Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski is mighty glad that word is out, and that out is in.
"Were you always…gay?"
A classic among documentaries and in LGBT cinema, 1977's Word Is Out has been gussied up and rereleased. Far from feeling dull or dated, these interviews are still invigorating today—filled with stories of hardship from a less accepting time, and of excitement as a new era of openness was dawning. What's remarkable about the film is not only the stories it tells, but that it had the gumption to gather them in 1977, when this country was a lot less hospitable for queer folks than it is today.
Facts of the Case
Over 30 years ago, San Francisco's Mariposa Film Group—a rag tag collective of young queer filmmakers—set out to document the "stories of some of our lives" by interviewing 140 out gay and lesbians for a documentary. Pared down to 26 and editing together in three sections—"The Early Years," "Growing Up," and "From Now On"—these interviews are the main component of Word Is Out, along with some musical interludes and brief scenes of the interviewees' daily lives.
Speaking to Word Is Out's relevance today, an interviewee in the special features, who has been interviewed in the film itself more than three decades ago, says, "The stories of we who were in the film is not the story of young people now. I'm so glad it's not the story of young people now, but at the same time I'm afraid that so many of our young people don't really know where they came from. They need to be reminded of the horrors of back then, of how difficult it was for so many people, of how lucky they are." Cutting deeper than most "these kids today" gripes from older folks, Rick Stokes' plea makes a case for the importance of history to social movements and marginalized groups. As a lesbian from this younger generation—where gay marriage is the big new cause, kids are coming out earlier and earlier, and the L and G of the '70s have been joined by B, T, Q, I, A, etc. in a veritable alphabet soup—I can say that I'm moved and inspired by Word Is Out every time I see it. Queer people and straight allies of any age should welcome this restored edition of the film.
Those interviewed come from all walks of life, representing different races, classes, ages, regions, and professions. Those identities inform their experiences of being gay in America, as they articulate in the film. The older individuals can relate stories of discrimination from the '50s and before—being beaten up or arrested, having their bars raided—while the younger ones can speak to the experience of coming out in a post-Stonewall era. A lesbian feminist says she wants to create and exist in a woman-only space, a father talks about being a gay parent, and a young Asian man reflects, "You go through a lot of hurt when someone calls you a Chinaman, so in one sense you're more able to deal when someone calls you a fag."
In contrast to lesbian TV drama The L Word's self-satisfied and over-reaching claim "this is the way that we live," Word Is Out more wisely composes its tagline as "stories of some of our lives." The film does a nice job of acknowledging the partialness of its portrait of America's queer community in 1977. While it makes significant gestures toward racial diversity in its interviewees, for example, it also includes a comment from the one black lesbian about how she had hoped that the project would include more black lesbian voices so that she wouldn't have to serve as the model of what all of these women's lives are like. Trans voices feel particularly absent from this film, perhaps reflecting an exclusion by the Mariposa collective and/or a weaker integration of trans people into the late '70s queer community. Another way Word Is Out seems self-aware is in its occasional shots of the filmmakers interacting with the subjects or running the equipment and reflected in a mirror.
Further, the film extends its collaborative process past its crew and to its interviewees, blurring the line between those behind the camera and those in front of it. Unlike many documentarians making films about "other" people and trying to remain neutral, the Mariposa group seems to subtly acknowledge their own investments and identities as lesbians and gays. Sometimes an interviewer will interject as an interviewee speaks, turning these exchanges into conversations between people with a shared identity rather than one-way communications to an invisible audience. For example, when Pat Bond speaks about the violence and police discrimination she experienced in the '50s, her off-camera interviewer cuts in with, "It's incredible to me that you lived with that on a daily basis, accepted it." Pat responds, "You had to, what else were you going to do?…It takes a terrible toll."
Word Is Out vacillates engagingly between moments that are emotional, joyous, horrific, and comical. A man who took the bus to San Francisco with $30 in his pocket and found a real community there tears up when he remembers a performer at one of the bars who would unite all the men at the end of his show—men who were always at risk of harassment and violence—in a chorus of "God save us nelly queens." A number of couples talk about the joy of finding someone to share their identities and their lives with—or simply exhibit that joy without words when the bond they share is touchingly apparent in their interactions. A gay man and a lesbian each talk about their frightening experiences in mental hospitals, ranging from isolation and neglect to electro-shock therapy. The man says that his doctor's first comment to him was, "Well, we could castrate you. But let's try some treatments and see what we can do there." On the lighter side, we hear Pat Bond reminisce about an old lesbian army buddy and burst out laughing, "She looked sort of like all my old gym teachers in drag!"
Bond's interview segments were perhaps my favorites, as this military woman said some of the funniest and some of the most thought-provoking and honest things in the film. She seems particularly aware of what's been lost in the gay liberation movement, despite the incredible freedoms it has brought. In the '70s, butch/femme dynamics largely fell out of favor for lesbians, as feminists objected to their supposed miming of hetero relationships. Bond muses, "Now you say: I'm not butch of femme, I'm just me. Well who the hell is me? What do I do? How am I to behave? At least in that role-playing, you knew the rules." She also laments interestingly, "I find one of the depressing things about lesbians being accepted, or the gayness being accepted, is that we lose our sense of the in-group…of having our own language, our own terminology…that secret society."
Though Word Is Out has been ably restored by the Outfest Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation, the picture and sound are still sourced from a low-budget '70s documentary. While it's comforting to know that this milestone production is in good hands, pristine audiovisual qualities are not the main attraction with this release; the special features are. Two featurettes, running 25 and 9 minutes, reassemble the people interviewed for Word Is Out and the people who made it, asking them about their feelings on the film so many years later, and what their lives are like today. I found these segments fascinating, with stories of how the film's release propelled some of its participants out of the closet, reflections on the collaborative process of making it, and a touching remembrance of the five participants who died of AIDS—a crisis that shattered the carefree sexual atmosphere of the '70s for gay men a few years after Word Is Out was made. Speaking about the new edition, one woman says, "It's a true film. It's people telling the truth, and the truth is never dated." Another featurette is a remembrance of the late Peter Adair, who helmed the Mariposa group and died of AIDS in the '90s. The other group members talk about him fondly, and we see footage of Adair from the years before his death. The extras are rounded out by detailed credits for the DVD and restoration, a short message from the lead donor who made the restoration possible, a PSA advocating for LGBT film preservation, and a trailer for this new edition.
At the end of Word Is Out's credits, there's a little note that says, "We're interested in your responses to the film. Response and general inquiry can be sent to…" with an address. A perfect symbol of the film's spirit, this note is a reminder that even in post-Stonewall 1977—with its gay pride parades and activist groups—this project was still about individuals reaching into the unknown, seeking others like them, and forging meaningful connections. For the Mariposa group, getting the "word" out was very much about welcoming people in. And that's a message the queer community will always need.
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