A video called “First Gay Hug: A Homophobic Experiment” with the caption “We asked homophobes to hug gay strangers for the first time” went viral when it was posted on YouTube last March.
Presented as a “social experiment” by The Gay Women Channel, the video garnered over 5 million views and was heralded as barrier-breaking by numerous media outlets.
But it was a fake, says a woman who appeared on the video. She tells FOX411 that the “real homophobic people” in it were actors directed to create characters and character names, and they were told to improvise their scenes over several takes.
April Lee, an advocate for the LGBT community for 20 years, also says that while The Gay Women Channel head Sarah Rotella told USA Today in March that some actors were involved, it was never mentioned in any of The Gay Women Channel’s social marketing for the video, or on their website.
Lee says she played the role of a Catholic woman who believed being gay was a sin. Lee’s prior involvement with The Gay Women Channel — she did a voiceover in the Web series “The Unsolicited Project” — led to her being cast in “First Gay Hug.”
“We did a Web series called The Unsolicited Project for two episodes and they credited me as this character. I thought it was clever and was dying to work with them again,” Lee told FOX411. “Sarah Rotella (the director of The Gay Women Channel) reached out to me and said, ‘Are you ready to be in a gay women video?’
“I said, ‘Oooh, sure! What character?’ Rotella responded, ‘We’re doing a version of a gay equality version of this video (“First Kiss”) that got 40 million views in three days. Ours is about homophobes being asked to physically connect with gay people.”
Lee says she was told to bring her six-year-old daughter to the taping, and the girl was given the role of the homophobic mother’s daughter.
Lee says she told her daughter on set that they were playing people who do not like gay people, and they did not believe that, but the video would help others open their eyes.
While on set, Lee says she was instructed to make the sign of the cross upon meeting a gay woman.
When the video was posted on March 15, 2014, the response was immediate. Lee says she received several phone calls and emails from friends and family saying, “What the hell are you doing? This isn’t you.”
Lee emailed Rotella to ask why the video was presented as a social experiment and did not clarify that the “homophobic” people in the video were actually actors. She says Rotella replied that letting people know it was done with actors would take away from the video’s message.
Lee continued to reach out to Rotella, requesting that The Gay Women Channel issue a statement saying the characters were portrayed by actors. Lee said she received hate mail from people who thought she was a homophobe, and that she was close to having a nervous breakdown.
“I kept asking myself, ‘Was I that stupid? How could I have been duped like this?’ Everything I have worked for in terms of my self-identity was torn away,” she said.
Lee said she pleaded with Rotella for a public apology, but the director refused and told her to stop writing on social media that the video used actors.
But at least one viewer wasn’t fooled. Rob Dyke, a YouTube content creator, noticed that the viral video appeared staged. He said it was the religion-bashing that set him off.
“It went from, ‘Hey, let’s make a feel-good video into a let’s kind of crap on people of faith, and religious people hate homosexuals,” he said. “They set a false precedent for how things really are.”
Dyke reached out to Lee when he saw her messages on social media, and together they made their own YouTube video, “Homophobic Mother Speaks Out: First Gay Hug,” to clear Lee’s name and expose the truth.
“I can’t stand someone who is a liar and getting money and fame based on lies,” he said. “There’s a huge movement off of lies, and it takes the genuine nature out of it.”
When Dyke posted the video seven months ago, he received a notice from Rotella to take down the video for copyright infringement. (Dyke had included clips from the original “First Gay Hug” video in his video.) But he says YouTube moderators deemed the use appropriate, and the video was allowed to stay up under the fair-use clause.
Dyke and Lee’s video has over 100,000 views, yet neither Rotella nor The Gay Women Channel has acknowledged it.
“They will not admit I was right,” Dyke said, “because then they’ll admit they are a scam. So they’re covering their asses. They are not going to do anything unless they are forced to do it.”
“First Gay Hug” is currently displayed n both The Gay Women Channel and Rotella’s personal website. It continues to be cast as an authentic social experiment.
FOX411 reached out repeatedly with emails to Rotella and The Gay Women Channel but did not hear back.