Last month, a gentle 13-year-old boy named Seth Walsh went out to the backyard of his house in the small town of Tehachapi, California, and hung himself. His mother Wendy knew that he was being bullied and harassed because he was gay, but what could she do? School officials did nothing to intervene, and claim to this day that there was no problem. There was no local chapter of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays to support her, and no LGBT organizations had any presence in her small town. All Wendy could do was tell Seth she loved him -- but that wasn't enough.
Wendy Walsh's story is not unique. The parents and friends of LGBT children in small towns and rural communities all over America are struggling with the same indifference and lack of resources.
Five years ago, at our home in Washington D.C., we received a 17-page handwritten plea for help from one such mother, Kathy Springer, whose teenage boy had become depressed and suicidal after being brutally bullied and tormented for coming to the defense of a gay classmate at his small town high-school near Oil City, Pennsylvania. Kathy wrote us, even though we lived 300 miles away, because she wasn't aware of a single openly LGBT person in her town. She only knew about us because Oil City is Joe's home town, and we'd put our wedding announcement in the local paper -- a small act that had ignited a firestorm of controversy in this conservative rural community.
We couldn't ignore Kathy's plea for help. We grabbed our cameras and headed off for western Pennsylvania, where we spent the next three years following the struggle of her and her son to hold the school authorities responsible, and of the town's large but mostly underground gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender population simply to live their lives and contribute to their community amidst vehement anti-gay sentiment.
The resulting documentary film, Out in the Silence, has screened at many urban film festivals and theaters and been broadcast across the country on PBS. But our real passion is using it as a tool to raise LGBT visibility and connect and mobilize people for action in small towns and rural communities -- places like Tehachapi, where Seth and Wendy lived; and like Greensburg, Indiana, where 15-year-old Bill Lucas ended his life a few weeks later; and like Cypress, Texas, home of 13-year-old Asher Brown, who committed suicide to escape the abuse and torture he was submitted to just because he was thought to be gay.
Over the past year, we've worked with groups and individuals at high schools, colleges and universities, social justice, civil and human rights organizations, and community, faith based and public interest groups to hold hundreds of town hall screenings and discussions around the country, often times in places that have never had any sort of openly gay event before. All too often we hear heartbreaking testimonies that make it clear that Seth's story is not uncommon, and that outside of the major cities there are still far too few resources available to youth, teachers and parents dealing with these issues.
But we also hear that people are hungry for change. They are tired of the polarization that has divided their communities for too long and are looking for opportunities to meet "the other side" -- whether that means LGBT or straight, conservative or liberal, religious or humanist.
When that happens, real progress can occur. We've seen new gay-straight student groups formed and diversity training instituted. And at college screenings we've seen education majors exposed for the first time to the incredible damage that anti-LGBT bigotry and bullying can do, vowing to make things better when they become teachers.
CJ was more fortunate than Seth. He survived, and together with his courageous mom and some help from the ACLU was eventually able to hold the school authorities responsible for their actions:
Out in the Silence is a reminder of the incredible transformations that are possible when people have the courage to speak out against intolerance and bigotry. We hope you'll help break the silence in your community so that the next time the mother of an LGBT teen needs help, she'll be able to find it.
Join the OUT IN THE SILENCE Campaign for Justice and Equality and arrange a screening and discussion in your community. You can buy a complete screening kit with five DVDs or view the film for free on Hulu.