I first heard about the 1977 documentary Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives a couple of weeks ago while listening to a Film Comment podcast in which a roundtable of critics were discussing the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s recent retrospective of queer cinema before Stonewall. Word Is Out was not included in the retrospective, the main reason for that being that it’s a post-Stonewall film, made some seven years after the riots that have since come to signify the beginning of the gay rights movement. The documentary, which cuts together interviews with some twenty-six gay and lesbian Americans of various races and ages, serves as a record of the opening of a new chapter in the history of queer sexuality; many of its interviewees are aglow with the sense of possibility that the liberation movement seemed to promise. The film is even more poignant for having been made just before the specter of AIDS came to descend upon the gay community.
I have no idea what my response to this film would have been if I had been alive to see it in 1977, but watching it today feels incredibly moving. The coming-out stories of gay men and women that played out against the backdrop of World War II, the McCarthy witch hunts, and the Eisenhower administration are inspiring in a way that, for all its significance, a coming-out story like Caitlin Jenner’s can never be; they are stories that seem already to belong to another world, one that no longer exists. And yet the continuity of experience between the subjects of the film—some of whom were born as long ago as the tail end of the nineteenth century—and young gay and lesbian people of today is frequently staggering. Hearing a young gay man recount his experience coming out to his father (“he didn’t even blink”), and of his father’s questions (“have you always been gay?”), it seemed to me that such scenes look more or less the same today as they did forty years later, even as they remain shaped by ever-changing historical and social forces. The contexts of gay and lesbian life have changed radically since 1977, and yet in many ways very little has changed; the challenges and the joys of discovering oneself and other people, of falling in love and making one’s way in the world, have a deep structure that seems to transcend the historical moment—which may not be a very critically savvy thing to say, but it’s one of the things that I found most striking about Word Is Out. The questions its subjects pose about monogamy, relationships, homophobia, parenting, race, and activism are ones that we continue to wrestle with now.