By the time Greta Schiller, Robert Rosenberg, and John Scagliotti delved as far back into American homosexual identity as possible with their 1985 documentary Before Stonewall, many of their interview subjects had already started to embrace their political nature. Facing down the prospect of four more Reagan years, many undoubtedly started to feel like the luxury of living apolitically was no longer a viable lifestyle choice. Word Is Out, heralded by distributor Milestone Films as “the first feature-length documentary about lesbian and gay identity made by gay filmmakers,” may have been filmed just a few years earlier (in 1977), but the tone of the film is entirely different.
It may come as a surprise to some newer generation gays and lesbians just how upbeat their communal parents and grandparents were capable of being. And how naïve. Many of the 26 people interviewed by the filmmaking collective known as the Mariposa Film Group, at least one of whom eventually turned up in Before Stonewall, consider the question “When did you first know you were gay?” with an almost blissful sense of amnesia. Some are sure they always knew they were, they just didn’t know what it meant. Others claim they may have known what they were, but they also knew they had to go somewhere else to actually be what they were. And still others retain some skepticism that whatever it is they’ve arrived at, with regard to their sexuality, makes enough sense to comment upon.
The movie is organized into three parts, dealing respectively with the past, the present, and the future. The present and future are, by and large, province of the young, whereas the past is given over to the middle-aged and beyond. But one member of the latter group (Elsa Gidlow, perhaps among the eldest) is shown not talking to the camera but, instead, negotiating her appearance with the filmmakers, explaining that she doesn’t see the appropriateness of slotting her own experience within the context of the filmmakers’ intentions. While she explains she has no doubt as to the nobility of those intentions, she firmly refuses to allow herself to be “organized” into it.
It’s odd but somehow appropriate that one of the subjects with the most (or at least longest) life experience would have displayed such misgivings. Surely she wouldn’t have known at the time of the interview that she would, indeed, be shuffled into a half-deck’s worth of other stories. What she was probably more concerned about was losing her individuality within a mass chorus of, as correctly discerned by Garry Morris, assimilation. Though everyone presents their own unique spin on his or her self-actualization, the Robert Altman-worthy cast load indeed has a democratizing but flattening effect.
That said, the gift of time and perspective has added a few kinks to what seems a mostly pedestrian experience. For instance, one of the 26 talking heads in the documentary is Rick Stokes, who most today now know as one of the gay Uncle Toms whose play-nice strategy didn’t satisfy Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk. While history has apparently not forgiven him, Stokes’s agonizingly painful experience—he came out after having been married for a number of years, was threatened by an angry father-in-law with either castration or institutionalization, and ultimately subjected himself to about four dozen electroshock sessions—offers a reasonable first-hand defense for the desire to simply fit into mass society.
Which seems to be what most of this documentary’s interview subjects are ultimately in search of, regardless of their diverse backgrounds. (And this group runs the gamut, from the woman who was nearly a Stepford Wife to the man seemingly bent on recreating the cover of Carole King’s Tapestry in his own living room.) Most seem to think they’ve found that elusive acceptance, some perhaps finding it through the act of being interviewed for this self-evidently groundbreaking film. Word Is Out is one of gay cinema’s earliest reckonings with that universal question, “When did you realize you were gay?” It was a major first step to be sure, but it was up to other future films to deal with the obvious follow-up question, “When did you realize you needed to do something about it?”