Word Is Out
Stories Of Some Our Lives

Millarium Zero / Milestone,

A film by the Mariposa Film Group:
Peter Adair, Nancy Adair, Andrew Brown, Rob Epstein, Lucy Massie Phenix, Veronica Selver.

Achebe "Betty" Powell, Ann Samsell, Bernice "Whitey" Fladden, Cynthia Gair, David Gillon, Dennis Chiu, Donald Hackett, Elsa Gidlow, Freddy Gray, George Mendenhall, Harry Hay, John Burnside, Linda Marco, Michael Mintz, Mark Pinney, Nadine Armijo, Nathaniel Dorsky, Pam Jackson, Pat Bond, Rick Stokes, Roger Harkenrider (Tom Fitzpatrick), Rusty Millington, Sally M. Gearhart, Tede Mathews, Trish Nugent

Unrated, 132 minutes

The Way We Were
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, July 2010

Documentaries about the gay experience are fairly common today but this was not the case in 1977 when Word Is Out: Stories Of Some Our Lives premiered at the Castro Street Theater in San Francisco. Word Is Out was the first positive American documentary ever made about homosexuality, and it was also the first to be produced and directed entirely by gay filmmakers. In honor of its 30th anniversary, the film has been restored and now it has been released as a special edition DVD.

Word Is Out is an impressive historical document from the Mariposa Film Group, led by director Peter Adair. This was a true film collective; Adair shared the directing, interviewing, filming and editing duties with his sister Nancy Adair, Andrew Brown, Lucy Massie Phenix, Veronica Selver and Rob Epstein (who would later direct The Times Of Harvey Milk, Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt and The Celluloid Closet). Together, they interviewed over 100 subjects before finally deciding on 26 gay men and women from myriad backgrounds, ages and races to share their stories for the camera.

Given the time, the film's participants are to be commended for both their candor and their courage. The gay civil rights movement was still in its infancy and their voices were ones that desperately needed hearing. The era's mass media wasn't exactly charitable towards gay people. Vito Russo wrote in The Celluloid Closet that we were "starving" for positive images and visibility on the screen, and Word Is Out was more than just a tentative step in that direction. It was a giant leap.

As one of the film's subjects points out: "To the doctor, you were sick; to the lawyer, you were criminal; and to the minister you were wicked." All of this would have sounded depressingly familiar and hearing these tales must have been cathartic to the film's first audiences. The 26 participants share many similar stories. A surprising number came from small towns. Many were once married because they bought into societal demands, did what they were expected to do, and then wondered what it was that was missing in their lives. Some led difficult lives but, for the most part, Word Is Out dispelled the lie that all homosexuals were unhappy, maladjusted people who lived in the shadows.

Although one of the women expresses concern because she is the only black lesbian in the movie, the film is noteworthy for its inclusiveness. Films of this nature often tended to be rather white - usually white and male. Here, the male to female ratio is pretty much split down the middle, with a very androgynous teen thrown in for good measure. At least one of the women is Hispanic, two of the men are black, and one is even Asian. (In the more recent documentary, Fabulous: The Story Of Queer Cinema, filmmaker Arthur Dong remarks that he was amazed to find himself represented when he saw an Asian man in Word Is Out.) Several of the participants are seen with their partners; one white dude has a black boyfriend. Their ages go all over the spectrum.

Old photos are sometimes cut in, there are a few musical segments and the film ends with footage from a San Francisco pride parade, but most of its running length consists entirely of the interviews themselves. The settings are as varied as the people - a dance studio, a cabin, an idyllic park. A businessman named Mark Pinney wears a suit, sits behind a desk in his office and looks very conservative while Betty Powell, the black lesbian, displays a "Black Power" fist inside the feminine circle/cross symbol on her window. Another woman is seen taking down a tree with a chainsaw.

Many of the participants came of age during very oppressive times; namely the 1940s and 50s. A man named Rick Stokes relates a number of horror stories. Though he was married, he also enjoyed a sexual relationship with his boyhood friend. When this was discovered, Stokes' father-in-law had him committed to a mental hospital where his doctor told him that they could castrate him but they'll try some treatments first. He speaks of having repeated shock treatments. A woman, identified only as Whitey, talks about "escaping" to Greenwich Village from the small town where she lived. She was only a teenager; her father found her and put her in a state hospital for the insane where the threat of shock treatments was used to keep her in line. She also mentions a psychiatrist who prescribed a diet of green salads in order to make her straight.

