manning, showed him some raw footage. "My jaw dropped to the floor," Bass said.
Director Kate Logan was granted unique access to the Christian reform school, Escuela Caribe, when she was just a 20-year-old student doing missionary work in the Dominican Republic. Initially, she'd met fellow missionaries who had sang the school's praises, and she wanted to make a documentary that showed the positives of a reform institution. However, once she began to dig into the school's methods, she realized that things were much more grim than anyone knew.
"People in prison don't have it nearly as bad, because they have rights," said Bass. "These kids are stripped of everything."
The film shows the grueling exercises that children in the school are put through as a way to break them down and make them more easily malleable. Students are required to ask permission for nearly everything they do, even walking into a room. Contact with the outside world is predictably limited, and most parents may have no idea about the kind of duress their children are under while at the school. The unintentional star of the film, David, manages to sneak a letter out through Logan, which helps alert his friends back home to the abuse he's suffering for simply being gay. That one action begins a series of events that gives David the courage to stand up to his abusers, and realize that being gay isn't something of which to be ashamed.
"They were brainwashed to think this was God's work," Bass said of the abuse and homophobia David suffered at the hands of the school. Escuela Caribe has since been shut down, only to reopen under a different name and with a new slew of students. Bass hopes that the film will open a lot of people's eyes, and give its issues the boost that's needed to bring them to a wider audience. In fact, drawing awareness and righting wrongs seem to be a persistent theme when it comes to Bass's most recent endeavors.
"I'm an advocate for many things, and gays for me are definitely one," Bass said. "I'm so glad that God made me gay, because I don't know if I would've been so open minded, if I was just a normal straight white guy from Mississippi. Thank god that God made me gay, because now I understand what that's like. I know 100% it's not a choice. I'm so happy that I can understand that. If I know this is right and that other people's thinking is wrong, then what else is wrong in the world?"