Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer
65 minutes, 2009
The Out in the Silence Campaign for Fairness and Equality in Rural and Small Town America
Jessica Clark and Barbara Abrash: DESIGNING FOR IMPACT
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Out in the Silence is a feature-length documentary film that shows how the citizens of a small, conservative town in western Pennsylvania confronted homophobia within the boundaries of religion and tradition. An active outreach campaign designed to reach small towns and rural communities nationwide accompanied regional and national PBS broadcasts and festival screenings. The film and campaign, which have fortified a national network of LGBT and civil rights, support organizations reaching underserved communities with special focus on engaging young people.
Out in the Silence has had regional and national public television broadcast. It is distributed on DVD through major stores such as Sears and Wal-Mart and via SnagFilms and Hulu streaming.
Out in the Silence addresses both behavioral and policy issues, including:
- homophobic attitudes fostered by the religious right;
- bullying in schools;
- legal protection of GLBT residents of rural America;
- anti-discrimination policies that do not include sexual preference; and
- fostering dialogue across boundaries of differing opinions.
When Joe Wilson placed an announcement of his wedding to Dean Hamer in his hometown paper, the Oil City (PA) Derrick, it triggered hate mail, but also a plea from the desperate mother of CJ, a bullied gay teenager. Her letter drew the filmmakers back to Wilson’s hometown, where they found a vocal homophobic group, but also open-minded citizens and allies. The story centers on CJ and ultimately successful efforts by the ACLU to institute diversity training in local schools, as well as a local pastor who questions his assumptions about same-sex marriage. It portrays local citizens, gay and straight, as traditional values are challenged by lived experience.
The strategic campaign had clear goals which enabled the filmmakers to move effectively into a national initiative. The original goals of the project were to:
- create awareness and raise visibility of gay and lesbian people in small towns and rural areas;
- foster open dialogue and build bridges across differing opinions; and
- create face-to-face opportunities for small-town people to convene, connect and mobilize around shared issues.
The campaign evolved to include:
- forging alliances with advocates and activists locally and nationally;
- influencing state and local policies and legislation;
- making schools safe and accessible; and
- strengthening coalitions across identity lines.
Regional and national PBS broadcasts reached general audiences. The campaign is designed to reach specific groups as well, including:
- LGBT people and their communities;
- rural communities and small towns; and
- LGBT advocates.
Out in the Silence is a longform documentary that focuses on a teenage boy andhis mother; the pastor of a conservative Christian church; a “family values” zealot;and a lesbian couple establishing a cultural center in a dying downtown. CoproducerDean Hamer comments, “The project began with activism (the weddingpicture) and documented activism. It became part of the life of the town.”
The Oil City experience evolved into a Pennsylvania-based strategic outreachcampaign, which in turn shaped a national campaign tailored to reach smalltowns and rural areas underserved by national urban-based organizations. Thecampaign, which frames the issues in terms of human rights and social justice,operates by:
- working with local allies to identify safe spaces (such as libraries) to organize town-hall style gatherings and other events;
- funding space rental fees and local newspaper ads; and
- providing an event planning kit with a discussion guide and templates for press releases and posters.
The filmmakers identified a need to coordinate the resources of national organizations and make them available to communities generally overlooked by urban-based groups. For example, the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania ACLU brought a successful lawsuit on behalf of CJ, leading to a compulsory diversitytraining program in the school. This experience inspired the creation of a Pittsburgh office, serving the western part of the state. Facebook and other social networking tools are used synergistically; they help to connect grassroots activists with such groups as the ACLU, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), and the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
The campaign provides materials and support to partners selected for their capacity to reach new audiences and carry the work forward.
- ACLU of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU seeking to protect the rights and liberties of all citizens: http://www.aclupa.org
- Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission: www.phrc.state.pa.us
- Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a national organization focused on educating students to insure a safe environment: http://www.glsen.org
- Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), a national organization which seeks to support through education and advocacy: community.pflag.org
- Center for Rural Strategies, which seeks to improve economic and social conditions in rural America through the use of media: http://www.ruralstrategies.org
- Equality Federation, a national alliance of state-based lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organizations: http://www.equalityfederation.org
- Campus Progress, a national organization that seeks to help youth get access to resources for social and political change: http://genprogress.org/
The filmmakers initiated the project with personal funds, and later received funding from the Pennsylvania Public Television Network, which opened up possibilities for funding from other organizations. The budget was $500,000 ($180,000 for production; $320,000 for outreach).
The Center for Independent Documentary is the main fiscal sponsor. Other major funders include the Pennsylvania Public Television Network, Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, Wyncote Foundation, James H. Bryson Fund/The Philadelphia Foundation, New Tudor Foundation, and Columbia Foundation.
Obstacles & Responses __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The subject: Introducing a controversial topic in a traditional small town venue challenged the filmmakers to create a fair and balanced portrait of the town while maintaining a clear point of view.
Response: The solution was to present an array of opinions from individuals on a spectrum, from the homophobic to the questioning to the embattled.
