Out in the Silence captures the remarkable chain of events that unfold when the announcement of filmmaker Joe Wilson’s wedding to another man ignites a firestorm of controversy in his small Pennsylvania hometown.
Drawn back by a plea for help from the mother of a gay teen being tormented at school, Wilson’s journey dramatically illustrates the universal challenges of being an outsider in a conservative environment and the transformation that is possible when those who have long been constrained by a traditional code of silence summon the courage to break it.
The changes that occurred in Oil City during the making of the film inspired the directors to initiate the Out in the Silence Campaign for Fairness and Equality in Rural and Small Town America. The goals of this grassroots community engagement effort were to raise the visibility of LGBT people and their allies, open hearts and minds by building bridges across identity lines and religious divides, and influence policy and legislation on issues such as safe schools, relationship recognition, and employment non-discrimination.
The underlying concept of the campaign was that the simple act of holding an Out in the Silence screening could help inspire, connect and mobilize LGBT people and their allies, particularly in small towns and rural communities. At the heart of the campaign was the dedication to the idea that small acts of LGBT visibility in places where they are rare and unexpected can help raise awareness and open-up dialogue in profound new ways, creating ripple effects and opportunities to organize for change. These core goals continue to guide the campaign.
The Campaign, which is ongoing, has conducted hundreds of town-hall-style screening events across the country, including deep work in Pennsylvania, where the stories in the film take place, as well as very successful statewide tours and screenings in South Carolina, South Dakota, Arizona, Maine, Oregon and other states. These screenings were done in conjunction with strong local partners. For example, in Oregon, the campaign partnered with the Rural Organizing Project and Basic Rights Oregon and conducted 15 community events in 10 days, reaching more than 1,000 people in small towns and rural communities across the state, plus thousands more through press coverage and other outreach. A summary of the tour’s success, written by the Rural Organizing Project, can be viewed online at: http://www.rop.org/how-to-bring-rural-oregon-alive-5-lessons. Other local partners included Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, Equality Pennsylvania, Equality Partners of Western Pennsylvania, Keystone Progress, LGBT Community Center, Coalition of Central PA, ACLU South Dakota, South Dakota Equality Institutes, PFLAG Sioux Falls, Frontera Pride, Rio Grande Adelante, Basic Rights Oregon, Rural Organizing Project, Equality South Carolina, ACLU South Carolina, Campus Progress, Amancio Project, Yuma County Gay Rights, ACLU Arizona.
In addition to local partners, they also worked with national organizations including: American Civil Liberties Union, Equality Federation, Parents, Family & Friends of Lesbians & Gays (PFLAG), Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Center for Rural Strategies, Liberty Education Fund, Like the local partners, these organizations helped to inform their work, deepen their reach and connect the film and its campaign to the broader movement for equality.
For example, in response to the teen bullying crisis, the campaign reached out to youth, families and educators to help facilitate the formation of new gay-straight alliance groups and promote safe school and anti-bullying policies and legislation to protect LGBT youth at the local, state, and federal levels. They worked in partnership with the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), and made the film and organizing resources available to all interested schools and community groups.
As the campaign grew and took shape, they continued their focus on community events and rural communities to create opportunities to build dialogue and also created DVD screening kits that organizations and individuals could purchase to organize their own screenings.
The campaign also recognized the amazing work of young people and in 2011 launched the Out In The Silence Award for Youth Activism. It was established to “honor courageous and unheralded young people who are leading the way in making schools and communities safe from bullying and welcoming for all, especially in places where silence and indifference have rendered lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth and their allies invisible, marginalized, fearful, and powerless for far too long.”
In addition to reaching audiences through its over 60 film festival appearances, the story reached over one million viewers through the film’s regional and national PBS broadcasts. It also reached thousands across the country through its community screening tours and often resulted in local action. For example in Oregon, the film reached over 1000 people through the screenings in small-town communities and inspired several communities to form new groups advocating for LGBT fairness for the long term, or to re-launch a group that had long been dormant. For existing groups, the tour brought in a holistic view of LGBT fairness & equality, including civil rights, marriage equality, but also safe schools, and tolerance in the faith communities. One group followed up on the tour by coordinating school-wide bullying assemblies in each of the four regional high schools. The tour also allowed groups to reach large audiences even in very conservative towns, and talk openly about issues that for many years have been dealt with quietly and at the margins.
This model of audience engagement was repeated in small towns in each of the states targeted by the Campaign, helping to strengthen local efforts. It also helped to spur policy changes and initiatives in some cases. For example, in the Franklin Area School District in Pennsylvania, an ACLU lawsuit led to compulsory diversity training in schools. In Pennsylvania, the film also was used by a statewide movement to add LGBT protection to state and local anti-discrimination ordinances, as well as for a legislative campaign for employment non-discrimination, marriage equality and safe school bills.
The campaign has become a valuable tool for national and grassroots organizations and has helped to mobilize and re-energize coalitions, initiatives and relationship building. And through its youth activism award has raised up the voices of young people who are leading efforts for fairness, equality and safe schools. In 2010, 300 schools received a free screening package for the GLSEN Day of Silence, to conduct Break the Silence events.
The Out in the Silence campaign offers many lessons but there are two in particular that we think are worth noting here. First, the campaign was true to its core goals of raising awareness about challenges that LGBT people face in rural communities and small towns and providing visibility to those who speak out. The call to action on the campaign website underscores this message: “Let’s go where the silence is and say something.” The campaign activities all reflect this message, and the project has brought this film where it was needed the most and provided opportunities for face-to-face relationship building and dialogue.
The second important lesson that this campaign offers is the importance of partnerships with grassroots and national organizations. These partnerships, such as the one with the Rural Organizing Project and Basic Rights Oregon, provided important insight that shaped the work that the filmmakers did in Oregon. They helped the filmmakers organize a tour that reached rural communities that needed it the most, relying on the strength of the local relationships that the Rural Organizing Project and Basic Rights Oregon brought to the table. These organizations were able to use the screening as a way to energize existing local groups and spur the creation of new ones. Other partners offered similar expertise and knowledge providing the campaign with the opportunity to enhance the work of these organizations and embed the film into a larger movement for fairness and equality that is ongoing.