Last Friday, in front of a small but appreciative audience, the University of Chicago’s Doc Films opened a time capsule of LGBT life in the 1970s. “Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives,” the first full-length documentary made about gay and lesbian identity, appeared across the country in theaters and on television after it was first released in 1977, but soon faded into obscurity. For the film’s thirtieth anniversary, the Film and Television Archives at the University of California-Los Angeles restored the original 16-millimeter print for theatrical and DVD release. Last weekend’s run was the film’s Chicago premiere.
Through the stories of 26 men and women, “Word is Out” showed the contradictions of LGBT life in the ‘70s. Nearly a decade after the Stonewall Riots and Harvey Milk’s successful political campaign, homosexuality was still a crime across the country, and the police regularly raided gay bars. One individual in the film commented on the prevailing popular attitude towards homosexuals–that they were “criminal, sick, or wicked.” Two interviewees who had been institutionalized because of their sexual orientation described being forced to undergo shock treatments. One man was surprisingly calm as he commented on his near brush with castration. He estimated that he had received “somewhere between ten and twenty… probably around twenty-five [shock treatments].”
The subjects of the documentary were incredibly diverse, from a bouffanted blond Southern woman to a gay activist, business suits to pride parades. All of the people interviewed in the film struggled with issues that we still struggle with today: discrimination, gender roles, and the fight for wider acceptance.
The most beautiful aspect of the film was how firmly it was set in its historical context. “Word is Out” managed to show how difficult it was to be gay in the ‘70s while capturing the joy of honest, real-life love stories. In one interview, a man describes how finally falling in love “meant I was a real person…I was using a part of myself that I never felt before.”