Out at Work

The Public Broadcasting Service prides itself on carrying programs that commercial stations can’t or won’t, showcasing work too esoteric or controversial for corporate sponsors to support. It came as something of a surprise, then, when PBS decided not to air Out at Work, a documentary by Kelly Anderson and Tami Gold about gay men and lesbians on the job. Out at Work was slated to show on Point of View, a PBS series that features the work of independent producers. In response to PBS’s action, a group of graduate students at New York University, working with Anderson and Gold, the NYU American Studies Department, CLAGS, AFT local 3882, Hunter College’s Film Department, the Nation Institute, and several other organizations, presented a one-day conference at NYU’s Cantor Film Center. The conference, held on November 15, 1997, explored the issues raised by the film as well as the implications of PBS’s decision. Ruby Rich describes Out at Work as “a film that takes gay rights as seriously as unions [take] organizing.” The documentary presents the story of several people: a nonunionized service employee fired by Cracker Barrel, a virulently “family style” restaurant; a unionized autoworker from the Midwest confronting on-the-job homophobia; and a librarian from New York City whose health insurancesecured by his union -was critical to his partner’s battle with AIDS. Anderson and Gold allow their subjects to speak their own truths while providing an overarching narrative that ties together their very different lives. As a teacher, I was excited about the possibility of using Out at Work in the classroom. The film would be an excellent starting point for a discussion of sexuality, the vagaries of post-1960s liberalism, unions, and working-class life. Following a screening of the film, speakers and audience members discussed the complex relationship among class, sexual identity, and politics; the workplace as a site of oppression and resistance; and the concerns of lesbian and gay workers and their families. The conference ended with a reception-benefit for Pride at Work, a national coalition of gay, lesbian and bisexual trade unionists affiliated with the AFl-CIO. lisa Duggan, a CLAGS Board member, moderated the first panel of the day, which included Anderson and Gold as well as Nat Keitt, Cheryl Summerville, Sandy Riley, and Riley’s and Summerville’s daughter, all of whom appear in Out at Work. The final panel of the day featured a representative of PBS, a one-woman public relations effort, who came to explain her employer’s decision. PBS claims that the rather modest funding that Anderson and Gold received from the AFl-CIO and other unions might give the appearance that the filmmakers were ideologically indebted to their sponsors. Note that PBS was not objecting to observable bias (heaven forbid that Gold and Anderson might have a point of view) but rather the possible appearance of bias. As janice jackson, Director of Research at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, pointed out, PBS has aired programs funded by corporate sponsors before. In these cases, the issue of tainted money was not raised. It became apparent that PBS was worried that its own funding sources, especially corporate and government sponsors, would object to a film that “takes gay rights as seriously as union organizing.” Ironically, Out at Work is now scheduled to air on Home Box Office, a commercial station known for sponsoring British boxers and leaving British drama to the nation’s PBS stations. Out at Work is available from Anderson/Gold Films, 151 First Avenue, Suite 210, New York, NY, 10003. Terence Kissack Ph.D. Program in History, GSUC