Spreading the news
Groundbreaking 'Word Is Out' is out on DVD
by Tavo Amador
Thirty-three years is a big segment of an individual life, but for a civil rights movement, it's very little time. Today, acceptance of gays and lesbians is at unprecedentedly high levels. Same-sex marriage is legal in several states, and was, briefly, in California. Congress is preparing to allow openly gay men and lesbians to serve in the military. In 1977, San Francisco Bay Area filmmakers Nancy Adair, Andrew Brown, and Rob Epstein interviewed hundreds of openly gay men and lesbians, and culled 28 of them for a revolutionary documentary about their lives, Word Is Out – Stories of Some of Our Lives, which has just been released in DVD. The changes since then are extraordinary.
How extraordinary? Watch Rick Stokes discuss being subjected to about 25 electric-shock treatments, to "cure" him." At seven, Stokes knew he was attracted to boys. At 10, he and a 12-year-old neighbor, Joe, began having sex. In high school, Joe dated girls, dropped them off, then went to bed with Rick. During his four years in the army, Stokes displayed Joe's picture on his locker. Both men married and fathered children. But Stokes knew what great sex had been, and he wasn't having that with his wife. She called Joe's wife and said, "If he wants Rick, he'd better come to get him." Stokes' in-laws forcibly institutionalized him. He survived, moved to San Francisco, and met David, with whom he was sharing a 16-year committed relationship. Today, homosexuality isn't a "psychological disorder."
Sally Gearhart, a professor at San Francisco State, speaks movingly of trying to suppress her feelings for women, about feeling alone. She attended straight weddings and thought that she'd never have a validated relationship. Then she came out, met other lesbians, and felt alive as never before.
Pat Bond describes being in the Women's Army Corps during World War II, where she met many relatively open lesbians. Following the war, however, the army began "purging" "sexual deviants." In San Francisco, Bond found other women who loved women. At one time, she says, there were five lesbian bars in North Beach. Her observations about the way women adapted heterosexual role models is fascinating – some were "butch" and did "men's" work. Others were "femme" and confined to traditional women's duties.
Pam, married with two children, realized she was a lesbian. She met another woman, who had also been married and had four children. They formed a family, loving each other's kids as their own. But Pam's ex-husband sued for custody, and won. Today, same-sex couples in many states are rearing their children.
Those interviewed represent our community's racial and ethnic diversity. Ages range from early 20s to 77. Gay rights pioneer Harry Hay and his then-partner, David Gillow, talk about finding love and happiness in their 50s. Professions include actor, poet, businessman, truck driver, and teacher.
Many articulate their initial sense of isolation, of thinking no one else felt the way they did. Then, when they learned they weren't alone, they feared losing the love and respect of their families and friends. Yet, despite such terrible anxieties, they refused to deny their true nature. Today we are visible in unprecedented numbers, and many of us are open with and loved by our biological families.
One youth speaks of feeling he was a woman trapped in a man's body. He faced ridicule from the straight and the gay world. But he insisted on embracing his masculine and feminine selves, and in San Francisco met others who shared his sensibility. He astutely observes, "We're all born naked. So anything we put on is drag." Today, an openly transgender woman is running for San Francisco Supervisor in District 6.
What is especially admirable about each person is his/her courage. Although many had been victimized, they didn't see themselves as victims – they fought, refused to let others define them, and forged healthy, productive lives. The need to express their true nature and the joy they felt in doing so compelled them to risk of exposure, which could mean loss of job, home, family, or, in the case of Stokes and a lesbian, barbaric institutionalization. One young man says that when he fell in love with another youth, he at last felt like "a real person. I was ecstatic."
In a prescient moment, Bond talks about the gay rights movement in San Francisco just nine years after Stonewall. She misses the earlier days, when lesbians were part of an exclusive, "secret" club, with its own language and rules. She decides, however, that acceptance is better.
One middle-aged man becomes emotional when recalling The Black Cat, where gay men cheered the legendary Jose Sarria's camp versions of Carmen, Madame Butterfly, and other operas. The happiness of being part of a community was almost indescribable. At the end of each evening, Sarria asked patrons to sing, "God save us nellie queens." But, he adds, "What we were really saying is that we have rights."
We now have many. Getting the rest is just a matter of time. In case anyone had doubts, Word Is Out proves we've come a long way, baby.