Film explores growing up gay in a rural America

This wedding announcement for two men appeared in The Derrick, one of the men’s hometown newspaper in?Oil City, Pa., and created a controversy that is discussed in the documentary “Out in the Silence.”

After Joe Wilson married another man, he placed a wedding announcement in his hometown newspaper. The photo of Wilson and Dean Hamer, wearing suits and smiling euphorically, appeared among traditional shots of brides and grooms.

“As soon as it ran, there was an outpouring of letters to the editor decrying the fact that the paper would publish such a thing,” Wilson said.

One letter writer commented, “I was sick to my stomach when I read the announcement.” Others wrote, “I was shaking with anger” and “It would have been better for you not to have been born.”

The debate persisted almost eight months on the editorial pages of The Derrick, the newspaper of Oil City, Penn. The barrage of strong public opinion coupled with a personal letter from the mother of a harassed gay teen spurred Wilson and Hamer to visit Oil City. The result was “Out in the Silence,” a documentary about the challenges of being gay in a small town.

The filmmakers are touring rural America with their Emmy Award-winning movie. Screenings are scheduled for Hermiston and Pendleton on Nov. 8.

Central to the movie is CJ Bills, a popular three-sport athlete who faced torture and ridicule after revealing his sexual orientation while defending a gay classmate.

Wilson, who spoke by phone from Hawaii, said his and CJ’s lives have similarities. Both attended Franklin High School, a place where admitting one was gay was a ticket to misery. Both watched as classmates perceived as gay were ridiculed and harassed.

“There was one kid in class who was relentlessly tortured for years and years — I stayed quiet and kept my distance,” Wilson said. “CJ came to the defense of a kid who was being tortured. He ended up doing what I didn’t have the courage to do.”

CJ immediately became the target of taunts. Boys slammed him into his locker and called him names. Each school day became “eight hours of pure hell.”

“I was no longer the guy who dislocated your shoulder during football practice,” CJ says in the documentary. “I was just a sissy because of who I thought looked hot.”

The abuse heaped upon CJ triggered thoughts of suicide. His worried mother finally kept him home and enrolled him in a cyberschool.

The movie also includes conversations between Wilson and one of the negative letter writers — an evangelical pastor. On camera, the two men examine their beliefs and discuss what would have to happen before they could respect each other. Over months, the unlikely pair forges a friendship.

The film also chronicles a lesbian couple’s efforts to bring an old theater back to its former glory.

Wilson said the documentary has drawn varied audiences and sparked interesting dialogues after the final credits. The filmmaker thinks polarization may be easing because of the recent suicides by gay teens, a phenomenon that is alarming people on both sides of the fence.

“We have to come together,” he said. “It’s too ugly out there — too many people are being hurt.”

The Pendleton showing was organized by the local chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG Pendleton). The Hermiston screening was organized by Umatilla Morrow Alternatives. Basic Rights Oregon and The Rural Organizing Project sponsored the Oregon tour.

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