Last night, I watched a documentary about what it means to be gay in small-town America. I was reminded – forcefully – that religion-inspired homophobia and bigotry is just as bad elsewhere in the country, if not far worse, than here in the shadows of the Everlasting Hills. I was also reminded that the best way to combat bigotry, misunderstanding and fear is to stand up, then reach out.
“Out in the Silence” tells the story of what happened when a gay man, Joe Wilson (who would be a near contemporary of mine), decided to put an announcement of the marriage to his partner in the newspaper of his hometown of Oil City, Pennsylvania. Joe had left the small town many years before and had lived in Washington, D.C., but felt a desire to share this important event in his life with those whom he had grown up around.
He wasn’t prepared for what happened.
Letters to the editor started pouring in, protesting the inclusion of the wedding announcement in the local paper. Then Joe received a letter that would change his life. It was from a mother from Oil City who had a teenage son – CJ – who had recently come out. He experienced terrible bullying at school, and she wrote to Joe out of desperation, hoping that there was something he could do to help them. Inspired, Joe decided to make a trip back to Oil City to see if there was in fact something he could do.
Thus began a two-year documentary project that examines not only the lives of this mother and her son, but of a lesbian couple in town, of a local religious activist, and a local pastor whom Joe befriends.
I found the film engaging and inspiring. First of all, it demonstrates the difference that two gay men can make by simply standing up and not only declaring, but also celebrating, who they are. The story started with a simple wedding announcement. If Joe and his partner had not taken that simple step, there would have been no story. There also would have been no story if CJ’s mother hadn’t reached out and if Joe and his partner had not decided to get involved.
Once in Oil City, Joe reached out, not only to CJ and his mother, but also to a pastor and his wife who had written a letter to the editor, complaining about the wedding announcement. Throughout the course of the documentary, we see how both Joe and the pastor were changed through their sincere efforts to better understand each other.
Joe also reached out to a local religious zealot and we witness his futile efforts to try to pierce through her militant bigotry.
Lastly, Joe reached out and befriended a local lesbian couple and shared in their efforts to reach out to the larger community.
Through all of this, the lesson that loomed large for me is that change will not happen in our society unless and until we demand it. Not necessarily in a belligerent way, but through standing up proudly for who we are, making no apologies, then reaching out confidently to those around us, seeking to build bridges of understanding, to educate, to lessen fears and – in some cases – to befriend.