A report from the middle-American front of the battle for LGBT citizens to lead uncloseted lives, Out in the Silence overcomes some stilted framing—gay man from the sticks returns home with camera, 25 years later, to fight undiminished homophobia—with surprising scenes of honesty and individual introspection. D.C.-based filmmaker Joe Wilson placed an announcement of his same-sex wedding in the newspaper of his northwest Pennsylvania hometown: Oil City, a depressed “back hills” community of shuttered refineries and dimmed hope. In the wake of letters to the editor decrying the “homosexual agenda,” Wilson received a plea for help from an Oil City woman who’d withdrawn her son, car-loving jock CJ Bills, from the local high school in the face of daily abuse from students and “a blind eye and a deaf ear” from the staff; Wilson and his partner (co-director Dean Hamer) soon set out for the boondocks and made a three-year study of the dynamics of 21st-century small-town tolerance.
Along with his overly earnest liberal-activist moves (like booking his transgendered folksinger friend to play a gig in town), Wilson supplies the isolated, cyberschooled CJ with a video camera with which he records neo-Jackass stunts, self-rallying monologues, and an interview in which he asks pioneering “gay gene” researcher Hamer, “If it’s only a gene, why can’t we destroy it and just be straight?” Besides Kathy Springer, CJ’s salt-of-the-earth, energetic mom who takes her crusade for diversity education to a state legislators’ hearing and the ACLU, the doc follows a lesbian couple’s efforts to restore an old, decrepit downtown theater to a semblance of its former glory; with twinkling good humor, both handywomen speak of the comparative size of their chainsaws. All three find a nemesis in “family values” radio host Diane Gramley, a rep of the conservative Christian group American Family Association, who ultimately evokes more pity from the filmmakers than rage.
Perhaps the most heartening strand of Out in the Silence finds Wilson strikling up a friendship with an evangelical pastor and his wife who wrote (at the behest of Gramley’s organization) in protest of the paper’s wedding announcement. Clearly not hateful monsters, the couple’s personal exposure to a polite but forthright gay person permits them to bring the love they speak of in their church into broader practice. This feel-good turn, however, doesn’t saturate this complex story with unalloyed optimism; asked if he ever regrets coming out at 16, CJ replies, “Every single day.”
Out in the Silence will play on June 21, 22, and 23 as part of this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. For more information click here.