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It Gets Better: For Billy

It Gets Better: For Billy

When gay Los Angeles writer Michael Anthony created his "It Gets Better" video, he didn't think much would come from it -- until he received an anonymous letter in the mail. With no return address and signed simply "Billy," it was a cry for help, detailing one boy's painful struggle with his sexuality and the unimaginable high school bullying he regularly endured in Wheeling, Ill., a suburb of Chicago -- and also Michael Anthony's hometown. For Billy documents Michael Anthony's return to Illinois to explore the culture of LGBTQ bullying in the Midwest and to combat homophobia through art and activism -- while attempting to rectify a personal and painful mistake he made 10 years ago that ended with the suicide of a former best friend.

WWMSD?! It's a question I've spent the last two weeks asking myself: "What Would Morgan Spurlock Do?!" Up, down, inside out, and all around -- so my stomach churns as I proceed with For Billy, my current LGBTQ antibullying documentary.

If I receive one more piece of "opinionated correspondence" (a.k.a.: hate mail), I am going to rip my hair out. Despite my working in entertainment for over a decade, I've yet to grow a thick skin. My heart remains open, and it's both a blessing and a curse -- especially when the subject line of my incoming e-mail often reads something like this: "If we can stop you from turning just one child homosexual, we've done our Godly duty!"

In my last column I discussed the obstacles created by religion for pre-production planning in my hometown. Many people have told me they will not participate because they don't agree with this documentary's LGBTQ content -- because "the Bible tells them so." After the article went up on the Net, I received a letter from the mother of one of my best friends. She expressed her fears that I am painting Wheeling as a hick town where everyone is religious and no one is tolerant of gays or liberal on social issues overall.

I understand her concern, and I agree with her. Wheeling is not a hick town where everyone is religious and no one is tolerant of gays or liberal on social issues overall. Instead, it is a middle-class village where most people remain silent about gays and social issues overall -- or at least this is my experience thus far. Perhaps I will learn differently in the coming month's worth of taping; at least I hope to. However, as a writer and filmmaker, I can only express my opinions as molded by my current experiences, and thus far, this is what I've found to be true.

This letter from my friend's mother is only the second note of encouragement I've received from anyone 35 or older in the town. Hate mail? My in-box clocks 17 pieces of angry electronic correspondences and counting. In no way do I want to paint my former hometown as racist, homophobic, or hateful -- but I am trying to show the left side that the right wing is far more outspoken.

Whenever I see social injustice, I speak out. Whether it's someone trying to cut in front of an old woman in the grocery line because they "only have one item" or a gay bashing on Hollywood Boulevard that gets little news coverage because it's "just not that unique of a story," I speak my mind and draw attention to the inequity of the situation at hand. I guess what I am asking, through these columns and this documentary, is for those who agree with the pro-gay left to speak your mind. (And for those who are on the right, please stay civil and express your feelings in an intelligent and thoughtful manner to me. I am all ears to all sides of the LGBTQ-marriage/suicide/rights/bullying/pride "agenda," and I want to understand your opinions as well -- but I cannot through angry and anonymous e-mails.)

In short, if you care about equality for all, let your children and your community know it. If you stay silent, your town paints its own picture -- like the one (perhaps) painted in my last column.

Thus far, I have received approximately 100 anonymous letters from children and teens throughout the area, expressing their feelings about bullying, homophobia and growing up in 2011 America. Part of the documentary is about how we are taking these letters, turning them into beautiful pieces of art, auctioning them off for charity, and showing students that their pain can be beautiful; we can all connect with it -- and when we connect, the world doesn't seem as alienating and unforgiving. Yes, many of these art pieces revolve around gay teens and the coming-out experience, but not all of them. All students are speaking their mind, heart, and soul. How someone can protest this, I simply do not understand.

One letter I received last week touched me deeply. Excerpt: "I am fucking disgusting. I'm not fat but I'm flabby. I'm not a blonde, my hair is dirty brown. I'm not smart, I'm just average -- and that's what makes me disgusting. Freaks stick out. Fattie, blondes, smarties stick out and get noticed. Averages like me get lost in the shuffle. No one notices averages like me. What? Do I have to start up an eating disorder to get some attention in this fucking school?"

Who wrote this letter? Your sister? Your daughter? Your best friend? That girl in the back of AP English class who you laugh at? Maybe someone you've never even noticed at all? Gay, straight, black, white, poor, or rich? (And does it even matter?) The feelings this letter conjures should call all of us to action.

I depart for Wheeling in exactly one week, seven hectic days. Yes, general filmmaker to-dos wrack my brain -- shot lists, 5D camera rentals, and location releases -- which is all normal, I suppose. But in addition, my heart is wracked with uncertainty: How will we be received? Will anyone be willing to speak on camera? Will I be stoned the second I step off the plane at O'Hare?

I don't know what people think my motivations are or what the aim of this documentary is. My sole ambition is to get society to a point where kids (especially LGBTQ-identifying kids) no longer have to write an anonymous note like the one shared above. To Wheeling, I say this: "Please open your heart, give me a little credit, and join me on this journey. I love my town and I only want the best for each and every student; although I have yet to meet them, I sincerely care."

But if you cannot stay civil, get out of my way. I simply have no room for hate in the shooting schedule.
30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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