Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Daring to Be Gay in Small Town USA

Film Review of OUT IN THE SILENCE by Amanda Bransford for the IPS News Agency:

NEW YORK, Jun 21, 2010 (IPS) - Washington, D.C. residents Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer weren't expecting to become filmmakers when they placed an announcement of their wedding in Wilson's hometown newspaper.

A similar announcement they had placed in the New York Times garnered only congratulations, but in Oil City, Pennsylvania, the reception to a same-sex wedding was not so warm.

"It was a fascinating contrast," said Wilson, when the Oil City paper received angry letters instead of good wishes.

Wilson went through high school closeted and had long felt unwelcome in his hometown, so the chilly reception to his happy news was no great surprise.

Then Wilson received something that did surprise him: a letter from Kathy Springer, the mother of CJ, a gay Oil City teenager who had been harassed so badly in his public school that he had quit in favour of home schooling and barely left the house.

The school board refused to help CJ, and his mother didn't know where to turn. "I was the only openly gay person she knew of," said Wilson.

The movement for gay rights has tended to focus on urban areas, said Wilson, and, though Wilson and Hamer had not made a film before, they wanted CJ's story to be told.

"We realised that if we wanted this documented, we should start filming," said Hamer.

Over the course of three years, the two men traveled frequently to Pennsylvania to shoot, eventually receiving a grant from the Sundance Institute.

In the process, Wilson and Hamer were struck by the silence in which GLBT people in small town U.S.A. are forced to live. CJ had become a target by daring to break that silence and come out in high school – something no one did when Wilson was growing up in Oil City.

The increasing visibility of GLBT people has had mixed results for teenagers like CJ, said Hamer.

"The good side is that kids like CJ know that they're not the only gay person in the world, but the bad side is that there's been a backlash as a result," he said. "It's made bullying even worse as a way to tag kids that are gay."

Oil City's vocal conservative Christian community was making life especially difficult for GLBT residents.

Hamer says while that the anti-gay activists in Oil City may have seemed like an extreme fringe group, "They have power because no one wants to make them upset."

Despite the efforts of these activists, Wilson and Hamer were surprised to find an accepting community in Oil City that Wilson, growing up in silence himself, had overlooked.

"I was terrified of beginning to understand who I was," said Wilson of his adolescence. "The general dominant culture said that this was not good, and I was not seeking a community out."

Returning to document CJ's story, though, Wilson, along with his husband, forges relationships with lesbian neighbours he never knew he had who are facing their own struggles. He is even able to find common ground with some of those who had complained about the wedding announcement.

"It changed my perception of my home town," Wilson said.

Wilson and Hamer have now become unlikely ambassadors of a sort for struggling Oil City.

They took their finished film to the city council, said Wilson, and told them, "Either you can deny this all happened, or look at it as a tool to show what a great place Oil City is becoming. They did the latter."

A subsequent screening at the local community college sold out, and the filmmakers have brought "Out in the Silence" to other towns in hope that Oil City's progress can serve as a model.

"This is not just film for film's sake," said Hamer. "It's a powerful tool for community activism."

Human Rights Watch expressed interest while Wilson and Hamer were working on the project, and the film will screen Jun. 21-23 at the Film Society of Lincoln Centre as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

"Human Rights Watch saw that this isn't just a domestic political issue as people sometimes see gay rights. It's tied into the global struggle for equality," said Wilson.

OUT IN THE SILENCE also screens in the Tribeca Cinemas: Doc Series on June 28.

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