'Word Is Out''s Historical Importance Cannot Be Underestimated

by Michael Abernethy

1 September 2010

image partial - artist unknown 

“I feel like this film is my opportunity to put it all together, and to explain who I am, what I am, and what I’m about.”

—Laurel Hester, describing having her story told in Cynthia Wade’s 2007 short documentary Freeheld.

Laurel Hester didn’t live to see the documentary about her fight to secure her pension for her same-sex partner after Laurel succumbed to cancer. A 25-year police veteran, Hester petitioned on her partner’s behalf, arguing that surviving spouses in heterosexual relationships were given the pension. She was joined in her fight by many of her fellow police officers, as well as the citizens of Ocean City, New Jersey, and she lived to see the town’s governing body, the Freeholders, declare her partner the rightful beneficiary of Laurel’s pension.

cover art

Word is Out

US DVD: 8 Jun 2010

Freeheld, which told of Laurel’s fight, wasn’t a planned documentary. However, when director Cynthia Wade heard of Laurel’s story, she decided to check it out in person by attending a Freeholders’ meeting, and she began filming immediately. Still, the final film wasn’t just about Hester’s fight with the Freeholders; it was equally a look at the relationship of Hester and partner and caregiver Stacie Andree. For her skill in navigating between political film and personal story, Wade won the 2008 Oscar for Best Documentary Short.

Yet, Freeheld wasn’t the first LGBT documentary to win an Oscar. In 1984, Rob Epstein’s brilliant The Times of Harvey Milk won for Best Documentary feature, and five years later, his and Jeffrey Friedman’s Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt took the award. The Oscar in 1977 went to Who Are the Debolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids?, which has nothing to do with gays and lesbians, unless one of the kids grows up to be queer (and with 19 kids, odds are…I’m just saying). However, 1977 is the year that the first documentary about LGBT people, Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, was released; it was nominated for nada. Fortunately, LGBT historians and film critics have remembered the film’s importance, and it is now restored and in rerelease from Millenium Zero, with props to Outfest Legacy Project and UCLA Film and Television Archive for doing the legwork to revive the film.

The film interviews 26 gay and lesbian individuals about their lives, experiences, and hopes for the future. A wide demographic range is covered, with a variety of ages, social classes, and ethnicities represented. In the beginning, the only black lesbian included, Betty Powell, asks if she will be the only black lesbian in the film, worried that she will be seen as “the voice” for all black lesbians. However, there are themes that are prevalent that bind these people together, showing that much of the experience of being gay or lesbian is shared regardless of demographic characteristics.

Tales of secrecy, discrimination, discovery, bonding, and isolation and loneliness are common, not surprising considering the social and political climate for the LGBT community in the ‘70s. Then, homosexuality, if mentioned at all, usually was uttered with the same disdain with which one would discuss child molestation. Even disco—the gayest dance craze to ever sweep the planet—didn’t make homosexuality more palatable for the general public.

For many of today’s young LGBT persons, coming out was something that was checked off the to-do list before kindergarten. Thus, it might be difficult to understand a time when coming out often meant losing everything you had: family, friends, job, home. One woman, identified only as Whitey, talks about being committed to a mental institution for years as a teenager for having what her mother deemed “impure thoughts.” Her journey was one controlled by suppression of her feelings and conforming to expectations until she could be released and, as an adult, begin a life of her own choosing. Her chain-smoking and the purposeless scratching of the label on her beer bottle are good indicators that years later, Whitey is still wrestling some of those old demons.

Personally, David Gillon’s experiences spoke loudest. Realizing that he wasn’t conforming to the public’s expectation of a teen boy chasing tail, David ultimately blamed himself for not fitting in:
“…when I was in high school, I just thought I was one of those cold people who could never love anyone. Some people have the capacity, and I guess I didn’t. It just wasn’t in me. And when I fell in love with this guy, it just… it meant so much—it meant I was a real person. I wasn’t just a machine.”

If the documentary has one weakness, it’s that so many of the stories resemble one another. The viewpoint of those LGBT individuals who grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s into accepting homes isn’t represented, and my partner is proof that such persons exist. His mother didn’t bat an eye when he told her he was gay, and his circle of friends insured that he had like-minded persons to share experiences with. Of course, he has suffered discrimination—who amongst us hasn’t—but the film presents an impression that every LGBT person in the ‘70s lived under a cloud of scrutiny and secrecy.

Nonetheless, Word is Out lives up to its name, and its importance as a record of a generation of gay and lesbian persons cannot be underestimated. Several of the interviewees comment on the possible consequences of agreeing to do the film, fearing recriminations not just for themselves, but for family members, as well. Pam Jackson, who most represents the ‘70s image of femininity with her slathered blue eye shadow and bouffant hairdo, notes that appearing in the film with her female partner will pretty much seal her fate in any future custody battles with her ex-husband. (It’s pleasing to see her in the DVD extras, still with her partner, talking about not just their kids, but their grandkids and great-grandkids.)


In an era when police raids on gay and lesbian bars were still frequent, it was difficult for many of these men and women to fathom a time when LGBT equality could become a hot topic for political debate. Pat Bond, a salty, chain-smoking lesbian with Naval experience, laments that growing acceptance actually compromises the LGBT experience: “The depressing thing about lesbians being accepted—gayness accepted—is that we lose our sense of the ‘in’ group, the adventure of being different in a straight world.” 

Topics: word is out
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