Uninformed attitudes: Derogatory attitudes toward rural and small town America by urban gay activists combined with a general assumption—based on popular culture—that gay rights have essentially been secured.
Response: These were met with strategically planned partnerships, events and information.
Networking: It was difficult to coordinate a national campaign in the absence of an organized network of support organizations. The filmmakers, who aimed to bring the needs of small towns and rural communities to national attention, found that urban-based national organizations lacked the impetus, resources, and/or knowledge.
Response: The filmmakers’ strategy was to create partnerships with local, regional and national organizations and to provide resource materials for collaborative town-hall events with state and local civil rights, community and
faith groups and leaders.
The project highlights the power of film and community screenings tostimulate discussion and action across differing opinions and the capacityof ordinary citizens to lead positive social change. The focus on rural areasand small towns has helped to make homophobia and bullying a visible andaccessible issue in areas where LGBT information and opportunities forconversation across difference are rare. At the same time, Out in the Silencehas activated and fortified gay and lesbian advocacy organizations, expandingtheir focus beyond urban populations. It has shown how community-basedscreenings and initiatives can contribute to the formation of national networks,which, in turn, strengthen local efforts.
Evidence of quality
In addition to PBS national broadcast, Out in the Silence was screened at over 30 film festivals. Honors include:
- Mid-Atlantic Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Documentary (2010)
- Official selection, NY Human Rights Watch International Festival
- Invited screenings: Council on Foundations, Equality Forum Global LGBT Summit, National Association for Multicultural Education, World Bank
Positive reviews appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Nation, and many small town newspapers.
Evidence of quality
Out in the Silence reached a large audience through televised broadcasts, DVD sales, online streaming and community events.
- National (PBS, 2010) and Regional (Pennsylvania KPSU, 2009) broadcasts reached over 1 million viewers.
- Approximately 7,000 copies of the DVD were sold.
- The website What the Buck? Registered over 40,000 hits for an extract of the film.
- Over 300 community and school events have taken place.
The distributor, Garden Thieves Pictures, placed Out in the Silence for free streaming on Hulu and SnagFilms, specifically to make it accessible to teenagers more comfortable with viewing the film privately on their computers.
It is also available via Comcast on Demand, iTunes and Amazon; DVDs are available at Wal-Mart, Sears and other big stores. Gross revenues, primarily from Amazon sales, are estimated at $140,000 (7,000 copies at $20 a piece).
Screenings have been held in every county in Pennsylvania and are now being expanded nationally to nationally to small towns and rural areas with little LGBT support in Oregon, California, Texas, South Dakota and other states. The film is part of the Human Rights Watch Traveling Festival.
Out in the Silence is a community-building project. For Wilson and Hamer, faceto-face personal contact is the key to social change. They primarily focus on:
- town hall-style meetings that draw a cross-section of participants;
- social networking as a way to empower local communities by connecting them with each other and with national resources; and
- partnerships, such as the one with the Gay/Straight Alliance, to promote inclusive activities in schools.
Web-streaming, youth-oriented events and social networking tools are designed to engage young people. In 2010 What the Buck?, a popular on-linegay-oriented celebrity cable show featured the film in a five-minute segment. A longer piece on the show’s website drew 40,000 hits and drove traffic to the Out in the Silence website. As of early 2011, the website has 5,000 members and registers approximately 30,000 postings per month, but is considered to have much greater capacity. Developing the website and digital tools is a priority for the next phase of the project.
The campaign has contributed to initiatives for legal protection and public policy changes:
- In Oil City, the ACLU lawsuit resulted in court-ordered compulsory diversity training in schools.
- A local campaign persuaded a state legislator to withdraw her support for an anti-same sex marriage amendment under consideration by her committee.
- The film has also has been enlisted in a state-wide movement to add LGBT protection to state and local anti-discrimination ordinances, a legislative campaign for employment non-discrimination, and marriage equality and safe schools bills.
In addition, the filmmakers have appeared on NPR and ABC-TV affiliates, and routinely receive local media coverage.
The Out in the Silence project is building the capacity of an emerging network of national organizations linked with grassroots activists. It has helped to mobilize LGBT coalitions and grassroots initiatives by providing strong content, trusted resources, tested strategies, and fostering informal relationships.
The filmmakers distribute DVDs to organizations, such as the Gay/Straight Alliance, which agree to organize events—thus enlisting allies in expanding the reach of the film. Some national organizations have adopted the film into their programs. GLSEN, for example, organized two hundred youth-led screenings in schools and colleges In April 2010, in observance of the Day of Silence in places as diverse as Alaska, Mississippi, Indiana, and New York. The recently launched national campaign has thus far collaborated with partners in Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, South Carolina, and Ohio.
The campaign has been slow to maximize digital opportunities, but a virtual community of local activist leaders is forming around Facebook and email. A core group of followers has begun to post out to their own lists with, in Hamer’s words, “huge catalytic effects,” increasing audiences and web hits.