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ON FILM: 1978 documentary lifted veil on gay life

By Philip Martin

This article was published June 18, 2010 at 3:53 a.m.

— Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives may be the most important movie you’ve never heard of, much less seen. It was the first feature length documentary about gay people, made by gay people, and one of the first to treat homosexuality as a naturally occurring phenomenon. It dismantled the prevailing stereotypes by presenting gays as they were - in all their diversity and humanity.

It made its case by letting its subjects - 26 men and women ranging in age from 18 to 77, of various ethnicities, social backgrounds and lifestyles - tell their own stories in a straightforward, unadorned manner. Most of them do so in a remarkably placid, candid fashion that shames the pumped-up hysteria of the baiters and bashers.

The film had a brief theatrical release in 1978, playing in major cities across the country, and it was shown on public television in some markets. But though it has been hailed as a historically important documentary and a hallmark of the emergent gay pride movement of the late 1970s, for the past 20 years Word Is Out has been a difficult movie to actually see.

That changed earlier this month when Milestone Films released the first DVD version of the documentary, handsomely restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archives and the Outfest Legacy Project. They worked from the original 16mm color negative, a 35mm color reversal intermediate, the original 35mm soundtrack negative and the original 1/4-inch audiotape recordings. (The suggested retail price is $29.95; the film is available directly from Milestone - milestonefilms.com - for $23.95.)

Some of the interviewees were well-known at the time - the filmmakers talked to Harry Hay, the activist who founded the Mattachine Society, and his domestic partner the inventor John Burnside; poet Elsa Gidlow; and professor Sally Gearhart, an ally of California’s first openly gay politician, San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk - but most were ordinary people who could have been (and in fact were) the co-workers and neighbors of “ nor-mal” Americans.

The film was the brainchild of filmmaker Peter Adair, who made his name with the 1967 documentary Holy Ghost People, about a Pentecostal sect in West Virginia that incorporated snake-handling, faith-healing and speaking in tongues in their services.

Adair, in the midst of coming out as a gay man himself, enlisted his lesbian sister, Nancy, and Andrew Brown, Rob Epstein, Lucy Massie Phenix and Veronica Selver to form the Mariposa Film Group collective. (Epstein, who was 19 when he started work on the film, went on to direct the Academy Award-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk and The Celluloid Closet; Phenix and Selver continue to work in film and television production.)

While several of the interviewees have tales of heartbreaking discrimination to impart - a former member of the Women’s Army Corps talks about how the Army dishonorably discharged 500 WACs for lesbianism in the 1950s, despite a tacit “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that had been observed for years - and a couple of subjects recount how they were institutionalized for their orientation (another woman recounts how a doctor prescribed two salads a day to treat her “sickness”), maybe the movie’s most affecting moment belongs to a soft-spoken, bearded young man wearing braces on his teeth.

Posed on a bench in front of a pond on a college campus, David Gillon looks into the camera and speaks softly, explaining with great equanimity how “frustrated” he felt that he couldn’t work up sexual feelings for his girlfriend.

“When I was in high school, I thought I was just one of those cold people who could never love anyone,” Gillon says. “When I fell in love with this guy ... it meant so much to me. It meant I was a real person. I wasn’t just a machine.”

Gillon, like many of the interviewees, conveys a sense of calm optimism. But less than a year after Word Is Out was released, Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone would be assassinated by a disgruntled former city supervisor, Dan White. AIDS was still in the future, as were the culture wars of the 1980s and the ongoing debates over gay marriage and gays in the military. Word Is Out documents a moment when, that while acknowledging one’s true nature could still have dangerous repercussions, it was possible to believe the struggles of the gay rights movement might soon be over.

E-mail:

pmartin@arkansasonline.com

MovieStyle, Pages 36 on 06/18/2010

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