Movies We Like
Word Is Out
You can't know where you're going until you know where you've been. This is never more true than in how we think about Civil Rights issues. A documentary recently restored and released onto DVD through a joint effort of Outfest and UCLA's Film & Television Archive, Word Is Out, is an enormously moving survey of the lives of ordinary Americans who happen to be gay or lesbian. It was made in 1977 and it features a variety of people from many different walks of life. It manages to be riveting for most of its running time and this is especially noteworthy considering it features nothing more than people talking about growing up gay and how their sexual identity has enriched their lives and simultaneously made their lives more difficult. This is fairly benign stuff, the kind of thing you might hear on This American Life week after week, but its cultural and historical importance as a record of gay life in America in the post-Stonewall/pre-AIDS era is priceless.
In 1977, the gay rights movement was just getting under way in the U.S. before AIDS would ravage the community a few years later. The interviews with gay and lesbians in Word Is Out don't feature any talk of AIDS because it hadn't devastated the community yet, but it was hard not to wonder whether anyone interviewed in the film had their lives destroyed by the disease in the years since the interviews took place. Still the interviewees had plenty to contend with. Some of them were sent to mental institutions by their families when they came out to them. One woman was discharged dishonorably from the army. One woman lost custody of her kids when she left her husband for a woman. And yet, through these interviews, one gets the impression that these regular folks have an incredible sense of perspective and peace of mind that they earned the hard way. Their friendliness, optimism, and bravery shine through in these interviews and it's hard not to wonder whether gay equality would have been on the radar sooner if a plague wasn't about to derail the movement.
The people we hear from in Word Is Out are a group who were mostly invisible to society at the time the film was made. But it's not a particularly jaded bunch - in fact, they seem better off than the people from their lives who reacted negatively to the news that they were gay. Homophobia and insecurity about one's sexuality are one in the same and it's shocking to think that at the time this movie was made there was so little understanding about gay life in the U.S. beyond the ridicule served up by an ignorant mainstream culture. Word Is Out is not agitprop. In fact, none of the subjects even seem that angry at the ways in which they have been misunderstood and instead are just relieved to be at a place in life where they know who they are and that they have taken control of their own destiny. There is much reflective conversation that is alternately enlightening, sobering, and uplifting. If I were a kid growing up in this era I would have been incredibly relieved to have seen this film and known that there were lots of people from all walks of life living openly with honest, contented lives as out gay folks.