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OUTSOUTH Queer Film Festival Coordinator, Chuck Wheeler, explains the importance of celebrations of queer art, such as film festivals like OUTSOUTH, and how they serve as affirmations of queer life.
When I was growing up in a sleepy and very small Southern town in heavily conservative Eastern North Carolina, I knew I was gay from a very early age. Knowing, however, isn’t the same thing as declaring one’s sexuality. But my classmates would call me “sissy boy,” and I guess I was, because my favorite playtime activity was with my sister’s Barbie and Ken dolls. Later, as a student in middle school and increasingly the butt of homosexual slurs, it was then that a benevolent teacher fully recognized that I felt like an outsider. One day she presented me with a copy of Walt Whitman’s seminal “Leaves of Grass,” and said, “You might not understand why I’m doing this, but I am giving you this book to inform you that you are not the only one.” According to my beloved Grandmother, who had a wealth of knowledge about the townsfolk – hot gossip, that is – my caring teacher was trapped in an abusive marriage to a man who reportedly beat her. Rumors had swirled about her sexuality, also. She understood that I felt alone, and day-by-day I was beginning to hate myself for feeling different from others. Her gift to me was a lifeline. I never saw her again after leaving for college, but I think of her often and would love to tell her, “You saved me.” Nearly sixty years later, I still have the book.
We are again living in a world where it is becoming increasingly difficult to come out, whatever your age, without fear of reprisal. Queer art can serve as a lifeline in these times, just like “Leaves of Grass,” was for me. And that is a prime reason why we need celebrations of queer art, like film festivals. That’s why we need OUTSOUTH. Festivals should remind us of a past where we were effectively erased everywhere. They’re also an important affirmation that we are still here. We always were. Film festivals exist to provide safe space and community. To celebrate and embrace diversity and intersectionality. They are for any person who feels they might be the only one in their world. We shouldn’t need safe spaces in 2023, but I don’t make the laws that deem us invisible or unlawful, and right now our rights are being challenged everywhere. LGBTQ+ people need to be reminded of who they are and that they are hardly alone. This is especially important in the midst of a concerted right-wing attack aimed at pushing us back in the closet. “Silence = Erasure,” so say it loud and proud that you are a queer person. Sadly, the more many in our community are subjected to hate, the more many LGBTQ+ people are going to hide. That’s wrong, and film festivals provide necessary context in a world where truth is too often sacrificed to blatant lies. Any argument to the ongoing discourse over the necessity of queer film festivals in our “enlightened” times must point to these events’ role in bringing together past, present, and future, as mandated tools to understand where, why, and who we are and who we can become. Go forward. There can be no stopping us now.
Chuck Wheeler is currently the Coordinator for OUTSOUTH at the Carolina Theatre of Durham. He has been with the festival for 27 years, beginning as a volunteer in Development and transitioning to Programming one year later. He has always been a lover of film. As an undergraduate at Duke in the 70s he curated films for the Freewater Film Society for 3 years, and in the 90s he studied LGBTQ+ film theory as part of Duke’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program. His day job for 34 years was with BCBSNC. He is currently retired – actually he can’t stop working but officially he is called a retiree – and lives in Durham with his husband of 46 years and 7 pet rescues. He also teaches Indoor Cycling and dabbles in voiceover. If he must pick favorites as to what films or television shows he watches, he will tell you Mike Nichols’ adaptation of “Angels in America” is brilliant, though he is inexplicably a huge fan of Jan de Bont’s “Twister,” perhaps because he loves watching the cow fly by, which in turn reminds him of Judy Garland and “The Wizard of Oz,” which he has watched more times than he cares to admit. He is currently obsessed with “The Bear” on Hulu. How’s that for variety?
Photo features: OUTSOUTH committee members Chuck Wheeler (right) and Jim Manchester (left).