Made at a time when stereotypes about gays were prevalent in popular culture, pioneering documentary Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives offered a broader spectrum of the gay experience than many straight people had previously encountered, especially when it aired on PBS the year after its theatrical release. Made by a collective of gay filmmakers in a conventional nonfiction style, the picture interweaves excerpts from chats with 26 individuals, some of whom appear on camera with their partners, while telling a moving story about gay men and women slowly emerging from the fringe of American society to live their lives openly and proudly. Whereas many fictional ’70s films about same-sex relationships failed to grab mainstream attention for various reasons, having to do with limited distribution opportunities and the reluctance of some straight moviegoers to look beyond their heterosexual worldviews, Word Is Out takes an unthreatening approach that, impressively, does not diminish the charged political statement made by the film’s very existence. While quietly declaring that gay Americans expect the same consideration and respect as their straight counterparts, Word Is Out invites straight viewers into the conversation.
The speakers in Word Is Out are men and women of various ages, some young and flamboyant (there’s a drag queen in here), and some older and more circumspect. They tell stories about initially denying their sexual urges because of societal pressure, about forming secret communities with other gay people while assimilating into larger and predominantly straight social systems, and about the spiritual rewards of accepting one’s true identity. In one affecting scene, a man describes going to concerts where audience members sang the comical rallying cry “God save us nelly queens” together, explaining the subtext of those words: “We have our rights, too, is what we were really saying.” Several of the speakers describe the experience of living “conventional” lives before finding themselves, so it’s painful to watch, for instance, a woman describing how she broke from her husband and children once she accepted that she was a lesbian. (Keep in mind that many of the stories described here unfolded in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a time when many still considered homosexuality a form of mental illness.)
Among the fascinating characters in Word Is Out is Sally Gerhart, an intellectual/theologian who suggests that society transforms each new baby into “half a person” by declaring that a man is not complete until he marries a woman, or vice versa, neglecting the biological fact that we each have feminine and masculine qualities. Another unique personality is Pat Bond, who conveys tremendous humor and insight while describing her experience as a cross-dressing member of the U.S. military, but then reveals profound pain when asked if she feels lonely. Time and again, the filmmakers behind Word Is Out complicate their portraits, making it impossible for viewers to see any particular subject in only one light. And that, more than anything, is the beauty and value of this movie, introducing viewers to a group of people who are contradictory and tough and vulnerable and a million other things, one of which is gay.
Word Is Out was an important early step toward the inclusiveness and understanding that makes America of the 2010s so hopeful, even as close-minded public figures try to drag the country back to the intolerance of the past. Incidentally, a gay-rights rally appears toward the end of Word Is Out, adding an appropriate and helpful aspect of activism to the film’s content. Those curious to see even more you-are-there footage from the gay-rights movement may wish to explore a documentary from the following year, Gay USA (1978), which focuses exclusively on activism.
Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives: RIGHT ON