Spencer, Indiana –The Spencer Presbyterian Church Cornerstone Hall was packed on Sunday night with a crowd that came out to attend an Out in the Silence Film Screening and Community Dialogue sponsored by White River Valley PFLAG and Spencer Pride, Inc.
Representatives from the two event partners – Middle Way House and Spencer Presbyterian Church – were only some of the more than 75 people that came out for the free event.
The evening started off with a welcome and prayer by a representative of the Spencer Presbyterian Church. Then, Jonathan Balash and Judi Epp – presidents of Spencer Pride Inc. and White River Valley PFLAG respectively – introduced their two groups and the feature film of the evening, Out in the Silence. The film 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. Organizers of the event saw many parallels between the film and our own local community.
Spencer Pride and PFLAG members scrambled to gather more chairs to accommodate the crowd that continued to pour in to the hall, well after the movie had begun. There were representatives of local churches including high school students from a local church youth group, distinguished mental health professionals, educators, and many more members of the Spencer and Bloomington communities. The crowd was diverse in age, ranging from a small baby all the way to many seniors well into their golden years.
“I can’t even begin to express my happiness with our turnout,” said Spencer Pride, Inc. president Jonathan Balash. “We were expecting 25 people, hoping for 50 people, and absolutely amazed with the 77 people who came out for the event.” He noted that only 70 event programs had even been printed.
The film stirred up a lot of emotion among the attendees. At moments there were tears, while at others the sound of laughter filled the room. Most of the audience kept their eyes focused on the screen as the various storylines unfolded. Dinner and dessert – pizza and ice cream cake generously donated by the local Dairy Queen – were provided after the film for those in attendance.
Mary L. Gray, Professor of Communication at Indiana University and author of the recently published book Out in the Country, led the community dialogue that took place after everyone had an opportunity to get food and refreshments. Mary introduced ground rules and then asked the attendees to all rearrange the chairs in to a large circle so that everyone could see one another during the community dialogue. What was planned for a 30 minute dialogue lasted more than 45 minutes. Topics ranged from the film itself to teen suicide to religious perspectives on homosexuality. The crowd represented both sides of nearly every topic, but everyone could agree that discrimination and violence towards youth was unacceptable in our community.
Kathy Talkington, an Advocate for Women at Middle Way House in Owen County, was a proud supporter of the film and conversation. “Many problems today are caused by people who believe it is ok to discriminate against others who are ‘different’ from them,” said Talkington. “To take a stand against discrimination is to take a stand against violence in our country. It is a step in the right direction for all of us.”
One of the early topics discussed was whether the church should even have supported an event about gay and lesbian issues. Prior to the event, Nancy Dean from the Spencer Presbyterian Church’s Community Outreach and Mission Committee had the following to say about the church’s participation: “We feel that peace and harmony within families and communities are best achieved when issues of concern are discussed openly and caringly.”
Quotes were not taken during the dialogue itself to maintain respect for those who participated and to abide by Gray’s rules.
The discussion ended only when Gray 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. “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.”
Epp 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. Within half an hour the crowd had dwindled to only White River Valley PFLAG and Spencer Pride members who cleaned up, debriefed, and then went home for a long night’s rest after a fruitful evening that had taken them months to organize.
“We hope this is the beginning of a continuing conversation with this community,” Epp said with determination in her voice. She announced that the November meeting of the White River Valley PFLAG would be the next opportunity to continue the important conversation that began that night. The November meeting’s theme will be “Continuing the Conversation: Reflections of Being Lesbian or Gay in A Small Midwestern Town.” As always, the community is welcome to attend the meeting.