At documentary screening, discrimination in small-town Pa. hits close to home

CJ Springer, a gay high school student in Wilson's hometown, is brutally tormented on a daily basis for his sexuality at school, which he describes in the film as “eight hours of pure hell.”

Nick Bonadies
Spectrum Editor

Queer Action VCU’s documentary screening in the Commons Theatre Tuesday drew an audience not just engaged in a film, but engaged in an active dialogue among themselves.

“Out in the Silence” follows filmmaker Joseph Wilson, whose hometown of Oil City, Pa. erupts into controversy after his marriage to another man is announced in a local paper.

About 60 people attended the screening and post-film discussion of “Out in the Silence,” an intimate portrayal of filmmaker Joe Wilson’s journey to small-town Pennsylvania when, after the local newspaper announces his marriage to another man, a firestorm of controversy breaks out in the town where he grew up.

The screening was endorsed by a coalition comprised of University Counseling Services, Queer Action VCU, the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and the VCU Police Department, in an effort to acknowledge LGBTQ harassment both on- and off-campus, according to Caitlynn Samuel, Queer Action treasurer and chief organizer of the event.

“Even though we can’t see it all the time, bullying of LGBT individuals, and especially youth, still happens,” Samuel said.  “And sometimes the adults who are supposed to protect them just don’t.”

In the film, the peace and quiet of Oil City, Penn. is shattered when native Joe Wilson – the filmmaker – places an announcement of his wedding to another man in the local newspaper.

The announcement catches the eye of the local chapter of the American Family Association, whose activity has rallied against the “homosexual agenda” since 1977. The chapter issues an action alert in Oil City, calling on townspeople to denounce same-sex marriage and all other forms of “perversion.”

CJ Springer, a gay high school student in Wilson's hometown, is brutally tormented on a daily basis for his sexuality at school, which he describes in the film as “eight hours of pure hell.”

The announcement has a different effect on Kathy Springer, a local woman whose teenage son, CJ, is brutally tormented on a daily basis at school for being gay.

With school authorities dismissive of her son’s suffering, she seeks help from Wilson. They begin a struggle, on-camera and off-, to take on the school authorities who made every day “eight hours of pure hell” for CJ.

“Most folks can relate to being bullied or harrassed because of some aspect of their identity,” said Liz Canfield, assistant professor with the VCU department of gender, sexuality and women’s studies and Queer Action’s faculty advisor.

“Though (the film) focuses on bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation, anyone can relate to how it feels to be ostracized or discriminated against.”

Caitlynn Samuel, Queer Action VCU treasurer and chief organizer of Tuesday’s screening, said that in Queer Action meetings, shows of hands for people that had experienced harassment for their sexuality typically bring every attendee to raise their hand.

Samuel said that although she feels comfortable openly holding her girlfriend’s hand on campus, she has experienced derogatory comments around the city and hears “countless stories” of VCU students in dormitories suffering the same.

“It’s hard not to develop a false sense of security when campus feels so welcoming in that way,” she said.

Ryan Cheperka, a pre-doctoral intern with University Counseling Services, facilitated the post-screening discussion.

“We all participate in a ‘bullying culture,’ and it can be eye-opening to talk about it,” she said. “I mean, who hasn’t been called a hurtful name or called someone else a hurtful name in their life?”

By holding a screening of “Out in the Silence,” Queer Action VCU also gained consideration for the filmmakers’ Award for Youth Activism, which offers a top prize grant of $1,500.

The winning gay-straight alliance, diversity club or other similar group will be that which “best reaches a wide cross-section of the school and surrounding community” through a “creative and inspiring film screening and discussion,” according to the Out in the Silence website.

Samuels said that should Queer Action win the grant, it would considerably offset funds lost this year through budget cuts.  The money would help fund events like the VCU Drag Ball and Take Back Prom (held on the Day of Silence in April).

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