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

by Michael Abernethy

1 September 2010

image partial - artist unknown 

"Lezbros", "Elephant in the Room", "Queer Streets", "Hip Hop Homo"

Thirty years later, the same group of individuals agreed to be re-interviewed for the most interesting of the DVD extras, except for Whitey and one other participant (and obviously, those who have died since the filming). Rick Stokes notes how things have changed: “…(the film is) now very dated because the pictures, the stories of us… is not the story of young people today. I’m so glad it’s not the story of young people now.”

Others express surprise that appearing in the film was beneficial, noting that it forced long-overdue conversations and family discussions. Mark Pinney, the film’s representative of the ‘70s gay businessman in his tan polyester suit and tie wide enough to double as a towel, notes that despite his fears that his place in the corporate structure would be shaken, he actually enlisted new clients due the film. It’s especially endearing to see John Burnside, legendary gay activist and inventor, in one of his final interviews before passing away, recalling his experiences filming with his lover, Harry Hay, co-founder of the Mattachine Society.

Those interested in gay history owe these documentaries a viewing, and all LGBT persons should be required to view Word is Out as the first step in earning their Queer History merit badge.

Word is Out has no overt political agenda. By presenting in a straight-forward fashion (no pun intended) the stories of these individuals, the viewer is left to draw his or her own conclusions. Some of the interviewees are likable and it’s easy to feel sympathetic regarding their experiences, while others are downright irritating—basically, they’re much like same crowd one would find in a gay bar on a Friday night.

In the years since Word is Out was released, the number of documentaries focusing on LGBT individuals, events, and issues has skyrocketed. Some, such as Wigstock and Celluloid Closet, have developed cult followings. As is the nature of documentaries, there are two primary purposes to these films: to record a moment in history for posterity, or to make a commentary and argument regarding the current state of affairs.

Outrage, one of the more controversial documentaries in the LGBT catalog, falls into the latter category. The film, released in 2009 by director Kirby Dick, seeks to expose gay politicians who work to defeat LGBT-friendly legislation. Some of those “exposed” are not surprising, such as former Senator Larry Craig, who would have us believe that he naturally taps his foot in a suggestive manner while sitting upon a public toilet. (Perhaps the ex-Senator hums show-tunes while doing his business and was just keeping the beat—macho show-tunes, of course, such as those from Damn Yankees, not those sissy show-tunes from Wicked.) Far more revealing is the assertion that “dozens” of top Republican aides and assistants are gay, and their sexual orientation is well—known not just to their bosses, but to everyone in the loop.

The film never presents a “smoking gun” for any of those it seeks to out, ala “Here’s a picture of Ed Koch blowing Jim McGreevey at a Bacchanalian orgy.” Still, many of those who have that proof- - or at least, some good stories to tell—are reluctant to speak out, filmmakers maintain. The film notes the ordeal of Anita Hill, who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. If Hill had to endure retribution and intense scrutiny for mentioning inappropriate remarks by the judicial nominee, to what kind of living hell would a former lover be subjected for outing Republican rising star, Florida Governor, and newlywed Charlie Crist, expected to be a presidential candidate in 2012? 

Unfortunately, some of the film’s credibility is damaged by the DVD extra focusing on Michael Rogers, founder of BlogActive.com and warrior in the quest to out gay politicians. After an appearance, Rogers approaches Senator Chris Dodd during a meet and greet and insists that the Senator give a firm date when legislation repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would be introduced into the Senate. When Dodd fails to give him a firm date, Rogers calls Dodd a homophobe, despite Dodd’s 100 percent rating from the Human Rights Campaign. Roger’s dogmatic approach—that all others should share his opinion about this topic’s importance—ultimately alienates and reinforces the stereotype of the angry queer forcing his agenda down the public’s throat.

Interestingly, the film’s assertion that the media is complicit in the subterfuge of those closeted politicians is borne out by the film’s reviews. The Boston Globe‘s review notes “Dick speculates on the homosexuality of several current and former public officials which hasn’t been corroborated by the men themselves… But in accordance with Globe ethics policy, I can’t repeat those names here”, while The Washington Post merely notes that “Some notable legislators—all of them male Republicans” are outed. This isn’t just vague; it’s inaccurate, as the film also focuses on Democrats and Mary Cheney.

Word is Out, Freeheld, and Outrage are only three of the many LGBT documentaries that have flooded our cultural psyche in the last three decades. Now, with the advent of reality television, the LGBT community has a wider audience than ever, as more LGBT characters are appearing on reality shows such as The Real World, which featured one of TV’s most known reality gays in Pedro Zamora, America’s Next Top Model, and Big Brother.

Further, several reality shows focus solely on the LGBT community, and I don’t mean those cheesy “guess which one of these studly men is queer” dating shows. Most prominent is Showtime’s The Real L Word, which follows a group of lesbian friends and has done for lesbianism what The Real Housewives has done for rich women. Understandably, the LGBT networks have been most progressive in the area of highlighting the lives of real gays, lesbians, and transgendered persons. Logo features the series Coming Out Stories, which is exactly what the title suggests, as well as the Real Momentum Documentary Series, which has included the episodes “Lezbros” (about the male BFFs of lesbians), “Elephant in the Room” (gay Republicans), “Queer Streets” (homeless gay teens), and “Hip Hop Homo”. Here! is even more straightforward than Logo in the titles of their documentary shows, which include Everything You Wanted to Know*Gay Porn Stars, Lesbian Sex and Sexuality, and Hot Gay Comics (as in comedians, not graphic novels). 

While these TV series show the world the people that we are today, especially those of us 25 or younger, they don’t represent where we come from. Mr. Stokes, in Word in Out, worries that today’s LGBT youth don’t understand their history and the triumphs of those who suffered society’s disparagement so that future generations could live more freely. Those interested in gay history owe these documentaries a viewing, and all LGBT persons should be required to view Word is Out as the first step in earning their Queer History merit badge.

Cheers, Queers for Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach of the U.S. Air Force 389th Fighter Squadron, , who successfully fought his impending dismissal under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Air Force officials only learned he was gay after he was accused of sexual assault and he mentioned his orientation to police investigating the allegations (the sexual assault case was dropped, as well).

Here’s Mud in Your Eye to Brent Bowers, manager of the Edmonton Capitals, who outed umpire Billy Van Raaphorst in a mid-game homophobic rant after the ump angered him. Eventually, Bowers resigned and apologized, but only after players protested the league’s weak response of a two-day suspension.

Topics: word is out
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

NYFF 2017: 'Mudbound'

// Notes from the Road

"Dee Rees’ churning and melodramatic epic follows two families in 1940s Mississippi, one black and one white, and the wars they fight abroad and at home.

READ the article