PBS: Labor's Love Lost

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PBS: Labor's Love Lost

By Robin Epstein

PBS has blocked the broadcast of Out at Work, a documentary that profiles three working-class gays and lesbians who face on-the-job discrimination, saying some of the film's backers–labor unions and a lesbian foundation–have a conflict of interest.

For five years, filmmakers Kelly Anderson and Tami Gold followed a Detroit auto worker who was harassed and physically threatened when his co-workers found out he was gay, a Cracker Barrel employee in Georgia who was fired because she was lesbian, and a Bronx public library clerk who successfully advocated for domestic partner health benefits for city workers while his partner was dying of AIDS.

If P.O.V., public TV's premier vehicle for independent films, had had its way, you could have watched Out at Work this summer. But in March, PBS News and Information Programming Director Sandra Heberer wrote to P.O.V. Executive Producer Lisa Heller taking issue with what she termed “problematical funders”–including the UAW, the steel workers union, locals of AFSCME and SEIU and the ASTRAEA National Lesbian Action Foundation, each of which contributed an average of $1,000 to the film's $65,000 budget. Arts funders provided the rest.

“On its merits alone, we found Out at Work to be compelling television responsibly done on a significant issue of our times,” Heberer wrote. But, she continued, “PBS's guidelines prohibit funding that might lead to the assumption that individual underwriters might have exercised editorial control over program content–even if, as is clear in this case, those underwriters did not.”

PBS observers say this is appalling, but nothing new. “It's not the first time that PBS has used this spurious excuse to can a documentary they are clearly avoiding because of its content,” says Village Voice columnist Jim Ledbetter and author of a forthcoming book on PBS. “PBS runs scared on many subjects related to homosexuality. The idea that corporations can fund programs and unions cannot is frightening and so contrary to the historical underpinnings of public television that they should be ashamed,” he says, adding that labor unions were among the first supporters of PBS. The AFL-CIO gave the network $25,000 when it was founded in 1967.

Heller says she is disappointed by the decision but had no choice but to comply. “I have to say PBS has been very supportive of gay programming on P.O.V.” Heller adds. “I have to believe they identified what they perceived as a conflict with their guidelines.” Calls to PBS were not returned.

Out at Work, which premiered at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, highlights the fact that in 40 states it is perfectly legal to fire people because of their sexual orientation. The film also explores the role of unions in creating a safe, tolerant workplace, Anderson says. “We worked very hard to cultivate relationships with unions,” Gold insists. “It took a long time for the unions to see it was in their interest for us to do this.”

There's a silver lining to the story, however. HBO has commissioned Anderson and Gold to make a film about the harassment and firing of gay and lesbian workers.