Superficially, the 1977 documentary Word Is Out: Stories Of Some Of Our Lives may not seem as relevant now as it once was. Conceived and assembled by The Mariposa Film Group of San Francisco (including Rob Epstein, who went on to make The Times Of Harvey Milk and The Celluloid Closet), Word Is Out has 26 men and women of varying backgrounds looking into the camera and speaking frankly about being gay. The 130-minute film is divided into three parts: first about how the subjects denied and/or hid their sexuality, second about how they accepted themselves and/or found love, and lastly about what they expect from the future. Word Is Out was part of a trend in the gay liberation movement of the ’70s toward using testimonials as a radical, transforming act. “Tell people who we are,” the theory went, “and they won’t fear or shun us anymore.” And though homophobia hasn’t disappeared by any means, the tactics of those groundbreaking gay activists did accomplish the baseline goal of making the very existence of homosexuals less shocking. They got the “we’re here” and “we’re queer” parts down, in other words. “Get used to it” is still a work in progress.
That’s where the specificity of Word Is Out works wonders. In one of the first interview clips in the film, black lesbian Betty Powell makes it clear that she doesn’t want to be “the black lesbian,” representing all black lesbians. And throughout Word Is Out, the Mariposa group takes care to paint some experiences as fairly universal among the gay community, and others as unique. Even the age of the subjects makes a difference. The older interviewees talk about failed marriages, police harassment, and horrific psychological treatments, while the younger ones are comfortable enough with having grown up gay that now they nitpick gender roles. It’s telling, too, how some major political issues haven’t changed much from then to now, including controversies over legal marriage and open military service (and, sadly, “gay cure” quackery and getting pushed around by cops).
Word Is Out staggers its interviews with a few musical interludes and slice-of-life vignettes, and the interviews themselves are cut together so they flow as one long, engrossing narrative. But again, the personal moments and anecdotes stand out more than the attempts to find commonalities. It’s fascinating to listen to wry old lesbian Pat Bond talk about the butch culture of the army (before hundreds of lesbians were dishonorably discharged in one infamous sweep), and how for all the refreshing openness of the ’70s, she misses the illicit romances and clearly defined codes of the past. Similarly, George Mendenhall weeps while talking about the feeling of freedom when he discovered New York gay bars in the ’50s, and how his friends would stand up to the cops by putting their arms around each other and singing, “God Save Us Nelly Queens.” The Mariposa Group contrasts that with young people realizing that now, out in the open with their sexuality and relationships, they’ll have to make their own rules for what gay romances and gay families should look like. Thanks to Word Is Out, those kinds of problems were made just a little easier for the generations that followed.
Key features: Deeply moving new interviews with some of the surviving interviewees, who discuss the impact of Word Is Out on their lives and on the gay culture at large.