When Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer placed their wedding announcement in the newspaper of Wilson's hometown of Oil City, Penn., a public outcry arose. But something else happened, as well -- Wilson received a letter from Kathy Springer, the mother of a young boy who has been a victim of harassment and violence at school. When Wilson and Hamer decided to return to Oil City to help try and make things right, they brought along a camera or two, and the result was the Sundance Institute and PBS supported documentary, Out in the Silence. We sat down with the two filmmakers to discuss the film's message, its controversial subjects, and its resulting campaign.
Out: What made you decide to make the documentary originally?
Joe Wilson: I think what made us want to turn this into a film was our own surprise and ultimately our delight in seeing what happened in the simple act of placing our wedding ad in the newspaper. While it caused a firestorm of controversy, we also feel that it was an opportunity to help raise visibility [about] the reality of what life is like for LGBT people in a small town like Oil City. And to document and tell the story of courageous people like C.J. and Kathy who reached out to us for help, and to help tell their story of how they're speaking out against bigotry, harassment, and discrimination. And many efforts like that in the small town.
When you published your wedding announcement, what were you expecting?
Wilson: Well, I thought it would raise a few eyebrows probably. But I nonetheless thought it was really important to try to demonstrate in my hometown that a gay person came from there and had a decent life. What was really unexpected was the organized response from a right-wing division that was based there. And that was the American Family Association of Pennsylvania, and how that organized level of response that helps to maintain ignorance in rural communities. That's what really shocked me -- the level of ugliness and hate [that was] devoted.
Why did you decide to go back to Oil City?
Wilson: Well, since we lived 300 miles away from Oil City, we did initially try to find local resources in Pennsylvania for the people that were turning to us in need, like Kathy. But what we quickly found out was that the resources just weren't there, whether it was a financial capacity of organizations, national or statewide to work in small places like Oil City or whether it's the will. I don't know. I never really came to a final conclusion. But what I realized is that if we weren't going to try to do something, then there just wouldn't be any level of support. So that's what really motivated us to return and play a positive role. This came in my hometown. Hopefully, it helped make connections between Oil City and people in other areas moving forward and beyond.
What did you do for living arrangements while you were there?
Dean Hamer: We were initially staying in a little hotel that my husband forced me to spend the night in. But eventually we were lucky enough to make some good friends in the town. So we often stayed with the women depicted in the film -- Roxanne [and Linda] -- and we made friends with other people in the community. We were sort of couch jumping.
Whereas Joe's path with film is more clear, Dean, what made you decide to take the leap from scientist to filmmaker?
Hamer: I guess two things. One is that I've always had a technological background. The whole technological part of filmmaking with a camera and movie editing, was all pretty natural and similar to what I do. I've always had an interest in communication. In addition to being a scientist, I've also written [in] Popular Science, so the idea of trying to communicate ideas was not something new to me either.
One of the film's main subjects is Diane Gramley of the American Family Association. Was it difficult to repeatedly confront her?
Wilson: It's an interesting question. I'm actually looking at her website as we speak because she's now reacting in a similarly negative way. It's interesting. I was actually naive enough to think that our first venture up to Oil City, she might respond positively to our attempts to dialogue with her. So she was actually one of the first phone calls we made. I talked to her on the phone, and she just had no interest in meeting us or people to talk about these issues. As we show in the film, we focused a lot of our energy on her and what organizations like hers do initially -- thinking that kind of confirmation was what was important. While I do agree it is still important to challenge lies and distortions of organizations, we found through our work with many other groups in the community there that there's much more opportunity to build alliances with people to promote fairness and equality [for] LGBT people -- organizing opportunities and ways for people who do share these to come together and express themselves in their community. The biggest challenge in places like this, where the dominant culture is conservative, it's just difficult for people to take the first step. But once it starts happening, then it really just builds and builds on itself. And that's what we're most excited about and most hopeful about with the campaign evolving in our work. The film demonstrates how those things happen in this one little community. But we're now using it as a tool in communities around Pennsylvania and now in many other states. The screening event kind of models what happened with the wedding announcement. One simple little act that says, 'We're doing this event. It represents LGBT people's lives in this community.' And it raises awareness of these issues and helps bring people together to start that process in their own community in their own locally appropriate way.