For Pat Bond, "the thing to do was escape into the Women's Army Corps and go to Paris where Gertrude Stein had been." She talks of the Army recruiter looking like "all my old gym teachers in drag" and how all the women who were enlisting wore argyle socks and pin-striped suits and had their hair cut like men. She describes the pressure to look butch in the Army and comically demonstrates walking like John Wayne. But then she talks of crackdowns, and 500 women in Tokyo being sent home on dishonorable discharges. She is happy that times have gotten a bit more liberal but, having lived through McCarthyism and the Army inquisitions, it scares her that the brave people who are coming out now might be on some list in another ten years if things get bad again. Things did get worse again of course; but one thing that she couldn't possibly foresee was the coming of the AIDS pandemic.

The film is never boring and the talking heads are refreshingly honest. They bare their souls, often holding nothing back. Some of this is painful. One man weeps, overcome with emotion, as he recounts police harassment and "nelly queen" drag solidarity in a 1950s gay bar. Two women from broken marriages became a couple when they babysat each other's kids. Their unique, and nourishing, family was ripped apart when one of the ex-husbands sued for custody and the mothers had no legal recourse. Much of Word Is Out is also funny and many of these witnesses to history have terrific senses of humor - some of it undoubtedly the result of years of having to thicken their skins. Dennis Chiu, whose many randy comments add considerable mirth, talks about insults to his Chinese heritage while growing up and how it helped him to deal with later being called a fag.

The emphasis seems to be more on personal stories rather than activism. Harry Hay is interviewed but his role in the founding of both the Mattachine Society and the Radical Fearies, oddly, never comes up. Rick Stokes is seen, near the conclusion, campaigning for office but the film doesn't mention his political connections with Harvey Milk. Sally M. Gearhart talks about the closet but her feminist science fiction novels are omitted. Perhaps it was the filmmakers' intentions to eschew celebrity and present their large cast as just simple people. The participants' names are identified underneath thumbnail photographs at the beginning of parts one and two, but are not displayed during any of the interviews.

Word Is Out is not a dry time capsule; it is a vital and entertaining document that hasn't lost its edge, even after more than three decades. Because the movie was made before AIDS, some might dismiss it as being dated but this is hardly the case at all. The issues addressed by the principals still haunt us today and many gay people still endure a torturous coming out process. Homosexuality might not be reason enough to be institutionalized anymore but teens are often sent to Ex-Gay camps to be deprogrammed, gay parents still lose custody of their children, and gays are still being drummed out of the military.

Word Is Out is also, quite frankly, a superbly structured documentary that set a high bar for all the films that would someday follow in its fabulous footsteps. Its restoration by the Outfest Legacy Project is most welcome. They did an admirable job and the film looks and sounds terrific. The extras on the DVD are worthy additions to the main attraction and most of the surviving principals (both in front and behind the camera) are represented. They discuss their working methods and how director Peter Adair assembled his team, some of whom had never worked on a film before. But they were gay and shared his enthusiasm for the project, and so he taught them how to use the camera and become filmmakers. Each filmed and conducted the interviews themselves and established an atmosphere of trust with their subjects.

This is not to say that none of the participants questioned their motives. The lines of reality and cinema blur during one of Word Is Out's most interesting moments when Elsa Gidlow, the film's oldest subject, asserts her identity and confronts the filmmakers' methods. "You want to fit me into a structure which you have," she says. "Just as if I'm writing a novel, or you're writing a novel. We use our characters that way. We want to fit them into this work of art; you have a structure and you want to fit your characters into it. But this [she points to herself] happens to be a character that doesn't want to be pushed around or put into a context where she doesn't feel it's true to her." (Perhaps she had seen the notorious 1967 CBS television documentary, The Homosexuals, and was aware of how several of the interviews had been re-edited in such a way that distorted the original meaning.)

It goes without saying that audiences of the day must have been pleased to see themselves in at least one of the people interviewed on screen. If I had been out back in 1977, and had seen the film then, I would have identified with the student who didn't want to be called a sissy "because sissy meant girl and [he] wasn't a girl." (True confessions time: throughout high school I had to put up with being called "Klemm the fem" and was so far in the closet as a result that I didn't even figure out that I was gay until I went to college.)

In 1967, Peter Adair made an acclaimed documentary entitled Holy Ghost People about a Pentecostal service, complete with snake handling, in the Appalachians. He worked on Word Is Out from 1975-1977. In 1984, Adair was a consultant and cameraman on his former Mariposa cohort Rob Epstein's Oscar winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk. In 1986, he co-directed, with Epstein, The AIDS Show: Artists Involved in Death and Survival, one of the first films that examined the impact of AIDS on the arts community, in 1986. When Adair was himself diagnosed with AIDS, he wrote and directed Absolutely Positive (1991). He died in 1996 at the age of 52.

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See also these documentaries:
Before Stonewall
After Stonewall