Queer Documentaries: 1960s and 1970s (LGBTQ)

In the nonfiction field, diverse and positive images of gays were missing. There were isolated examples, such as The Queen (1967), Frank Simon’s look at male transvestites in a beauty contest, or Shirley Clarke’s feature-length interview with a black male hustler, A Portrait of Jason (1967). But getting openly gay people to appear before the cameras was a problem, and difficulties in financing gay subject matter insurmountable.

The first work to reflect the recently nascent Gay Liberation movement was Some of Your Best Friends (1971), by USC’s Ken Robinson. Utilizing cinema-verite form, he examined the origins of the movement in N.Y. and L.A., interviewing participants about their oppression. It would take another six years for other filmmakers to follow Robinson’s initiative with significant gay-themed docus.

The rising tide of anti-gay propaganda, spearheaded by Anita Bryant’s Bible-thumping crusade, revitalized the gay movement. The efforts of 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 method differ greatly.

Word Is Out

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 private investors. He 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, then jointly selected 26 women and men. Choice of location and props–clothes–were made in consultation with the interviewees. To make 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.

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 inclusion of stereotypical dykes such as Pat Bond and effeminate men like Roger Herkenrider suggests the complexity of role-playing in gay life. There are also Donald Hackett, a black truck driver, and Linda Marco, both married before coming out (another pattern in the cast). 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.”

Gay USA

Like Word is Out, Gay USA is a collective production, made under the banner of Artists United for Gay Rights. However, unlike Word Is Out, it was filmed on one day, June 26, 1977, and was the product of one filmmaker, Arthur Bressan, who conceived the project and shaped its form. In the wake of the Miami defeat of a gay rights initiative on June 7, Bressan joined the San Francisco demonstration at City Hall. Bressan then formed camera crews in six cities (San Francisco, San Diego, N.Y., Chicago, Houston, and L.A.), useing their parades to document an emerging gay consciousness. By cutting from one city to another, the film gives the impression of a united coast-to-coast struggle against bigotry and oppression.

If Word is Out explores more private experiences, Gay USA captures communal excitement. It was the first film to chronicle the intense anger and joy embodied in public expressions of freedom. Bressan amplifies the 1977 material with footage from the first Christopher Street Parade in 1970, and subsequent parades in other cities. Slides, stills, footage of civil rights marches and Nazi parades are interpolated in the film.

In Gay USA, Bressan orchestrates a diversity of life styles: lesbians, sympathetic straight families, drag queens, professionals, youths, ex-prisoners, dykes on bikes, blacks, school teachers, anti-gay dissenters. Bressan’s montage presents a dialectical opposition of sound and image, giving the work a spirited tone of debate. A proponent for repealing laws against gays is juxtaposed with an anti-abortionist who supports Anita Bryant. A statement by a young gay Catholic, who voices his protest against Church policies, is followed by a fundamentalist citing the Bible for condemning homosexuality as an “unnatural way of living.”

“Dykes on Bikes” lead off the procession, followed by thousands of women sporting banners: “We are your teachers,” “Gay, Alive and Healthy,” and “Remember the Witch Hunts.” The film picks up momentum with the “Are You Gay” sequence, with a handheld tracking camera, cutting from response to response, from “I don’t think I can classify myself” to “that’s none of your business.”

The kaleidoscopic vision imparted by Gay USA combines frivolity and seriousness. Although Bressan’s tone is positive, the inclusion of dissenting opinions enriches his work. Even in an environment where gays can openly pursue a “free” life, there still is intimidation and violence. Just days prior to the 1977 San Francisco march, Robert Hillsborough was brutally stabbed on the street: Bressan dedicates Gay USA to him and closes it with a memorial at City Hall.

Bressan’s ideological and aesthetic contrasts underline the differences within the gay community on various issues, including cross-dressing. A parade float with blow-ups of Stalin, Hitler, Anita Bryant, a Ku Klux Klan, and Idi Amin, is intercut with Nuremberg footage from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, as a young man notes that “in fascist societies, people are taught to dress and act alike. Bressan highlights the point that lack of individuality is the basis for racist and sexist stereotyping.

Word is Out and Gay USA reflected the politics of a rapidly growing gay minority, with each film propagating voices long denied access to the media due to bigotry and oppression. Aired on Public TV, these documentaries were mostly seen by gay viewers, ultimately failing to realize their potential as consciousness-raising tools outside of the gay community.