As children and parents across the country prepare to go back to school, there’s a segment of the population who may not share the excitement that often accompanies buying a new backpack, lunchbox, and picking out a first-day-of-school outfit. A new school year should be an opportunity for students to “start fresh,” full of potential and hope at the prospect of gaining another year of knowledge.
But for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth – or those percieved to be, especially in rural and small-town communities – school can be a terrifying place, where kids are subjected to harassment, bullying, threats and often physical violence at the hands of student bullies, simply for being who they are. All too often, school administrators turn a blind eye to this type of harassment, some even claiming that the gay kids brought the torture on themselves by being so obviously queer.
This is the setting for filmmaker Joe Wilson’s striking documentary, Out in the Silence. I attended a free screening on Wednesday sponsored by One Colorado at Buntport Theater Company, where a small crowd and I watched the story of CJ Bills, an out gay student in Oil City, PA.
Like CJ, Wilson grew up a gay kid in the “small-town with small-town values,” but remained closeted through high school, until he could leave Oil City. But when Wilson places a marriage announcement for himself and his partner, Dean Hamer, in his hometown paper, the backlash – meausured in angry letters to the editor and cancelled subscriptions – inspires Wilson to return home and come face-to-face with those detractors, and help CJ and his mother, Kathy Springer, put an end to the daily “hell” Bills endures walking through his high school halls.
The film examines life for LGBT people in Oil City from several unique, compelling perspectives. There is the homecoming narrative of the filmmaker and his partner, a respected academic and geneticist who speaks to the immutability of sexual orientation. There is an older lesbian couple committed to helping revitalize the post-oil-boom town by renovating a downtown theater, despite the loud, frequent, and insiduous protests from homophobic citizens.
And then there’s CJ, who we meet as a sophomore – a stocky, confident and athletic teenager who has been broken down by the endless taunts of “faggot, queer, and homo,” regular death threats, and physical violence he suffers on a daily basis at the local high school. Despite CJ and his mother’s repeated pleas to school officials and the school board to protect the boy, the school refuses to act, resulting in CJ’s withdrawal from the local high school in favor of an online program where he can escape the bullies.
Running just an hour long, it’s a worthwhile examination of the often brutal reality of life as an out LGBT person in small-town America. But the film is, ultimately, uplifting. Shot over the course of five years, each character in the documentary develops into a well-rounded, better-informed person, and, in some cases, I’d argue the character becomes a better human being through the course of the narrative. You’ll have to watch the film to see what I mean.
The film is available, in its entirety, on Hulu, or through the film’s Web site. One Colorado will also be hosting free screenings and post-film discussions of Out in the Silence all along the front range – click here for a schedule.