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Out in the Silence Serves as Rallying Point for Rural LGBT Advocates

By Shilpi Singh - updated on Nov 10, 2010

CJ at hearingThe bullying faced by many gay youth has been much in the news recently, as commentators and activists respond to the suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi. As Emmy award-winning documentary Out in the Silence shows, LGBT residents of small towns across the country can battle such bias their entire lives. Released last September, the film explores discrimination faced by LGBT residents of Oil City, Pennsylvania.  Here we examine the filmmakers’ effective engagement strategies.

Out in the Silence is the first feature length documentary directed by Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson. In this deeply personal film, Wilson returns to his hometown, Oil City, with Hamer—his spouse and co-director—to document perceptions of LGBT people. The film begins with the incident that sparked the making of Out in the Silence: Wilson’s same-sex wedding announcement in his hometown newspaper. The ad resulted in an array of scathing letters to the editor denouncing homosexuality, with offensive comments directed at the couple. It also prompted Kathy Springer, mother of a bullied teenager named CJ, to write a letter to Joe asking for help. The film depicts CJ and Kathy’s isolation in trying to live a normal life among harsh discrimination that prompted CJ to leave the school and enroll in an online school to continue his education from home. 

Diane Gramley protestsOut in the Silence also highlights stories of people who decided to come out and try to serve as active, respected members of their communities, like Roxanna and her partner Linda, who face boycott from anti-LGBT group as they work to restore a theatre in their town. Opposing views are represented by the thoughts shared on screen by Diane Gramley, head of the Pennsylvania chapter American Family Association and an evangelical preacher, Pastor Miklos. Though Diane stands firm throughout the film, an interesting harmonious understanding develops between the pastor and Wilson.The film presents fresh insights about the LGBT experience across America. As Dean Hamer says, “media representations of LGBT people in America today focus almost exclusively on comfortable, middle-class, urban gay life. There is a real need for an honest and personal portrayal of small town life.”

Funded by the Sundance Institute, Pennsylvania Public Television Network (WPSU), and the New Tudor Foundation, the film has been broadcast on several PBS affiliate stations of the Pennsylvania public television network and was nationally distributed to PBS in June during gay pride month. Out in the Silence is also being distributed free online for students at Hulu and Snagfilms. On Monday, Oct 18, SnagFilms and BigLive jointly presented the film’s first virtual community screening. Close to 125 people joined the screening and some even stayed for an encore screening.

Initially, Wilson and Hamer focused on outreach to LGBT communities in rural Pennsylvania. By now, more than 100 events have been conducted in 52 counties, extensively in Pennsylvania as well as South Dakota “In addition to bringing people together to connect and share experiences on LGBT issues and concerns, often for the first time, these events help to inform local residents about important legislative and policy items currently on the agenda and to connect and engage them with ongoing local and state work," says Hamer. The outreach is funded by Wyncote Foundation, Philadelphia Foundation and Fledgling Fund.

While the Out in the Silence campaign’s strategy varies from town to town, there are certain key features that remain the same. Organizers promote events via radio, local press, social networking and posters, and choose libraries or other such communal locations for the screenings and discussions. “Individuals living in conservative communities are sometimes deservedly fearful of even being seen by their neighbors attending an openly LGBT event,” says Hamer. “This is why we emphasize that the events are open to everybody, and hold them in ‘neutral’ spaces such as public libraries.”

Partnerships with various civil liberties and LGBT organizations have augmented the reach and effectiveness of the campaign in raising the visibility of LGBT issues in small town America and connecting LGBT people with their allies. In Pennsylvania, where it all started, the America Civil Liberties Union supported the filmmakers in legislative lobbying and legal service, in addition to co-promoting half the screenings. Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission helped them with promotion and advised communities on how to establish non-discrimination ordinances.  Equality Partners of Western PA pitched in for grassroots work. Their national partners are Equality FederationCenter for Rural Strategies, Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays(PFLAG) and the Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN). One major obstacle in organizing LGBT specific events, according to Hamer, is the lack of a nationally coordinated progressive organizing infrastructure. 

Nonetheless, the campaign and its partners have made an impact. One key milestone was a successful campaign against Senate Bill 707, a bill to ban same sex marriage. The Out in the Silence campaign worked along with the ACLU, Equality Federation, Keystone Progress, and other groups in this statewide effort to get the residents of Venango County, Pennsylvania to call, email, and make office visits to their state senator, who had previously been an opponent of LGBT issues. The effort resulted in the senator voting for the first time to table the bill. The campaign has also partnered with the ACLU to gather support for House Bill 300, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to Pennsylvania's Human Relations Act.

Like Wilson’s wedding announcement, the film screenings have also resulted in several vehement public protests. The screening of Out in the Silence at Coudersport library was met with strong opposition that almost led to its cancellation. Pennlive reports the events up till the screening and the discussions that followed. The Altoona Mirror also reports a more peaceful protest, in which a group of members of the Faith Baptist Church of Altoona prayed for the failure of the screening. Another protest took place at Coudersport library few weeks after an Out in the Silence screening there, in an event titled  “A Bible Believing Christian’s Response to OUT IN THE SILENCE” by host Robert Wagner. Excerpts are available here; this video has received 4,315 views to date and numerous comments. 

Out in the Silence has been reviewed and discussed by several dailies and radio stations. Notably, Wilson shared his perspectives on making the film and how it was received on KTEP’s weekly program On Films, hosted by Charles Horak. (Access the audio archive here.) The film has also attracted more than 7,000 online members across social media sites that include Twitter,YouTube and Facebook. Their biggest jump in membership came after the promotion of the film on a YouTube channel, What the Buck, that focuses on celebrity gossip and has a gay host—the channel has more than 930,000 members.

Hamer and Wilson intend to keep rolling through rural America.  In November, the campaign will reach ten counties in an Oregon tour that kicks off with a screening at the Human Rights Film Festival in Portland, then visits 12 small towns and rural communities over 10 days.  It is being planned with Rural Organizing Project (ROP), which refers to itself as “a statewide organization of locally-based groups that work to create communities accountable to a standard of human dignity” and Basic Rights Oregon (BRO), which focuses on LGBT equality. The Community of Welcoming Congregations, Oregon PFLAG, and numerous local groups are also involved. The filmmakers are currently fundraising for campaigns in Utah and South Carolina to follow.