The painstaking remastering and subsequent re-release of the 1978 documentary Word is Out: Stories of some of our lives is a welcome addition to the world’s library of readily available discussions about the “different” amongst us.
For those new to this Mariposa Film Group milestone production, the premise is simplicity itself. A troupe of queer, largely neophyte filmmakers (led by the brother and sister team of Peter and Nancy Adair along with Rob Epstein, Andrew Brown, Lucy Phenix and Veronica Selver) turned their cameras on 140 willing volunteers, which were then trimmed down to a much more manageable 28 voices. The subject matter is their personal experiences living as gay women and men from the 1930’s through to 1977. After a tone-setting introduction (asking the still timeless question to the uninitiated, “Were you always gay?” and the first of three appearances by Buena Vista marvellously bursting into song, this time with “Were You There”—somewhat akin to the Beach Boys’ vocal ranges but far more tantalizing, form-fitting outfits) the film is framed in three large segments: “Early Years,” “Growing Up,” “Moving On.”
If there is a single theme that permeates these honest, courageous interviews it’s the notion of acting/hiding to survive. Not surprisingly, a vrai actor, politician and social activist are among the diverse group of interviewees. Trying to act straight bred anger in some (notably the women whose role as housewives and baby factories was and—in many societies/cultures around the globe—still is driven by men) and a sense of worthlessness in several others. The notion of having to be a robot, unfeeling mechanical doll or incapable of love was demonstrated time and time again. Putting on false fronts or wearing masks (most aptly and eloquently by Tede Matthews, the resident, wonderfully coiffed cross-dresser of the ensemble), depending on whose company they were in (husband/wife, co-workers, fellow queers, secret lovers), deftly combine to paint a canvas of personal angst and despair. Asian Dennis Chiu reports his feelings of intense isolation with the twin taunts of “Chinaman” and “fag.” “How could Liberace be adored on TV while anxious young men were demonized as sissies?” says it all. Betty Powell does yeoman’s service as the “token” black dyke who has come through her journey with flying colours and will be an inspiration to many on the brink.
Ironies abound. In those early years (where castration, shock treatment or vegan diets were seen as cures—some went willingly to these institutions of quackery, hoping they would return as normal as everyone else) the shrinks say they’re sick, the lawyers treat them as criminals and the clergy damn one and all as wicked.
On a more positive note, the unbelievable joy of being with another of the same sex and expressing physical and emotional passions openly, realizing that there’s nothing wrong “being that way,” ought to give hope to anyone currently struggling with their own scary truth. Watching extended families frolic at the beach or giddily play pattycake provides further moments of optimism even as the music underscores many positive images (notably Trish Nugent’s “Marigold Woman”). The annual baseball classic (the San Francisco Police Department’s burly finest stepping up to the plate to battle Team “YMCA”—where Michael Mintz has learned to accept himself more as gay and a man “because I’m a jock”) seems so appropriate and innocent: Can this be the same force that terrorized the Bay area’s early pioneers?—cross-reference below).
As truly wonderful as this film is, there’s nary a word said about the thousands of young Americans (and of course, millions worldwide) who choose death—self-inflicted or the result of over-the-top bullying—rather than live another moment in their lavender skin.
The DVD’s generous bonus features add still further information and material, especially the lead-off “Thirty Years Later” segment. It’s a delight to see the participants reflect on changes over the past three decades, primarily with happy remembrances—many still in the same relationships. Naturally, not everyone is still on the planet; sadly five from their number—including Peter Adair and Mintz —succumbed to HIV/AIDS as so many unwittingly did in the heady days of San Francisco’s “free at last” gay mecca era.
Word Is Out is a must-see for those just beginning to explore their inner selves, those who are increasingly comfortable in their skin and most especially those still looking to trample the rights of others as their own cure for pushing away a hidden desire to experience “the love that dare not speak its name.” JWR