In honor of Gay Pride Month, Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson's new doc about coming out in smalltown America will screen on Monday, June 28. Don't miss this story of courage, equality, and finding one's voice.
Still from Out in the Silence
When popular 16-year-old jock CJ Springer is brutally attacked for coming out at his small town high school, his mother Kathy reaches out for help to the only openly gay man she knows of—native son and filmmaker Joe Wilson—whose same-sex wedding announcement she saw in the local paper. Returning home with camera in hand, Wilson documents the harrowing but ultimately successful efforts of CJ and his mom. As the focus widens to include the entire community, Out in the Silence provides a fascinating and moving commentary on America's culture war.
Joe Wilson & Dean Hamer: Our journey began when we got married in Canada in 2004. Like most newlyweds, we wanted to share our joy with old friends and schoolmates, so we both decided to announce the news in our hometown newspapers.
For Dean, who grew up in the New York suburb of Upper Montclair, New Jersey, that was the New York Times, where it drew many congratulatory responses.
For Joe, a native of the small town of Oil City, Pennsylvania, it was The Derrick, where it drew a very different response: a flurry of letters to the editor condemning the “homosexual lifestyle” and lamenting the “moral decline” of the nation. One letter writer remarked, “It would be better if you had never been born.”
Then one day we received a long handwritten letter from Kathy Springer, the mother of a gay teen, CJ, who was being tormented at school. She wrote Joe, pleading for help, because he was the only openly gay person she'd ever heard of from her town and she didn’t know where else to turn. That's when we knew we had to go back to Oil City and document what life was like for gay and lesbian folks there.
Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson
Tribeca: Please describe the story you tell in the film.
JW/DH: Initially we thought it was going to be a simple narrative of a gay teen coming out in a rural community. But over the three years we spent filming CJ and his mom, a series of interconnected stories unfolded as we became increasingly involved in the life of the town. A lesbian couple decided to restore a long-abandoned, decrepit downtown theater to a semblance of its former glory. A right-wing activist led a crusade to maintain Oil City's “family values.” Things took an unexpected turn when we developed a relationship with an Evangelical preacher and his wife, who started out by condemning our marriage, but eventually became our friends.
In the end we found that the situation in Oil City was much more complex and nuanced—and more hopeful—than we originally realized. The town was full of good-hearted and open-minded people; it was just a matter of giving them an opportunity to break the silence imposed by the status quo.
Tribeca: Why is it important to screen this film in New York City this month?
JW/DH: Many New Yorkers will find it difficult to believe that the sort of hate and discrimination documented in Out in the Silence still exist in America, believing the fight for gay rights that started with Stonewall has been fought and won. But it's not over yet, and the continuing social, political and educational domination of rural and small town America by the religious right is one of the main reasons why. Even in New York City, two people of the same gender cannot be legally married—not because of local opposition, but because the legislators from upstate still have the same sort of attitudes that dominate Oil City.
It's especially appropriate to have the film screen in June, which is Pride Month—a time to celebrate the victories of the LGBT movement and contemplate what lies ahead. We hope that Out in the Silence will be a reminder that until the voice of rural and small town people are included in the debate, we'll never have full equality.
Tribeca: What were your biggest challenges in developing the project? How did you overcome them?
JW/DH: The good thing about being first-time filmmakers is that we had no idea of the huge amount of time, effort and resources that go into producing a feature documentary. If we had, we might never have begun! We were fortunate to be able to shoot the piece largely on our own using the new, relatively inexpensive HDV cameras that became available just as we were beginning the project.
The real challenge has been to get the finished film out to the people who most need to see it—folks in places like Oil City, where there are no fancy film festivals, or even any independent theaters. We were fortunate that a Pennsylvania PBS station recognized the local importance of the story early on and provided a starter grant and statewide broadcast. That subsequently helped us garner outreach grants from the Sundance Documentary Film Program and the Fledgling Fund, two organizations that share our vision of using film for social change by swaying peoples' hearts and minds. This has allowed us to devote our full time to an extensive, grassroots community engagement campaign that is beginning to have real impact.
Tribeca: Many documentary filmmakers are disturbed by the decreasing interest of traditional distributors in their work. What has been your experience?
JW/DH: Because we see the film more as a tool for education and activism than as a way to make money, we've used a “4E” approach to distribution: make it available Everywhere to Everybody in Every possible format as Early as possible. We were lucky to find a savvy young DIY marketer and distributor, Casey Callister at Garden Thieves Pictures, who has managed to put the film on iTunes, Amazon, Borders, Netflix, Hulu, and many other places we'd never even heard of—including the What the Buck show on YouTube. Our aim is to make it possible for people—especially youth who are still not out of the closet—to view the film privately without having to let anybody else know.
Still from Out in the Silence
Tribeca: What do you want people to take away from the film?
JW/DH: We hope that Out in the Silence will help people view documentary film as a way to become active and involved in the world, rather than just to observe as a passive viewer, as so much of today's media encourages.
Our ability to pick up cameras and go back to Oil City to confront and expose the homophobia that is still so dominant in small town America was empowering both for us and for CJ and Kathy. Before our arrival, they had made attempts to bring an end to the harassment and discrimination CJ and other LGBT students faced at school, but to no avail—they were treated as nonentities. While we were nervous about taking cameras into their home the first time we met, it turned out that CJ and Kathy were desperate for their stories to be heard. And as we followed and pushed with them into the community, the cameras put the school board and other local authorities on notice that they were being watched and would no longer be able to persecute LGBT people free of scrutiny and accountability.
We anticipate that many audience members in New York will have originally come from small towns not too different from Oil City. It would be wonderful if they came away from the film with the idea of going back home and speaking out in the silence.
Tribeca: What's up next for you?
JW/DH: Our main priority for the next year is to continue and expand the Out in the SilenceCampaign for Fairness and Equality in Rural and Small Town America, which is using the film to raise visibility and mobilize LGBT people and their allies living in the heartland. We've starting by holding screenings in every one of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania, and will soon be extending our efforts to strategically chosen target areas like Oregon, Ohio, South Dakota and Texas. It's a very proactive campaign in that we deliberately take the film to places where there has never previously been any sort of openly queer event.
We're putting a big emphasis on reaching out to rural youth, who are especially vulnerable to the lack of support and advocacy networks outside the big cities, and who are harassed and bullied even more frequently than their urban and suburban counterparts. For example, we recently collaborated with GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network) to make the film and Discussion Guide available to over 200 youth-led groups who held peer-to-peer screenings around the Day of Silence, many of them in small towns and isolated areas.
Our dream is that the film will inspire others, especially youth, to join the struggle for equality and justice for all. We're very excited that the Tribeca Cinemas Doc Series screening will feature dynamic young gay activist Joey Kemmerling from a small town in Pennsylvania. Joey founded TheEquality Project as a sophomore at Council Rock High School South to challenge homophobic and other forms of bullying, bigotry and discrimination. The organization has become an Internet sensation, and Joey and his Equality Project peers are inspiring young people across the country to become involved in the movement for safe schools and equality for all.
If our film can attract more youth like Joey to join the struggle, we'll feel like the project was well worth the effort.
Visit the official website, where you can find the downloadable Discussion Guide and Planning Kit and links to sales sites and partner organizations.