A Champlain College Crew Documents the "Worst" of Coming Out
State of the Arts
What’s the worst thing about coming out as gay, lesbian, bi or trans? That simple question elicits many answers in a recent web-based project from Champlain College, as well as providing its title. Produced by Rob Schmidt Barracano, assistant professor of digital filmmaking, and a team of students over this past year, worstthingaboutcoming out.com features video interviews with individuals simply telling their coming-out stories. While there are unsurprising parallels between them, each of the stories is engagingly unique. Last Thursday, an hourlong documentary, which spliced together anecdotes from more than a dozen interviewees on the website, was shown in public for the first time. A Q&A with the filmmakers followed.
Worst Thing About Coming Out, the movie, is mostly riveting as a cinematic experience. The emotions of the speakers are palpable, and the recounting of their journeys to “out” is sometimes devastating, sometimes funny and always dramatic. Shot at extremely close range with a stark white backdrop, the individuals look and speak directly into the camera, which enhances the intimacy of the storytelling, of the confessions, and of the shared fears, confusion, rejection and, eventually for some, relief, pride and joy.
At about the halfway point, the doc’s pace changes: Quick cuts from person to person give way to longer segments with a handful of individuals, as if the filmmakers, and New York-based editor Frank Reynolds, didn’t want to interrupt particularly intense stories. These are generally focused on the actual outing, the moments when the speaker revealed the Big Secret to someone significant in his or her life. Quite often, it’s a parent, or both of them — the people whose judgment tends to have the most impact on their children, even in adulthood.
More than one interviewee describes having struggled because of their Christian faith. Would God still love them? Yes, concluded one; God made her the way she is and loves her the way she is. Others, even close family members, are not always so accepting, particularly those who hew to religious fundamentalism.
In the final moments of the documentary, interviewees begin to answer an unheard question: What advice do you have for someone who is in the process of coming out? The answers correlate with the personal experience of the individuals. One suggests “getting it over with” as a teenager. Another, who almost committed suicide before finally, torturously, coming out in his late twenties, advises taking “as much time as you need.” For some, coming out in increments — first to close friends, then to cousins or other relatives and finally to immediate family members — seems to have been the way to go. The absence of just one right way to reveal one’s true identity may come as a comforting or a confusing revelation, depending on the viewer. What’s most important, the doc and the website underscore, is that you’re not alone.
In a way, WTACO has “something for everyone” — given that everyone who chooses to visit the website or view the doc is likely to be either in the LGBT community or a straight ally. The interviewees here are male, female and trans and range in age from teen to senior citizen. Most appear to be American, but one young man mentions his family in Guyana — which has completely rejected him. Though the individuals don’t explicitly mention their economic backgrounds, they appear to represent a range from working class to middle class. Class status, we discover, is not a predictor of tolerance.
The interviews are powerful in part because of what they reveal about human nature: that we fear judgment from those we care about, and that some of us, at least, fear anyone who upsets the perceived norm.
For all the negatives, though, Worst Thing About Coming Out occasionally shows that the “worst” wasn’t all that bad. Family members and friends, according to some interviewees, “knew” long before the person in question came out as gay, and were fine with it. Many of the speakers note that, first, you have to come out to yourself.
At the screening, Schmidt Barracano indicated that the group will continue running WTACO, the website. “As long as the project keeps helping people, I will run it,” he said, and recalled feeling special satisfaction when he noticed a kid from Ohio had landed on the site at three in the morning and spent an hour and a half there. Then, Schmidt Barracano said, “I feel like we really helped someone.” But he admitted later that there are challenges to working with a student crew, which soon moves on to the next class or graduates. WTACO may not have a dedicated staff to keep the project going.
The future of Worst Thing as a documentary is even more uncertain. Schmidt Barracano mentioned the possibility of submitting it to film festivals. But, for now, this is a project that can at least claim to have provided solace, empowerment or solidarity to a number of anonymous individuals. Especially after last February, when actress Eliza Dushku — of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fame, who starred in two films Schmidt Barracano directed — discovered the website and tweeted about it, sending traffic to more than 30,000 hits in a single day.
“Hopefully [other GLBT individuals] will find comfort in our stories,” said production assistant Sam Buford in the Q&A session after the screening last week. “I wanted to touch people who were struggling.”
Even so, he conceded, “I don’t know if we’ve decided what we’re going to do with this next.”
Additional reporting by Seven Days intern Michael Garris.