MiniReview: Two 1970s docs

The candlelight vigil on Castro Street in San Fran after the assass-inations of mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk in November 1978.  

I’m confused. We’re reviewing two things? Why?

I happened to watch them back to back, and they’re both documentaries about US gay life in the 1970s, so it just seemed appropriate.


Okay, well, it’s unusual, but ... So, what are these documentaries?

The first is called Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, and it was directed by a group of people called the Mariposa Film Group. It was released in 1977.


What is it?

It’s basically an attempt to give a voice to gay and lesbian Americans at a time when they were largely invisible in the media. The documentary, which is over two hours in length, is drawn from interviews with 26 people who speak of what their lives have been, and are now, as queer folk. It’s important to mention that most of these interviewees are not from the San Francisco or New York gay subcultures, but are spread across the United States, in places where being queer was akin to being an alien.


Are their lives that different from LGBT lives today?

I was struck both by how different their lives were and by how much their lives are similar to queer lives today. To start with the differences: Most of the people interviewed in this film seem very isolated. It’s as if there wasn’t really a gay “image” to live up to or emulate, so each person had to invent for themselves what it meant to be gay. This is a wildly varied and individualistic array of people. Some of them are still partly in the closet, and one can sense their unease at actually speaking out loud about being queer. And there are some horror stories, of being committed to mental institutions by parents so they can get “straightened out.” All of this seems very old, from a far distant past.

          But then the stories of sexual confusion, of wanting to fit in but not being able to, of accepting oneself and coming to love oneself, of that first same-sex kiss, of finding a community—all of that is pretty timeless, I think.


So the second documentary you mentioned—does it depict the same world?

The second one is The Times of Harvey Milk, released in 1984, and it’s directed by Rob Epstein, who was also one of the directors of Word Is Out. And the world it depicts is rather different, because Harvey Milk lived in San Francisco in the era when it was becoming a gay mecca (most of the film focuses on c. 1975–78), so he was able to be much more open about his sexuality than most of the people in Word Is Out. What is so remarkable about this documentary is its depiction of this highly idiosyncratic politician who was one of the first in the United States to be open about his sexuality. It’s interesting that he was elected after the San Francisco municipal elections were changed so that councillors represented districts rather than being elected by the city as a whole, which meant Harvey Milk was able to get elected by his gay community. It’s a moving story, with some remarkable footage.


You giving either of these documentaries a star or two?

Both. Word Is Out, although it is pretty basic in terms of its structure, gets two stars, because it is just such a wonderfully rich artifact from its time. These are the voices of our recent queer ancestors. They have so much to say to us, to teach us, to remind us, to warn us about. This film is something to be treasured and revisited, like a periodic trip to the ancestral home.

          I’m giving the Harvey Milk doc one star. It’s a fascinating story, told here in a succinct fashion. The documentary doesn’t really focus on Milk’s relationship with his sexuality, and much of it deals with municipal politics that don’t have much to do with LGBT issues. But Milk became such a gay icon that his short term as a San Francisco city supervisor and untimely murder are important chapters of gay history. And it’s salutary to be reminded of just how much opprobrium was faced by early queer public figures. Some of the homophobic comments in the film will take your breath away.


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