Documentary aims to break silence on gay people in farming

A short film inspired by the gay son of a farmer is seeking to open up conversations about farmers who may be struggling in silence with their sexuality.

Two years ago Rupert Williams, who’s father is a Lancashire dairy farmer, began working with award-winning filmmaker Matt Houghton, having researched homosexuality in rural areas some years earlier.

Part of his own investigation led him to contact Cheshire-based farmer-turned-chaplain Keith Ineson, who set up the only helpline dedicated to gay farmers in 2010.

See also: How accepting is the countryside of gay people?

Since then Keith has taken hundreds of calls from farmers who have nobody to turn to for support, often living in complete isolation or with family they feel they can’t talk to for fear of causing upset or awkwardness. The helpline gets at least one new caller every week.

It’s well-known that suicide rates in agriculture are among the highest of any profession in the UK, especially among men.

Couple that with the fact that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people are at a far greater risk of mental health problems, which includes having thoughts about ending their lives, and you’ve got a recipe that puts gay farmers in an extremely high-risk category.

“There’s no roadmap to doing this sort of thing and it was difficult for me growing up,” Rupert explains, thinking about his own experiences as a gay man being part of a farming family. “There was a silence about it, a not knowing what to do. I knew that farming wasn’t my world.”

Today, Rupert lives and works in London as a social worker and has previously worked at the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard, but his experiences of growing up on the farm prompted good friend Matt to start work on the documentary, titled Landline

A sense of isolation 

Rupert’s feelings of isolation and confusion are precisely what this short film is aiming to help with. It takes a handful of cases where people from farming communities had called the Gay Farmer Helpline, showing a reconstruction of the moments and emotions described in their recorded phone conversations.

You can watch a trailer of the film below.

Landline | Trailer from Matt Houghton on Vimeo.

“Speaking to Rupert one evening, we got talking about what it was like for him growing up in a farming family as a queer man, and the unique sense of isolation that he felt,” says director Matt.

“As we researched further, we began to understand the extent to which being an LGBTQ farmer was so heavily wrapped up in ideas of identity. Keith Ineson’s helpline seemed a unique lens through which to explore these ideas.”

Over the course of about a year, they collected stories and experiences from farmers who have dialled 07837 931894  ­– the Gay Farmer Helpline number.

A series of recorded telephone conversations form the heart of the captivating 12-minute film, funded by Film London and made with Pulse Films and production company Fee Fie Foe

What may surprise viewers, though, is that not all of the case studies are sad and depressing – far from it in fact. There are cutting personal accounts that pull at the heartstrings, but Landline also features stories of falling in love, of stress and risk-taking and of overwhelming support from family, friends and the wider community upon coming out as an openly gay person in farming.

“These are stories about mental health, rejection and acceptance, but what the film also shows is that farming communities can be supportive,” Rupert adds.

“I think part of the reason for doing this was a curiosity to see if there were other people out there like me. I thought that there must be others out there who are struggling with their sexuality. I wanted to shed light on that, see what other people’s experiences were and ultimately raise awareness.”

One thing viewers will notice about this film is that all five of the case studies are men, but that’s not through lack of research or making the assumption that this is an issue that doesn’t affect women.

While he’s certain that isn’t the case, Rupert admits that the team found it hard to identify LGBTQ women in agriculture and even those they did contact weren’t keen to talk. This is a barrier that the documentary makers sometimes hit when speaking to men too, such is the fear of speaking out about who they are.

“Some people were quite hesitant about telling their story but they wanted to. In the end they were quite eager to talk about their lives and I think some found it quite therapeutic to tell their story,” says Rupert.

It’s good to talk

The short documentary has been been screened at a number of film festivals in the UK and abroad and was picked as one of the British Film Institute’s (BFI) Five Films for Freedom, branded the world’s widest-reaching LGBTQ digital campaign.

Landline was watched more than 460,000 times during the 12-day London film festival BFI Flare, which showcases new and classic LGBTQ films from around the world. It has also won an HBO Documentary Short Film Award and will eventually be publicly available to watch online.

But ambitions for this candid, intimate and at times shocking short film stretch well beyond sparking ardent applause from the metropolitan scenes of London and gaining accolades from international film buffs.

“It is the honesty and openness of our contributors that made this film possible,” says Matt. “To me, it is defined by its intimacy but in depicting the very personal. My hope is that it poses questions about much broader ideas surrounding community, family and masculinity.”

Rupert wants Landline to strike a chord with farming communities and bring about something that’s too often left wanting in these circles – willingness for an open and honest chat about feelings.

It might sound preposterously simple, but Rupert strongly believes that talking sets everyone involved on the right track to avoiding long-term pain, upset and lasting damage to relationships and mental wellbeing.

“I think by having a conversation people will become more aware of the impact that their views might have on others, like making them feel as though they can’t come out – that is not acceptable. It’s not a matter of ignorance, it’s more naivety I think.”