Bright Lights Film Journal

Speaking Out: Pioneering Doc Word Is Out Turns 29

Assimilate this

Like any marginalized culture, queerdom carries on its own constant internal debate: to separate or assimilate? Separation means embracing the inner pervert, celebrating the diversity in the community and welcoming everything from leather and drag queens to (gasp) NAMBLA chicken hawks. This unfortunately also invites ridicule, harassment, even murder by intolerant straights and the institutions they’ve set up to maintain power. Assimilation, on the other hand, offers the tension-easing tableau of two men french-kissing on the streets of, say, Birmingham, Alabama. This rosy scene can only occur, it’s argued, by showing the straight community that queers are exactly like them except in one teensy-weensy way.

The ground-breaking documentary Word Is Out, produced by filmmaker Peter Adair and directed by Rob Epstein, is considered by some a key work in the assimilationist canon. Adair’s prior fame was based on a brilliantly incisive documentary on a group of snake-handling, strychnine-swilling religious fanatics in West Virginia. Holy Ghost People, made when Adair was only 21, shows one misfit’s appreciation for another. Soon after the film, Adair came out of the closet.

In some ways, Word Is Out is the obverse of the Holy Ghost People coin. The zealots who put their lives on the line with snakes and poison unabashedly defend their outlaw status and talk in paranoid terms about the terrible world outside their ramshackle churches and narrow lives. Assimilation for these people would be blasphemy.

The 26 interview subjects of Word Is Out— most, anyway — want desperately to be part of the society around them. They grapple with a central question of their — and our — existence: why must “good” people, able and willing to contribute to society, have to fight for approval? This confusion is understandable, since they’re all attractive, accomplished, sensitive, and highly articulate in discussing the most intimate details of their lives.

The film is divided into three sections: “The Early Years,” “Growing Up,” and “From Now On.” But these divisions are almost irrelevant, as the same themes crop up in all of them: self-doubt and self-respect, repression and realization, isolation and community. The composite portrait in Word Is Out is a dual one: individual and social. We learn as much about gay culture as about the lives of the people interviewed. Who are these people? Many are familiar faces from San Francisco queer history, where Adair was based: Tede Matthews, George Mendenhall, Pat Bond, Rick Stokes, Harry Hay.

Tede Matthews, alluring in multicolored blouse and nose ring, discusses his “early drag feelings” and pointedly reminds us that “all clothes are drag.” George Mendenhall describes his teenage years as a sexual aggressor with men in their forties and fifties. He recalls a powerful drag queen named José who performed camp operas every Sunday at The Black Cat, an early (1952-53) gay bar. But these seemingly frivolous exercises always ended on a starkly activist note as José led a defiant sing-in of “God Bless Us Nellie Queens!” and incited patrons to “Come out! Unite!” Pat Bond offers droll descriptions of lesbian military life, particularly the rigid behavior codes within her group: “You were only allowed to wear Old Spice and jockey shorts!” Politico Rick Stokes recounts his terrifying encounters with electro-shock therapy. Like others in this film, Stokes became an activist as a result of early experiences with virulent homophobia. All this must seem like ancient — and perhaps unimaginable — history to today’s well-adjusted gay boyz and girlz who only have to look as far as their TV sets for daily affirmation of their existence and worth. ‘Twas not ever thus.

Word Is Out holds some surprises that make it appear far from dated. The film is sophisticated enough to allow/encourage a critique of its makers’ motives within the narrative. Elsa Gidlow, in her late seventies, says bluntly: “You want to fit me into a structure that you have — this happens to be a character who doesn’t want to be pushed around.” In speaking thus, Gidlow, a poet, expands the film’s focus into discomfiting realms, concluding that she’s always had “a rather deep sense of aloneness … even in love … a rather deep sense of the solitude of the individual in the cosmos.”

While a film that features mostly well-scrubbed, well-educated, non-threatening, bourgeois homosexuals who could pass for your suburban neighbor would seem to be the perfect assimilationist tool, Word Is Out emerges — even nearly 30 years after its initial release — as a poignant plea for the individual. Peter Adair once said, “If you are going to have (a film made up of) talking heads, which is taboo, they’ve got to be good ones.” Word Is Out is indeed a talking-heads film; fortunately, it features an unusually large number — 26 — of “good ones.”