Being a gay teen is hard enough if you live in a progressive metropolitan area of the country. Just imagine trying to scrape through the most awkward and fragile years of your life in an economically depressed and socially conservative piece of small-town America somewhere between Pittsburgh and Erie, but essentially in the middle of nowhere.
Welcome to Oil City, Pa.
In their forthcoming documentary, “Out in the Silence,” D.C. filmmakers Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer chronicle the lives of several LGBT residents of Oil City, Wilson’s hometown, after the couple published their wedding announcement in the local paper — and ignited a firestorm.
“We, unknowingly when we published our wedding announcement, fell into an area that is home to the head of the American Family Association,” Wilson said. “I didn’t know that when I published my wedding announcement. [AFA president] Diane Gramley seems to see this as a real threat to her dominance of the area and the way things play out there. She initiated a campaign not just against publication of the wedding announcement, but of LGBT visibility in general. They seem to not be able to tolerate any acceptance in an open way of LGBT people in the community.”
But the wedding announcement controversy also caught the attention of a local woman, Kathy Springer, whose teenage son C.J. was facing brutal and unrelenting abuse at school because of his sexual orientation. School authorities were doing little or nothing to remedy the situation so she sought out help from Wilson, the only openly gay person she knew from the area. “Out in the Silence,” in part, chronicles their struggle with school authorities who ignored the daily harassment and violence C.J. faced and the overall environment of intolerance the ultra-conservative American Family Association promotes.
“Initially, it was an ugly environment,” Wilson said about returning to the small town where he grew up. “[Gramley] really ratcheted up the public campaigns against LGBT people or the acceptance or discussion of LGBT issues in schools. It scared us, and it scared a lot of people initially, but what we found over the years that we were filming was that change really can occur in this kind of environment. It just looks different than it does in an urban environment. People who live in these small towns have to figure out how to navigate the difficult terrain of being open and proposing different ways of looking at the world. At the same time, they have to make a living and get along with their families, friends and neighbors in this tiny fishbowl environment. So we think the film shows an exciting way to challenge this false religious-based discrimination.”
With acres of farmland and abandoned factories as its backdrop and the haunting music of transgender singer-songwriter Namoli Brennet providing the soundtrack, Wilson interacts with town residents in an effort to get to the heart of issues of tolerance. C.J., for his part, documents his own experiences in the town with a camcorder Wilson gave him.
Aside from C.J. and Wilson’s experiences, “Out in the Silence” also details the stories of other LGBT residents that call Oil City home, including Roxanne Hitchcock and Linda Henderson, owners of The Latonia, a local theater, and their efforts to revitalize the local economy.
“Northwestern Pennsylvania is post-industrial, rust-belt America in classic decline searching for a way to recover and find a viable future for people there,” Wilson said. “This lesbian couple takes a very prominent role in Oil City’s effort to put itself back on the map. This story chronicles the hills and valleys of their struggle over a two-year period to revitalize the local theater that stands at the heart of the area’s hopes for revitalization.”
And while the film’s producers admit that teens in rural locations have resources that they could only dream of when they were teenagers, it doesn’t necessarily make the lives and struggles of people like C.J. any easier.
“The interesting point is, today people know a lot more about gay people than they did 20 years ago,” Hamer said. “It’s a lot more open because it’s on TV and in the newspaper. It used to be completely silenced. The bad thing about that is if you’re gay, you feel like you’re completely alone. There’s nobody like you. It’s a complete secret. You can’t talk about it. But on the other hand, you don’t get tortured because people don’t acknowledge gay people. Today’s openness is good in a sense that gay kids growing up know that there are more gay people out there. They know they’re not completely alone. But the bad thing is that because people are so much more open talking about it, there’s actually probably even more taunting, teasing and torture, and kids are more likely to get identified. So for Joe, there was no real option of saying, ‘Hey, I’m gay.’ It just wasn’t something any kid would have considered back then. For C.J., he felt like he couldn’t back down or deny who he was because today people understand what gay people are. That’s really brave of him but it also led to a lot of ostracism and bullying at his school.”
Wilson added that the heightened visibility of gays in the media sometimes does more harm than good in cases like C.J.’s.
“There also seems to be this odd thing playing out where when you fit into the understood stereotypes, you can find a way to survive,” he said. “So the kids that fit the more feminine stereotypes of what it means to be gay are harassed, teased and abused but in a way they’re accepted in that role. For somebody like C.J., he’s a really tough kid. He played football. He’s a hunter. That seemed to challenge things in a more threatening way for people and put him in a really difficult position. He lost a whole network of friends and became completely isolated and a virtual prisoner in his home. He was constantly under threat by people who perceived him as crossing that gender boundary. In a way, it seems almost worse to me now then it would have been when I was a kid because it was easier for me to stay under the radar. Now, with the popular culture putting images of LGBT people out there, it creates this false sense of security in society at large, but when it plays out in these very conservative little environments, the backlash almost feels more intense and more threatening.”
Wilson, like many gay teens who grow up in small towns, got out and moved somewhere more tolerant. And with major cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland half a tank of gas away, why would any gay person with an ounce of survival instinct stay in Oil City? But moving away isn’t always an option, especially when your sexual orientation becomes an obstacle to getting an education.
“For somebody like C.J., his family is very working-class, as are many people who live in that area,” Wilson explained. “They’re not necessarily geared toward higher education as a way into their future. They very much see staying in the area and working and living there as the way their life is going to be lived. For C.J. unfortunately, when people like him suffer the way they have in the school system there, the opportunity to get even just the basic education credentials is complicated. In his case, he’s still struggling to get his GED. He lost the opportunity to attend school like other kids and was forced out into a cyber-school situation. It’s extremely challenging to not have the support of the school system to help you get your education. He’s still struggling to figure out what his economic future is going to be, and I think many people like him are in that same situation. He’s still living at home with his family. He’s doing well, but he’s got a long way to go to secure his future.”
And the film has already had some tangible outcomes in Oil City, such as diversity training — including sexual orientation — at the local high school.
Hamer also said the increased scrutiny brought about by the filming of the documentary has also brought about a marked changed in Gramley’s tactics in the town.
“We do know one thing,” he said. “She was taken aback by the fact that she was challenged on her own turf. In one case, when [Hitchcock and Henderson] were opening up the Latonia theater and she tried to organize the boycott against it, the police chief called her and said they didn’t want any violence here. She was taken aback by that. We know that one result is that she has been less public in her proclamations, and instead of posting things on her Web site and sending out e-mails, they’ve gone a little bit underground. They’re doing things by telephone that are more difficult to trace. I think she feels that she is being observed and that she’s going to keep things in check a little bit. She’s become extremely careful about the language they use, which I suppose is a good thing. They try not to characterize gay people as ‘sick’ or ‘perverted.’ They use the same thing as the American Medical Association says that gay people have more disease. She’s become really sensitive to the pressure that we’ve put on her.”
For Wilson and Hamer, however, the future is looking bright. They are close to completing “Out in the Silence” and, last year, received a grant from the Sundance Documentary Film Program, which included funding, creative input and meetings with potential funders and distributors at this year’s festival.
The two filmmakers hope to complete the film in time for the LGBT festival circuit this year, but have already noted the impact on Oil City.
“We think it’s had a tremendous effect,” Wilson said. “That’s what the intent of the film is: to show how things can play out in a hopeful and optimistic way in places like Oil City and small towns in rural areas around the country when local people in particular have the courage to stand up and speak out.”
For more information on Wilson, Hamer or “Out in the Silence,” visit www.outinthesilence.com.