As loud and scary as the vitriol of the right may be, Out in the Silence demonstrates that it can't compete with people's lived experiences.
What they call an agenda, we call our lives.
-- Joe Wilson
CJ Bills lives in Oil City, Pennsylvania, where the Allegheny River and Oil Creek connect. At only 16 years old, he's already got a slew of memories about the place, most of them painful. "I hate it around here," he says, as you watch him shooting baskets by himself. He hates being harassed by classmates, the name-calling and the threats to "have my house burnt down and stuff because I'm a faggot."
This first scene in Out in the Silence lays out CJ's dilemma: smart and self-aware, confident and athletic, he's endured relentless abuse since he came out. "I was slammed into lockers, hit with stuff, being yelled 'faggot,'" he says, standing outside his former high school's front doors. Worse, the kids' ignorance and aggression were tacitly supported by teachers and administrators who "always gave a deaf ear and a blind eye, they never said a word."
CJ is sharing his story with filmmaker Joe Wilson, who also grew up in Oil City, but moved to DC before he came out. Wilson's documentary, premiering on 21 June at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York, sets his experience alongside CJ's, noting the startling lack of change in this "small town with small town values," while trying to provoke at least a little change. With his new husband, Dean Hamer, manning the camera, Wilson sets to interviewing locals in hopes of learning why they remain so closed-minded.
To that end, when he learns that CJ also "want[s] to make videos," Wilson gives him a camera too, hoping he'll use it "to show what life was like for him as a gay teen." The resulting documentary is something of a hybrid, part investigation, part self-portrait, and part advocacy project, including a third story as well, about Roxanne and Linda, a couple trying to reopen an historic theater in town amid anxieties that they're doing so to promote their "agenda." As Wilson discovers that he's making some assumptions of his own, his film presents an earnest, sometimes meandering, case for open discussion.
Wilson and his new husband, Dean Hamer, undertake to interview not only Kathy, who wrote a letter to Wilson in response to his wedding announcement, published in the local newspaper, but also the writers of other letters that were predictably hateful and angry ("It makes me sick to my stomach," "Better for you not to have been born," etc.). Unsurprisingly, Wilson doesn’t find many people willing to talk to him on camera, though he does meet with Pastor Mark Micklos and his wife Diana. Introduced here as they walk over a rolling green lawn with their dog, the couple invites Wilson and Hamer into their home, then explain their hard line against gay marriage: "If I grant two men the right to marry," Micklos says, "what's wrong with incest or polygamy? It would just expand." The wife supports the case by noting that, in plumbing, the "design" calls for both male and female fittings.
Sighing metaphorically, Wilson confesses here that "talking to people" isn't yielding exactly the results he hoped for. He's further daunted when he learns the Mickloses were inspired to write their letter by an email blast from Diane Gramley, a local radio talk show host and state director for the American Family Association (AFA). Determined to uphold the "natural family," Gramley rejects Wilson's requests for an interview, but finds herself on camera anyway, when she participates in an anti-gay marriage protest during Oil City's "Oil Heritage Parade." As Wilson walks with her, they pass a uniformed cop who remembers Wilson from back in the day ("Hey Joe! How you doin'?"), and she pronounces, "There have been homosexuals throughout society, but they have not attempted to redefine marriage and family as they are today." She argues that homosexuals can be teachers, for instance, but they can't be out, because that would be "promoting their lifestyle."
Such moments help to make a primary point in Out in the Silence, that times are already overtaking throwback phobes like Gramley. Her certainty and visible anger repeatedly look unthoughtful and mean-spirited here, as when she and Kathy both speak at a city legislators' hearing on what Gramley calls a "special rights bill." By the time Kathy is done describing the violence against CJ, the black men on the panel are nodding their heads in sympathy, plainly rejecting Gramley's argument that the civil rights movement was not the same as calls for protections for students like CJ, because African Americans could not "change" their race. One of the legislators offers to put Kathy in touch with the ACLU so she can press her case against the school board who refused to help her son, the camera watching them walk off stage together. A cut to Gramley shows her refusing to participate in more discussion on camera, "because of the roads that that will open."
But hers is a losing cause. As loud and scary as the vitriol of the right may be, Out in the Silence demonstrates that it can't compete with people's lived experiences, alongside queer neighbors, local businesspeople, classmates, and relatives. Micklos shows up at the hearing in support of CJ and Kathy, admitting to Wilson that he used to be "that type of person at one time," the type who would "put people like CJ at risk," by stereotyping and closing down conversation. Now, Micklos sees himself and others differently: "Sometimes we're not what our first impressions are."