I just completed a book all about the groundbreaking 1977 gay and lesbian documentary film, Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives. The film more than warrants a book-length study. I should know because I still haven’t exhausted all the things I want to say about it.
Although Word Is Out was not the first nonfiction film made by gay people about gay people, it forged a new paradigm for gay representation. Younger viewers watching it today might easily miss its significance. Word Is Out is deceptively simple: for a little over two hours, it presents intercut footage of 26 men and women talking openly about their homosexuality. Yet no film before it had assembled so large and diverse a group of openly gay people. Nor had any documentary produced within the gay community succeeded in reaching so far beyond that community.
Word Is Out had major theatrical screenings in cities across the US, in Canada, and overseas; it did very well on the film-festival circuit; and, perhaps most significantly, it had a national US public-television broadcast. For many gay people, closeted and isolated in small towns and hostile homes across the country, Word Is Out was the first positive image of gay life they ever saw.
In 1977, there was a renewal of gay activist energy and organizing, largely in response to Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign in Florida. Word Is Out premiered at San Francisco’s Castro Theater on December 1, six months after Bryant’s “Orange Tuesday” victory in Miami. The film’s premiere was a benefit for groups organizing against State Senator John Briggs’s Proposition 6, a replay of Bryant’s divisive tactics in California. In this context, what a relief it must have been for gay people to have Word Is Out in their corner. The film countered the religious Right’s gay-pedophilia hype with an image of lesbians and gay men as friendly, well-adjusted people and upstanding citizens.
Today, I live in Oakland, California, just across the water from where the six members of the Mariposa Film Group worked on Word Is Out in the 1970s. They did their initial casting there too, with the result that half the people who appear in the film are from the San Francisco Bay Area.
As I worked on the book, I began to see traces of intimate queer histories along the paths I travel in my daily life. Though she died more than two decades ago, I now feel the presence of poetess Elsa Gidlow in Marin County, where she cultivated her garden in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais. I sense the joyfulness of frizzy-haired Tede Mathews along the streets of the Mission District, between the cooperative bookstore he co-founded and the co-op grocery where he worked. And I listen for the stories of bon vivant Pat Bond in the streets of Cole Valley. It was there, at the famed lesbian bar Maud’s (now defunct), that she first bent the ear of filmmaker Nancy Adair, who knew right away that she’d be great for the movie.
Led by Nancy’s brother Peter, who first conceived of the film and also produced it, the six members of the Mariposa Film Group struggled with an impossible task: how to create a cinematic image of gay life that was simultaneously affirming for gay viewers, palatable for straight viewers, and representative of the wide range and diversity of gay lifestyles and experiences. In a series of community-feedback screenings, the filmmakers brought to public discussion the two incredibly loaded questions at the heart of their project: what counts as a “positive image,” and who should (or should not) be included in the final film?
The stakes were high, and as a result so was the level of scrutiny from the gay community. While mainstream reviewers almost consistently praised Word Is Out, reviewers in the gay and Left press often took the film to task for its positive-image distortions, and in particular for its representation (or lack thereof) of sexual culture and political activism. There is virtually no discussion in the film of cruising or the baths, two major elements of 1970s gay male experience by most accounts. And political groups, when they are mentioned in the film, come across mainly as support and social groups rather than as organizations committed to structural change.
In retrospect, maybe these critics were right to be so concerned about what the film was moving off-screen. David Bohnett, who funded the restoration of Word Is Out in 2008, did so because he saw the film, with its many wholesome images of gay couples, as a direct antecedent to the contemporary marriage-rights movement. Far less money and attention have been spent on gay-activist films from the 1970s that present non-sanitized images of gay lives and relationships. In order to rectify this, one of the main projects of my book is to expand the frame from Word Is Out to include the wider cultural and political context of the late 1970s, when the film’s model of gay liberalism was important and ascendant but by no means the only game in town.
Today, Word Is Out is often remembered in a somewhat antiseptic way. The web is full of dry, succinct tributes to the six pioneers who made the first gay documentary about growing up gay in America (or some other sort-of-true-but-not-quite, capsule summary of why the film matters). Perhaps the simplicity of this account follows inevitably from the film’s own image of a gay community not fractured by conflict.
By contrast, my book aims to give sufficient depth and texture to this important chapter of LGBT history. It does so in part by getting the rub of conflict, gossip, and controversy onto the page, without, I hope, detracting from the project of honoring the Mariposa Film Group and their groundbreaking film. I don’t relate much to saints and martyrs, but I take a lot of inspiration from stories of flawed human beings who accomplish great things.
Greg Youmans will be part of the panel discussion “Words on Film,” along with queer authors Will Aitken, Matthew Hays and Thomas Waugh as part of Montreal’s Blue Metropolis Literary Festival on Saturday, April 21, at 8:30pm at the Opus Hotel (10 Sherbrooke W.)
Youmans will be signing copies of Word is Out at a book launch and screening at the Cinema du Parc (3575 Parc Ave) on Sunday, April 22. 1pm book launch, screening at 2pm.
Previously in The Rover, Will Aitken discusses his experience writing Death in Venice: A Queer Film Classic, also by Arsenal Pulp Press.