Word is Out (1977): First Documentary about Lesbian and Gay Identities made by Gay Filmmakers

Gay Pride Month: On the Shoulders of Giants–World of Our Fathers

Word is Out debuted in 1977 as the first feature documentary about lesbian and gay identities and lifestyles made by openly gay filmmakers.

Note: The Term LGBTQ+ did not exist back then.

Word Is Out

Theatrical release poster

The Mariposa Film Group comprising of Peter Adair (Absolutely Positive), Nancy Adair, Andrew Brown, Rob Epstein (The Times of Harvey Milk), Lucy Massie Phenix (Winter Soldier) and Veronica Selver sought to create a film free of political didactics and to simply tell the stories of growing up gay in America.

After conducting 140 interviews, the filmmakers selected twenty-six people of various lifestyles, races, ages and backgrounds. What they achieved was a cornerstone in Gay Rights. Audiences were startled and moved by these stories told by the film’s participants. The documentary was released in theaters around the world and shown on prime-time television. It helped untold numbers of people accept themselves, their friends and their families, and had an impact on American culture.

“Word is Out” quickly became a landmark in gay and indie cinema, but time had taken its toll on the existing prints and the film was rarely seen. The Outfest Legacy Project and UCLA Film & Television Archive restored Word is Out with the generous contribution of the David Bohnett Foundation, creating a high-definition video for this DVD premiere. Ripe for rediscovery, the film is at once a record of past struggles, an occasion for reflecting on how far we still have to go, and a masterpiece of the documentary form. Viewers will be charmed, touched and perhaps galvanized to action by the film’s emotionally breathtaking blend of candor, humor, love and humanity.  This is the second Milestone Cinematheque release with Oscilloscope Laboratories.

The rising tide of anti-gay propaganda, spearheaded by Anita Bryant’s Bible-thumping crusade, revitalized the gay rights movement. The efforts of some socially-conscious filmmakers resulted in two landmark works, Gay USA and Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives.  Both films rely on the interview format, but their footage and methods differ greatly.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

In 1975, producer Peter Adair envisioned a short film about gay people to be used as teaching material in schools. After two frustrating years of searching for foundation support, he resorted to getting the funding private investors.

Adair joined forces with his sister Nancy, assistant cameraman Andrew Brown, sound editor Veronica Selver, filmmakers Lucy Massie Phoenix and Rob Epstein, and the Maripose Film Group came into existence. What began as a modest presentation of positive role models for gay people became a chronicle of the vast range of gay experience.

Committed to collectivist organization, the filmmakers decentralized the shooting and editing processes. Of the pre-interviewed 200 persons, they jointly selected 26 women and men. Choice of location and props–clothes–were made in consultation with the interviewees. To make the subjects feel at ease, a stationary camera was used and, since the camera operator was also the interviewer, communication proceeded smoothly.

Along with interviews, footage was assembled about the subjects’ working and living situations. The Mariposa Group spent over a year editing 50 hours of footage down to 2 hours and 15 minutes. Various cuts were screened for gay audiences and responses solicited, allowing the community to participate in determining the final cut.

Structurally, Word is Out is divided into three sections: “The Early Years,” “Growing Up,” and “From Now On.”

Subjects were carefully chosen to display diverse lifestyles; their interviews are broken up and used in more than one section. Frontal medium to close shots are used, giving the impression of a portrait in which the subject directly addresses the camera and creating an intimate rapport between subject and viewer.

Interviewees included Elsa Gidlow, 79, the eldest subject, lesbian mothers Pam Jackson and Rusty Millington, drag queen Tede Mathews, and middle-aged couple Harry Hay and John Burnside picking berries in the country.

Despite diversity along ethnic and sexual lines, certain patterns emerge, asserting middle-class values. The large number of stable couples in the film suggests the pattern of traditional matrimony; only one character speaks up for casual-sex, which was then the norm for many gay men.

The final section, “From Now On,” focuses on various dimensions of gay politics. Powell, of the National Gay Task Force, relates her “coming out” of a heterosexual marriage. Her assertion that “lesbians and gay men have a great deal to offer in terms of restructuring the world culture,” is articulated by feminist Sally Gearhart, who claims all humans are born with bisexual potential but are made half-persons by society’s strict gender programming.

The intentional inclusion of stereotypical dykes such as Pat Bond and effeminate men like Roger Herkenrider suggested the complexity and diversity of role-playing in gay life.

There are also Donald Hackett, a black truck driver, and Linda Marco, both married before they came out of the closet (another pattern in the cast).

Interestingly, while the film’s most intellectual arguments come from women, the strongest emotional moments are from men.

One male confessed: “In high school, I thought I was just one of those people who could never love anybody. When I fell in love with Henry, it meant I was human.”

Making 0f the Feature

Documentary filmmaker Peter Adair came up with the idea for the film. According to Adair:  “In the 1970s when the modern gay movement was just beginning, our biggest problem was invisibility. Who homosexuals were was largely determined by straight people. It was bad enough that the public image of gay men and lesbians was defined largely by stereotypes — after all, I want other people to have an accurate picture of who I am. But these stereotypes created by outsiders largely defined our perceptions of who we thought we were. What a state of affairs. One’s reference for ‘What was Gay?’ was a few nasty images, and, if you were lucky, your immediate circle of queer friends.”

Word Is Out was on its surface a very simple idea answering the simple question, “Who Are We?” For the film, I, and the five other people I worked with spent a year doing research interviews on videotape of 250 lesbians and gay men all across the country. In the end, twenty-two were chosen to tell their stories in the film.

The directors of the film, collectively known as the Mariposa Film Group, were Peter Adair, Nancy Adair, Andrew Brown, Rob Epstein, Lucy Massie Phenix, and Veronica Selver. An initial investment of $30,000 was raised from people who believed in the idea and wanted to see the film made, and assistants were hired and production began.

The original number of interviewees was only 8 people, but when the footage was screened to test audiences, the great interest it generated indicated that a much larger and more diverse cross-section of interviewees was needed. Several more years were then spent in filming the rest of the interviews, and intercutting them with each other to create the final product.

Bonus Features: Produced by the Original Mariposa Film Group

1.     WORD IS OUT, THEN AND NOW: THIRTY YEARS LATER featuring the filmmakers and many of the film’s participants.
2.     AFTERTHOUGHTS by the filmmakers and participants
3.     A history of THE MARIPOSA FILM GROUP
4.     REMEMBERING PETER ADAIR, the film’s producer and main force behind the collective.
5,     DVD EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: DAVID BOHNETT, the man behind the film’s restoration and DVD release.