Below is a reflection on an OUT IN THE SILENCE Screening & Community Dialogue sponsored by the White River Valley PFLAG in Spencer, IN. This is what the building of the movement for inclusion, fairness and equality for all in rural and small town America looks like. Beautiful and Inspiring!
Film Screening, Dinner, Dessert, Dialogue – and Drab Carpeting?
by Jonathan Balash, President of Spencer Pride:
Last night, I found myself staring at a patch of bland carpeting in the middle of a crowded room. Around me, people discussed important issues affecting the LGBTQI community – a community to which I and my husband Jacob are proud members. And yet I stared at the floor.
Let me step back for a moment and set the stage for you.
We were at the Presbyterian Church Cornerstone Hall in our small Midwestern town of Spencer, Indiana. Spencer is a rural community with a population of approximately 2500. It is situated in Owen Valley along the west fork of the White River, and sandwiched between miles of soybeans, corn, and fields of livestock. The crowd that filled the large open room had come out to attend White River Valley PFLAG’s Out in the Silence Film Screening and Community Dialogue.
I am the secretary of our chapter. Alongside our chapter president Judi Epp and a few core PFLAG members, I had spent a significant amount of time over the past two months planning for the event. We kicked off the evening with a member of the Presbyterian Church who said a short welcome and prayer. Then, Judi and I introduced ourselves, PFLAG, and finally the film itself. After I pressed play and adjusted the volume accordingly, I stood back with other PFLAG members to take in the impressive crowd. We had planned on 25 people attending the event, but we all secretly had hoped for 50 people. I counted more than 50 in attendance and shared a few excited glances with Judi.
But that wasn’t it. The door opened and members of the church’s youth group filed in. Now we were at 55. Wait – again the door opened. 59. 60. 63. And so on, the door kept opening until our crowd reached 77 people! I was beside myself that our community could fill a large room for an event focused on gay and lesbian issues! Young and old, church-goers and secularists, students and teachers, the room filled with diversity. Our members quietly scrambled to add more chairs as each new couple or group entered the lowly lit room where the film was playing.
Quickly we doubled our food order from the local Pizza Hut.
As you may already be aware, Out in the Silence is a critically-acclaimed documentary that focuses on the issues of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals who live, work, and love in a small rural community in Pennsylvania. Ever since we had been introduced to the film several months ago through an e-mail from our field coordinator, Brooke Smith, our chapter had wanted to hold the film screening and community dialogue. There are so many parallels between the film and our own local community.
The film stirred up a lot of emotion among the attendees. At moments there were tears, while at other times the sound of laughter filled the room. Most of the audience kept their eyes focused on the screen as the various story lines unfolded. I kept pinching myself that we had such a great turnout! Our PFLAG members scrambled to cut ice cream cakes that had been donated by our local Dairy Queen.
The movie ended and after a brief break where we served food and refreshments, the crowd returned to their seats as I introduced Mary L. Gray, a distinguished Indiana University Professor of Communication and Culture and author of the recently published book Out in the Country. Mary’s research about rural LGBTQI youth is well-known to us and we had met her at a previous event. She was also recommended by the filmmakers of Out in the Silence, so we were excited and honored to have her participate in our event. First, Mary laid the ground rules – use “I” statements, respect one another, etc. – then she had us all move our chairs in to a large circle. She then began to facilitate the dialogue.
Dialogue topics ranged from the film itself to teen suicide to religious perspectives on homosexuality. The crowd represented both sides of nearly every topic, with the passions of one person often leading to the unease of another.
Hence the carpeting. And my shoes. I realized how I should have given them a fresh coat of polish before I came to the church.
I am an out – and very outspoken – man. Yet something as simple as talking about an issue so close to my heart can be difficult to do. Quotes from the Bible were read and it was made quite clear by several attendees that surely no good would ever come from my identity as a homosexual man. I know better than to believe these things, of course, but it doesn’t make them any easier to hear.
I was playing a good host, smiling and looking attentively around the room during the conversations that were comfortable to me. Yet the moment that the Bible was quoted, my eyes trailed back to the floor. Was this to hide weakness? Insecurity?
As the dialogue continued, I realized how difficult it must have been for the conservative Christians to attend this event, surrounded by mostly LGBTQI affirming individuals as well as a whole assortment of LGBTQI-identifying people. I admired their bravery at coming to our event. I doubt I would have been willing to do the same had the situation been reversed.
I began to be more conscious of my view, and I started to keep my head up regardless of the topic. It was wonderful to hear so many people who were willing to stand up for their gay sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, and friends.
Judi spoke from her heart near the end of the discussion. “Some people – like myself – choose to live the truth. Some people choose to live a lie. And some people can’t choose either. So they can’t live at all. That’s just unacceptable.”
Her words sent a message deep inside of me. As she said them, I looked around the room and saw the nodding heads of a few people who still clenched bibles in their hands. Although all we could agree on was that discrimination and violence toward youth was unacceptable in our community, I knew that would be a great place to start.
It was important for us all to have taken part in the event. For those individuals who were already affirming, it was important for them to see what challenges still exist in our community. For those individuals who were “against the very premise of the event” (direct quote), it was important for them to see that we aren’t just hiding in the shadows. We have supporters. And for those of us who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, it was important to see and understand both of those things.
The discussion ended after 45 minutes when Mary brought it to a close and thanked everyone for coming out to participate. “I was struck by the level of commitment from everyone in the room to continue the conversation, even when it was clear that there was disagreement,” Gray explained to me after the event. “I believe conversations like the one we had tonight bring us one step closer to better supporting LGBT and questioning youth because these discussions help us see the genuine concern we have for each other and our community members. It's inspiring.”
Judi, our chapter president, had the following to say about the dialogue: "Our intention was to start a conversation about being gay or lesbian in the rural Midwest and we certainly did that! The attendees represented a wonderful cross section of the local community and thanks to our facilitator everyone who wanted to speak was given an opportunity to do so.”
Once the dialogue finished the hall began clearing out. Approximately 20 people remained and continued the discussion in smaller groups. My husband was in one of these groups, being questioned by several conservative Christians that he had known in years past. I had checked on him to make sure that he was ok (which he was) and then I went back to standing near our PFLAG informational table answering questions that were posed to us by the departing crowd. Within half an hour the crowd had dwindled to only our members who cleaned up, debriefed, and then went home for a long night’s rest after a fruitful evening that had taken us months to organize.
I reflected on the experience out loud with Jacob on the way home, and then again silently to myself in the time since then.
“We hope this is the beginning of a continuing conversation with this community,” Judi told me today, with determination in her voice. “Our November meeting of the White River Valley PFLAG will be the next opportunity to continue the important conversation that began last night.” The November meeting’s theme will be “Continuing the Conversation: Reflections of Being Lesbian or Gay in A Small Midwestern Town.”
I hope that we have a nice turnout at our meeting now that we’ve gotten good publicity from the film screening. I even hope that a few people show up who were among those bible-quoters from last night’s event. I think we can all learn from one another. At least we have a place to start.
And I promise that I won’t be looking down next month. I’ll be looking forward to the next steps in bridging the gaps within our small community. Spencer doesn’t have a GLBT center or any cute bookstores with gay pride flags flying out front, but it does have people who are willing to communicate with one another about challenging issues.
What more could I ask for?