Pioneering Coming Out Doc Word Is Out at Anthology
In the summer of 1976, a thin, bearded 23-year-old gay man with braces on his teeth sat on a bench by a pond near the University of Massachusetts, Amherst campus. Looking directly into a camera operated by another gay man two years his junior, this recent college graduate did something radical. He talked about falling in love: "When I was in high school, I thought I was just one of those cold people who would never love anyone. When I fell in love with this guy, it was just . . . it meant so much to me. It meant I was a real person. I wasn't just a machine."
David Gillon's testimony about being gay is one of 26 presented in the extraordinary, groundbreaking documentary Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, first released in 1978—less than a decade after Stonewall—and restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive in 2008. As the restoration makes its theatrical premiere at Anthology this week, viewers can witness something that was a revelation 32 years ago and still enormously powerful today: college kids and gray hairs, butches and femmes (of both genders), hippies and suits, gay dads and couples (at least one of whom is still together today), lesbian separatists and drag queens—spread throughout the country and of all different races and class backgrounds—speaking candidly, humorously, movingly about the perils and joys of being queer. Recounting the decades when coming out of the closet meant tremendous risk, the film itself came out as Anita Bryant successfully campaigned throughout the U.S. to repeal local ordinances that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Just as intrepid as the men and women in front of the camera were those behind it: a gay film collective—divided evenly by gender, ranging in age from 20 to 34, and varying widely in moviemaking experience—who would call themselves the Mariposa Film Group (the name refers to both the street in San Francisco where the group had its office and the Spanish word for "butterfly," which is also slang for "homosexual"). "The fact that the filmmakers were gay themselves meant it was a different kind of conversation from the get-go," Gillon, now 57, says from his home in Hartford, Connecticut, reflecting on the ease and comfort felt by the documentary's participants.
Though Word Is Out is a collaborative effort that grew organically, it began as the project of one man: Peter Adair, who gained notice with his 1967 documentary, Holy Ghost People, about a Pentecostal snake-handling worship service in the Appalachians. In 1972, he wrote a proposal to make a documentary about gay lives; two years later, he asked his younger sister, Nancy, who had no experience in film, to videotape interviews with lesbians. Veronica Selver was in the Bay Area in 1975 doing sound editing for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest when Peter, a good friend from high school, asked her to look at the footage he and his sister had shot; she soon joined the project full-time. The next two members to join the team were both film novices: Andrew Brown, a schoolteacher, heard about the project through friends; Rob Epstein, a 20-year-old recent college dropout, responded to an ad in a San Francisco alt-weekly that read, "We are looking for a non-sexist person to work on a documentary film on gay life. No experience necessary, just insane dedication and a cooperative spirit." Lucy Massie Phenix, who had co-produced and co-edited the landmark Vietnam War doc Winter Soldier (1972), was in the Bay Area working on another film when she saw early footage of Word Is Out at a screening at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Excited by what she had just seen, she approached Nancy afterward about helping with the project, becoming the group's last member.
Looking back, the five living Mariposa collaborators (Peter Adair died of AIDS in 1996), all of whom reside in northern California and remain close (some have worked with each other on films post–Word Is Out) remark on how the diversity of the collective helped shape the variety of the lives shown onscreen. "I was chosen for a number of reasons, one being that I'm African-American," Brown, 62, says. "Peter saw that we each had something unique that he wanted to make sure got into the movie." Phenix, 67, explains that the group "was not only three men and three women, but six consciousnesses," adding, "I came to the film as a person who was not gay-identified, and I think that's one reason that they brought me in. It sort of didn't matter what my identification was; I was learning, and I was determined to help make this film."
Just as determined as the filmmakers were the participants, unafraid to open their mouths. "It was awful back then," 68-year-old Tom Fitzpatrick—the stage name of the man known in the film as Roger Harkenrider, who speaks memorably about "tormented faggots"—says from Los Angeles about the closeted decades. "There's just no way to describe how bottled-up we all were. It was so exciting to think that somebody actually wanted to let us talk on film about the experience of being gay." Speaking from Willits, California, Sally Miller Gearhart, 78, then a professor at San Francisco State University, notes that the documentary "stood as a kind of emblem for what every lesbian and gay person had to do. The film made very courageous people out of us because we had been brave enough to say who we really were."
And this, as Selver, 65, explains, led to the documentary's greatest impact—encouraging people to come out. "The film spoke about something that really hadn't been spoken about before in a very reassuring way," she says. "So it was a big contribution to asserting your homosexuality and moving on." Epstein, 54—the erstwhile film neophyte who would go on to make The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), The Celluloid Closet (1995), and the Allen Ginsberg biopic Howl, which premiered at Sundance last week—agrees: "The film was incredibly affirming for any gay person who had never experienced anything like it before because there had never been anything like it before."
Though queer culture has changed enormously over the past three decades, Word Is Out remains timely. "Somebody could make Word Is Out II with younger people," Nancy Adair, 62, notes, emphasizing how difficult it still is for gay young adults in rural areas, for instance. "I think the stories [in our film] are universal; it doesn't matter that the people are smoking and drinking and have funny-looking collars." Perhaps Gillon, who spoke so beautifully about falling in love 34 years ago, best explains the film's appeal in 2010: "It's not just a slice of history—which it is—but it's the fact that these stories still resonate. There it is: 26 different people talking about what they've been through and hope to find."
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