What kind of reaction have you seen from the residents of Oil City, and specifically from Gramley?
Hamer: The reaction in Oil City has been extremely positive. It's actually led to a group of citizens getting together and proposing to the town that they have comprehensive antidiscrimination legislation. And the town council is looking at that, and I think they're going to do something. So that's extremely exciting and something that really wouldn't have come about without the visibility caused by the film. But Diane herself claims she's never seen the film, although she does have a multiple page recognition of it on her website. [Laughs] So that's a little bit puzzling to us. So it speaks to the way she reasons things -- arguing against it without knowing what it's talking about. What's been interesting about the Gramley response is that normally when something happens that she doesn't like, she tries to organize a large response. She tells her people to write emails or call on people or take action. And she's been very effective at that. So we anticipated that she would be mobilizing people to call up their local PBS station and tell them to take the program off the air. And that did not happen. So I think she realizes that she and the organization look so bad when they're actually exposed for what they do that the less attention to the film, the better for her. Which is a good sign that it's actually headed in the right direction.
In the film, you develop a friendship with an evangelical pastor. What do you think that says about where we are today?
Wilson: I think for us it represents what I've mentioned before. We need to look for ways to build bridges in these communities rather than constantly seeking battle. While I still have much difficulty with the way religion is used as a weapon against LGBT people, I realize that in this country, where there is a huge portion of the population that holds religious belief and practice, we can find ways to be more constructive. And this is just an example of one of those ways -- when people come to know each other on a human or personal level, it's possible for them to transform. Pastor Mark and [his wife] have gone through a transformation about how they view sexual orientation.
Why do you think that race is used as a roadblock for LGBT issues, as demonstrated in the film?
Hamer: I think that right-wing fundamentalists have figured out that that's an effective tactic for them -- that there's still a level of racism in this country that they can tap into to try to utilize to support other pertinent issues. What's really ironic is that the same people that are trying to instruct African-Americans and other racial minorities that they should be antigay, are exactly the same people or are people from the same organizations or have the same sort of philosophy that supported segregation and official racism in the United States for so long. So to see an organization like the American Family Association, which is a direct descendent of a segregationist organization, trying to drive a wedge using race is really bad.
What was it like to get the support for your project from Sundance and PBS?
Wilson: That was like Christmas and Hanukkah and the Fourth of July all happening simultaneously on a day you didn't expect it. It was an incredible surprise because it's a very competitive process. And much more than the financial support was the creative support and the recognition that it gave to the project. So it was tremendous.
Tell me about the Campaign for Fairness and Equality.
Wilson: We are using the film as a tool in a really proactive way to raise visibility and offer events that bring people together to have a conversation about how to move forward and treat LGBT people with dignity and respect. One way we found to do that, which has been really effective, is to use public libraries. We will often just make a phone call to a public library and say we have this great educational film, and we'd like to schedule an event in your community. And they give us a date, and we start promoting it, and we use that event as a way to raise awareness just about the existence of LGBT people in those places. And they usually turn out a great cross section of people in the community that are hungry for this type of discussion because they're rare and unexpected and difficult for people on their own. So when we engage with local folks, it helps create opportunities they might not otherwise have been able to pursue.
What does it mean to you to have created something that's leading to tangible change?
Wilson: For me, I think that the stories we were lucky enough to capture on film are an important reminder that it's not just the big [things] that make the most difference, it's the simple acts of courage that [we] have such a capacity to engage in on a daily basis.
Hamer: I think for me, it's really hopeful, especially because the film is reaching out to youth, and I think that's the greatest hope for change in our society. It's very exciting to be working with kids who are using the film to show their peers what discrimination is like. We had a screening in New York that was attended by a young activist who brought his babysitter with him [laughs]. So that, I think, is a pretty exciting development.
For more information on Out in the Silence and the Out in the Silence Campaign for Fairness and Equality,