by Marie J. Kuda
Every 20 years or so someone sticks a microphone in my face and asks: "How have things changed since you first came out?" I have been only able to answer from my own reality; the political and personal changes in my lifetime, in my city, in my space. As a white working-class lesbian growing up in Chicago, I felt more discriminated against as a woman than anything else. I only learned of the pain of other gay men and lesbians when my circles as an activist widened from the 1960s forward. Now the generations that followed mine can have a wider window on the pastthe 1930s, '40s, '50s, '60sthrough the camera lens of the Mariposa Film Group whose trailblazing 1977 documentary "Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives" has been lovingly preserved, restored, and reissued on DVD.
In 1977 I made my first trip to San Francisco arriving shortly after Harvey Milk was elected a city supervisoran euphoric pause in the backswing of the post-Stonewall pendulum which was well underway that summer with Anita Bryant's "Save Our Children" campaign. The 1970s opened with a movement towards the adoption of gay rights legislation; bills passed in several municipalities. In a promising milestone, the National Gay Task Force met with the Carter White House. ( Chicago's own William B. Kelley was among them and has contributed to funding the film restoration. ) By the late 1970s attempts were being made to rescind those measures. Anita's crusade was directed against Dade County's municipal-rights ordinance forbidding discrimination against gays in housing and employment. She soon became poster girl for the anti-gay rights backlash all across the country. In the summer of 1977 she succeeded; and for good measure the Florida governor signed a law prohibiting gay men and lesbians from adopting children. Pro-gay rights ordinance in Kansas, Oregon and Minnesota were toppled.
I was headed back home when "Word is Out" premiered at San Francisco's Castro Theatre in December 1977. Afterward each of the principals gathered onstage and were each introduced to the audience. But in January 1978, at the mid-Winter meeting of the SRRT Gay Task Force of the American Library Association, coordinator Barbara Gittings announced plans for a Gay Film Festival to be held at the ALA Annual Conference June 25-28 in Chicago. The feature-length, 16 mm "Word is Out" was the centerpiece of the 18 gay/lesbian documentary films shownthe first such festival in the country.
I remember the impact of seeing the film for the first time. Twenty-six men and women, college age to 70, told their stories in about eight minutes of film time each. A very few were known beyond their own communitiesI had seen separatist-feminist Sally Gearhart at a rally in San Francisco, knew poet Elsa Gidlow from correspondence we had when I published poems by Valerie Taylor and Jeannette Foster, and I had met Cynthia Gair and her partner in Women in Distribution at the fabled "Women in Print" conference held outside of Omaha in 1976. I recognized the ubiquitous Henry Hay who had founded Mattachine in the 1950s. The other 22 looked to be ( and it later was revealed so ) an attempt to represent every possible facet/minority of the gay community. Betty Powell ( Achebe ) a young east coast academic asked if she were to be the token black womanand made it clear that she spoke only for herself. Pam and Rusty were the fem-butch role couple, each with kids. And Mark the business exec who would later say he was added to offset all the "dykes in the woods." Dennis was the gay Asian, Tede the ex-hustler transvestite who resisted being put in a box. As they said, everyone was some kind of a "token."
The majority of folks were from either coast, with Nadine and Rosa, Latinas from New Mexico and Linda a Southern fem thrown in. Midwesterners were represented only by accident of birth. One or two like Gearhart at UI took degrees at Midwest universities. But Pat Bond, the ex-WAC who provided alternating comic relief and reflective pauses, was a Chicagoan for a part of her life. After her appearance in the film she went on to have a successful career as a stand up comic and took four of her one-woman shows on the road. She began as a child actress here with the Jack and Jill Players and trained at the old Goodman Theatre. Her "Gerty, Gerty, Gerty Stein is Back, Back, Back" aired on national PBS-TV in 1980. I saw her when she brought it live to Chicago's World Playhouse in the Fine Arts Building in 1981. In the Mariposa film Bond told of the mass dishonorable discharge of 500 WACs in Tokyo following lesbian witch hunts in the post WW II military. Bond avoided that fate by opting out of the army to return to her husband in San Francisco. She had married a gay guy, who by one of those quirks of fate was the top floor tenant in my cousin's building on DuBose Park.
Rick Stokes ( who had run against Harvey Milk and would later hold office ) said that making the film was important because youth didn't know the horrors that preceded their post-Stonewall freedoms. He and Whitey, a lesbian, both recounted painful memories of brutal treatment in mental institutions. Several folks told stories of harassment and beatings at the hands of the police and the public. George Mendenhall who came out as a teenager, seducing older men, shared his recollections of a bar called the Black Cat in the early 1950s. He credits Jose Sarria, who did camp grand opera parodies there, with creating his awareness as part of a community that had rights. He tearfully recounted the emotions generated when Jose closed out his performances by asking the audience to put their arms around one another and sing "God Save Us Nelly Queens." ( Jose Sarria would become he first openly gay person to run for public office in the US when he ran for San Francisco city supervisor in 1961. )
Seventy-year-old Elsa Gidlow hesitated to be part of the film. Seated with the filmmakers in her Muir Woods home she charged them with having a preconceived structure that they wanted to fit her into: "This happens to be a character who doesn't want to be pushed around and put into a context that she doesn't feel is true to her." She said her sexuality wasn't as much of an issue to her as surviving under the poverty constraints of the 1920s and '30s. Gidlow would go on to publish five more books ( including her autobiography ) with four different lesbian presses. A few of those interviewed also felt no adverse consequences to their lifestyle. But most spoke of overcoming a lack of validation by their church, the medical establishment, society in general, or their families, and accepting their identity, becoming part of a community, realizing that they had the power to demand equal rights.
When I returned to San Francisco in 1978 it was to a different world. Just days before my arrival, Californians had rejected Proposition 6 ( the Briggs initiative ) which would have made it illegal for anyone "advocating a homosexual lifestyle" to teach in the public schools. Twenty days later Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by ex-Supervisor Dan White. White pled his "twinkie junk food" defense and got a five-year manslaughter conviction that convinced gays justice still eluded them and brought on riots and a new militancy. But within a year or two the growing reports of a "gay cancer" would dump even more discrimination on their heads.
"Word is Out" was a project unique to the 1970s. The decade between of our increasing acceptance post-Stonewall and the AIDS epidemic. Filmmaker Peter Adair wanted to shatter stereotypes by showing positive images of homosexuals; we weren't any more sick, sinful, or perverse than heterosexuals. The Adairs, brother and sister, and later members of Mariposa had videotaped interviews with 150 or so subjects from 1972 onwards, going back to re-interview the finalists on 16 millimeter color film. It would be interesting now to have access to their original sample. The mother/ daughter team of Casey and Nancy Adair wrote a companion book that originally intended to cull from the full sample, but ultimately just gave the uncut final interviews with the film's subjects. Nancy appended a hefty section with behind-the-scenes commentary on the project and the collective ( as it became, "in retrospect" ) . A 20-page bibliography, comprehensive in its day, completed the work.
The newly released DVD version of the landmark film comes packed with extras including interviews with surviving subjects and filmmakers, updating their lives and credits. Three of the original Mariposa Group have gone on to continued excellence in documentary productionsnotably Lucy Massie Phenix ( "The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter" ) , editor Veronica Selver ( "On Company Business" about the CIA and "Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin" ) , and Rob Epstein ( "The Life and Times of Harvey Milk" and "The Celluloid Closet"Rob was interviewed by Richard Knight in WCT 6/9/10. ) For more information on "Word is Out" see www.milestonefilms.com .
Copyright 2010 by Marie J. Kuda