Leeds Animation Workshop is a not-for-profit cooperative company who produce and distribute short animated films on a variety of social and educational issues.
Now, in the wake of Miss Penn’s lovely IDAHO post, I’d like to look at their two LGBT films- Out to the Family and Out at Work.
On the surface these two seem very similar. Not only do they both deal with the process of coming out, but they’re structured in the same way- as a series of short self-contained stories. Each individual is introduced, and their coming out story is explored. The emotional impact that each story contains is impressive, given that both films are only fifteen minutes long, and fit in six stories each.
The difference in setting for the two allows them to explore rather different issues, however. Out to the Family is part of the Parenting and Relationships set, it concentrates on adolescence (as a time of change and conflict) and the emotional impact of both exploring sexual identity, and coming out to family members (especially parents). It ties in well with their other parenting films, Bridging the Gap and Joined-up Families, by highlighting the ways that the generation gap and different family structures can play into the experience of coming out to the family.
Meanwhile, Out at Work clearly has plenty in common with Through the Glass Ceiling and Did I Say Hairdressing? I Meant Astrophysics, as they all address equal opportunities in the workplace.
Out to the Family
Many of these vignettes confront heterosexism- the assumption that heterosexuality is normal. Most of the parents depicted in Out to the Family unthinkingly presume that their children are interested in the opposite gender. In Lauren’s case her parents make disparaging and homophobic comments about two women kissing on the television, not realising that she’s begun to acknowledge her own attraction to a female friend.
Her parents aren’t attempting to be hurtful, as she later points out they just don’t know that they know anybody ‘like that’, they’re existing in a bubble of heteronormativity. Their comments cause their daughter a lot of worry however, she thinks that her parents will hate her and that she’ll be branded a ‘freak’.
This is why I want films like this to be obligatory viewing for parents- it eloquently demonstrates how a lack of acceptance (or even a fear of it) can have such a negative effect on children. The accompanying booklet (available both in print and as a PDF) discusses the way that teens who are made to feel guilty for their sexuality are likely to face low self-esteem and depression. Making parents consider these facts is important, as is ensuring that children know that they’ll always be accepted and loved.
The film and literature are very aware of the fact that many parents today grew up in a world where homosexuality was illegal, classified as a mental illness and/or considered shameful. It’s also respectful of the fact that they may therefore be shocked when their child comes out to them- and that they might need time to adjust to the information, and that a lot of their angst may well be coming from a good place- concerns about their children’s happiness, health and acceptance in wider society.
Not everyone can be Burt Hummel from Glee:
Other factors- such as culture and religion- may interplay with this, and create an even more difficult environment, as with Rashid. The way that he’s forced to leave home illustrates the debilitating consequences for an entire family. Not only does Rashid face a crisis, but his parents regret things they said in the moment and being cut off from him feels horrible, and his sisters- who had no problem with his sexuality- have lost him too.
If parents are open to the fact that their child may well be gay, bisexual or trans- and have discussed this with them- there’s far less of a chance that them coming out would lead to such a horrible situation. Being surprised or concerned is one thing, but it’s important to be supportive no matter what.
Adolescence can be an emotional time anyway, but parents can’t just assume that their children are going through an awkward, teenage phase. When Shakila realises that she’s bisexual, she’s stressed about telling her parents and becomes tense and argumentative. Rather than being sympathetic to the stress she’s been feeling, when she comes out to her parents they get upset with her. Coming out as bisexual has its own problems, as it’s easier for people to dismiss it as a “phase”, or not a real identity.
Certainly Blaine in Glee was met with rampant biphobia when he wanted to explore whether he was attracted to Rachel. (At least he got to get in his “I’d say ‘bye’, but I wouldn’t want to make you angry” zinger.)
Being a supportive parent has nothing to do with biology. In Kieran’s story, his mother takes her son being beaten up for being gay as something else awful that’s happening to her, and his father doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. It’s his mother’s boyfriend who points out that he’s doing nothing wrong, and that he’s experiencing bullying- and who suggests practical solutions such as driving Kieran to a nearby LGBT youth group.
