A documentary set in rural Pa. shows both sides of homophobia.
James Carville famously quipped Pennsylvania is “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.” Joe Wilson—not that one—knows that all too well. Born and raised in Oil City, tucked away in Northwestern Pennsylvania, Wilson was a gay teen in a stereotype of a small town: a centuries-old, once-modern mecca unstuck in time, its charming quaintness maintained in part by suspicion and fear of anyone not in the majority (white, straight, god-fearing). He wound up in D.C., where he met and married fellow filmmaker Dean Hamer. Out of curiosity, Wilson published their marriage announcement in the local Oil City newspaper. Inevitably, the angry letters poured in.
It also attracted the attention of resident Kathy Springer, whose 16-year-old son CJ had been the recipient of physical and verbal abuse so bad—and so ignored by faculty and other parents—she had to take him out of school. CJ does not fit the classic profile of the out teen. He could easily go undetected if he wanted. He kind of does. At one point he confesses a wish to go back in the closet. He’s out by principle, even if the byproduct is frustration, loneliness and boredom. “I’m sick of confining myself to this house,” he grumbles. “So I can stay alive.”
Homophobia, the film subtly suggests, is so high school. The hatred that fuels teenagers to berate homosexuals hardly matures in adulthood. Sure enough, the letters Wilson and Hamer received, filled with inarticulate, hand-me-down bile. Wilson and Hamer’s doc Out in the Silence contrasts CJ’s struggle with Wilson’s return home, camera in tow, to confront his detractors, to sincerely inquire, face-to-face, about the roots of their disapproval.
Only two of the many letter-writers agreed to be interviewed: Mark and Diana Micklos, a pastor and his wife. They’re unmistakably nice and inviting, but they quickly try to coax Wilson over to the apparently non-gay side of Jesus Christ. Their arguments are old-hat, the weeds gay activists have been wacking at for decades. They use the slippery-slope argument (accepting gays will lead to accepting incest, beastiality, etc.), then the argument from design (the penis and vagina just go well together, as if there wasn’t another trusty orifice in the mix).
They are, however, not the film’s villains. That would be Diane Gramley, a member of the conservative American Family Association who comes off as a miserable crone, joylessly preaching joylessness. (Cue eye-rolling Michael Moore sneak attacks.) Far less screentime is spent on the Mikloses, but their scenes prove the most interesting, taking it from a standard, earnest activist doc that preaches tolerance into an exploration of the very meaning of tolerance.
Wilson and the Mikloses reach a curious impasse. Wilson wants to enlighten the pastor and his wife; the pastor and his wife want to englighten Wilson. Both feel they’re right. Worse, they’re both kind and patient. But they don’t remain eternally stuck. The three become friends, and sure enough, the Mikloses learn that gays are people, too, while Wilson learns the same about small-town fundies. In the film’s most moving sequence, CJ meets a gay teen in a nearby town, whose man’s man father elaborates on his history of beating up gays. The father mentions that it’s not easy to overturn a lifetime of hatred, suggesting that he’s still, in part, homophobic. But he’s his son so he has no choice but reform.
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