The Pye/Harris Project
It was the 1950s. The cost of bread was 14 cents. Harry Truman was President of the U.S. from 1950 – 1952. Dr. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for Polio. Explorer I, our nation’s first satellite, orbits the earth. But, gay men and women were still hiding their sexuality except in exclusive clubs that were frequently raided by police. However, Edgar Pye (formerly enlisted in the armed forces) and Bob Harris, two white males, were out – living a life of pride and dignity and making a political statement. Their union lasted for 60 years. This unprecedented video, Coming Out in the 1950s, bridges the generation gap by starring gay teenagers as interviewers and gay senior citizens (age 80+) as interviewees. We spoke with producer, Phil Siegel, about the Pye/Harris Project:
Danita Dyess: How did the project start? Did Ed Pye contact you with the idea?
Phil Siegel: I was co-Communications Director for the 2009 National Equality March, where I met many young activists who wanted to make a difference. However, there are no easy ways for young people to learn about gay history. Ed, who is a friend of mine for three years, and I were speaking upon my return, and we decided to do a gay history project together.
DD: What obstacles did you have to overcome?
PS: Originally it was going to be a ten-part history project covering the growth of the gay community since 1900. However, we did some focus groups with kids who thought that it would be boring for them and too much like school. So we then decided to cast the teen journalists and assign them seniors to interview. And finding coherent older people in their 80s who were out in 1950 was hard.
DD: What has been the overwhelming response to the video?
PS: We have had over 8,400 YouTube hits, and requests from 50 California GSAs (Gay-Straight Alliances) for DVD copies of the project. We have 115 youtube fans. Everyone loves it. We are trying to get it into some of the major film festivals.
DD: How did you find the teenagers who conducted the interviews and Phyllis, Hadley and Ron?
PS: We put out a call to all the GSAs in California, and we contacted youth journalist clubs in the area and had a casting call. We showed them the movies Word Is Out and Common Threads to give them background on some of the eras that we hope to cover in the project.
D:: How can you “measure” its success – traffic on website, funds generated, response from teenagers, etc.?
PS: The poetic answer is that if just one young person who may have considered suicide is moved by the video and is called to action, we have done our job. We would also like to see young people get into conversations with elder gay people about their experiences coming out. They may learn that the world many have been different, but the feelings were the same. If they tape the interviews, we will post them on our website, www.pyeharrisproject.org.
DD: What is the non-profit tie and how are gay youth involved?
PS: The GSA is our fiscal sponsor while we establish our own non-profit status. We did a mailing to all the GSAs in California. We have enough DVDs to send them all copies. We have also received requests from other parts of the country, and will send DVDs elsewhere. Ultimately, we hope to develop some from a curriculum for the GSAs to learn and teach to their friends about our collective histories.
DD: Did you use any social media to promote it?
PS: Absolutely. This is the kind of project that has to start word of mouth. Especially when social media is a key way for isolated gay teens to find one another and start a dialogue.
Ed’s primary purpose of letting teenagers know that they are not alone is expertly depicted in Coming Out in the 1950s. Back then, there were secret societies of gay men who were members of the Mattachine Society. Back then, there were clusters of women covertly belonging to the Daughter of Bilitis. Phyllis Lyon, the senior lesbian in the video, offers words of wisdom to her younger counterpart. She says, “Tell your friends. Keep trying to spread the word.” That’s exactly what this video does.
In 2005, Danita learned about Volunteermatch.org and volunteered to work for two nonprofit organizations. As the online course developer for the National Council for Support of Disability Issues, she researched information, interviewed experts, and produced course material for a multicultural audience. As the English instructor for the Burma Students’ Association, she edited term papers for Burmese college students and co-wrote correspondence for faculty that facilitated attempts at peaceful alliances.
She will be completing her bachelor’s degree in English & Creative Writing from Missouri Southern State University in 2012. Currently, she works as a freelance writer for Textbrokers.com and Moneycrashers.com.