Sam’s story- of gender dysphoria- was perhaps the most nuanced. It features a mother who tries to be supportive from the beginning, although she struggles with the fact that her son is trans. She herself develops a good support system- both through her friend and through the internet- and makes an effort to ensure that Sam always feels appreciated, and isn’t teased.
The final story, Kate’s, involves an individual who’s refreshingly unstressed. She’s out to her friends, but hadn’t ever gotten around to telling her parents. She’s genuinely surprised by her mother’s response- especially the concern for her happiness. She’s already happy, and gay. Through joining a support group her mum learns a lot, makes new friends and comes out at work about her gay daughter.
This section also underlines the fact that although things aren’t perfect, people can be out to their families in a way that many people simply couldn’t in the past. After all, we live in a world where films like this get made. It clearly is getting better.
Out at Work
Coming out is not a one time event. Where there’s an assumption of heterosexuality, LGBT people will have to come out over and over again at various points in their life.
Coming out at work as an adult might seem less emotional and important than coming out to one’s parents as a young person. You might not care as much about what your colleagues and boss think of you as you do about your family. However, the amount of time that people spend in the workplace means that it’s vital that they can feel comfortable- and homophobia and transphobia at work can have far-reaching negative consequences.
To start with, it’s certainly unfair if a person’s sexual orientation is a barrier to employment. In the first story, James is interviewed by Fogeys. He’s put off by their all-white, all-male workforce and asks to see a copy of their equal opportunities policy, which flusters them. When he mentions that he helps out at Gay Switchboard they hide behind the language of ‘family values’.
Happily, James instead finds a job in a friendlier company, who appreciate that they have customers from diverse backgrounds and lifestyles- and want the workforce to reflect this. These kind of employers may be more likely to be based in big cities- like where James lives- and other environments might not be as positive.
Being uncomfortable about announcing one’s sexuality at work can make people very anxious and nervous, and coming out can also lead to problems. Meena feels left out and has trouble connecting with people- and has to deal with sexual harassment and inappropriate emails. Ryan, who is going through a divorce and has moved in with his boyfriend, has to cope with verbal abuse and pranks being pulled on him by his co-workers at the garage.
Sarah- a teacher who is out at work- gets complaints from parents who don’t want their children taught by a lesbian, and the new headteacher is wildly unhelpful. Barry asks for compassionate leave to take care of his sick partner, especially important because neither of them have their families in their lives, but is denied this. Homophobia isn’t just an issue for LGB individuals either- Chrissie is victimised at work because she’s friends with Tim, who’s out (and fabulous).
Out at Work presents legitimate solutions to these problems. Meena joins a LGB group, which makes her feel less like she’s going to have to find a new job. Ryan’s boss Mick sees the harassment he’s dealing with and points out that it’s a problem for the company (in terms of productivity) and also that it’s illegal. Sarah speaks to the union who tell her that the head is contravening the equal opportunities at work law (and thankfully Sarah’s status as a role model to gay students is no longer threatened by section 28, since its 2003 repeal) and it’s the head who ends up leaving the school.
Barry’s colleague and friend, Susan, advises him to talk to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau who are able to help him. Chrissie arranges training to raise awareness of diversity and equality, which ends up impressing the directors and giving her career a boost. She thanks Tim for improving her life, simply by being himself.
This focus on practicality resonates- it shows how important it is to be aware of legal rights, and what course of action to take if these rights are threatened. Out at Work also makes the very good point that a happy workforce is a better one. Harassment and victimisation make people miserable which makes them worse workers, as well as more likely to leave. Diversity is solidly emphasised as a positive thing- not only does James’ company appreciate it, Chrissie’s career benefits from her making an openly gay friend.
I can’t think of many examples from TV and film where characters have come out at work, in contrast to myriad teen dramas (from Dawson’s Creek to Glee) which give gay teenagers- and their parental relationships- plenty of attention. Stories about people being out in the workplace, resolving any problems that arise, and the positive consequences of doing so are empowering and inspiring- and they should be shared.
Both these films, and many others, are available for purchase on the Leeds Animation Workshop website– where they offer discounts for bulk buying.