Made by a collective of six filmmakers, the landmark 1977 documentary Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives is a group portrait of more than twenty lesbians and gay men who recount their experiences being gay in the United States. The film found a wide audience theatrically and, perhaps more significantly, had an unprecedented national PBS broadcast through which it reached thousands of isolated gay people with its affirming message. The film played a significant role in the struggle for gay rights in the late 1970s. It premiered six months after Anita Bryant’s infamous “Save Our Children” campaign led to the repeal of a gay rights ordinance in Florida, and just as other antigay activists were beginning to copy her tactics elsewhere. With its affirming representation of gay people, the film offered an important counterpoint to the homophobic rhetoric that Bryant and others were spreading.
Word Is Out: A Queer Film Classic draws on extensive archival research as well as new interviews to provide a fresh account of the historical, political, and aesthetic significance of the film. The book includes an investigation of the backstory of the film’s making, from the relationships among its six filmmakers to the more than 140 video pre-interviews they conducted in their search for the perfect cast. The book also explores the film’s contribution to the rise of a gay national imaginary and the consolidation of gay liberalism, and it contrasts the film with queer media projects of the era that took different aesthetic forms and had conflicting political aims.
The book is part of Arsenal Pulp Press’s Queer Film Classics series edited by Thomas Waugh and Matthew Hays. Copies can be purchased from the publisher as well as from most booksellers. The 30th Anniversary DVD of Word Is Out is available here.
Reviews of Word Is Out: A Queer Film Classic
“Through its reading of this single film, the book advances a compelling and original frame for understanding the political transformations of the late 1970s—showing, quite brilliantly, how movement politics and film aesthetics were inextricably linked. […] Youmans is consistently interesting, whether discussing the political significance of the zoom technique in Word Is Out, or relaying an anecdote about one of the 140 video pre-interviews whose subjects did not end up making the final cut. That Youmans gives as much attention to this lost material as he does to the end result is in keeping with his argument that the film’s exclusions reveal the defining limits of gay liberalism—and thus the ambiguous heritage of our queer present.”
— Damon Young, Film Quarterly, Summer 2012
“Youmans’ considered approach reaps considerable rewards. By arranging [the book] alphabetically (E is for Editing, F is for Feminism etc.) he sidesteps conventional narrative and is able to leap between ideas in much the same way as the film does, enabling him to draw the reader into a many-layered story almost without them noticing. It’s a book that can easily be dipped in and out of but it also works well if read straight through, as apparently scattershot ideas build into a thesis that, whilst celebrating the film, also problematises it and is at times deeply critical of the editorial approach involved.”
— Jennie Kermode, “Eye for Books” in Eye for Film
“Dr. Youmans’ exploration of the film is serious and playful; full of queer history and film criticism…[T]he book is a juicy look at a bunch of 70s queer artists and activists and ordinary individuals (if a queer in the 70s could be ordinary, which I doubt) trying to represent themselves and their community, and it’s sort of gossipy and great. You don’t need to have seen the movie to get a lot out of the book—the movie’s history, delineated by Dr. Youmans, is a story on it’s own…”
— Michelle Tea, “Overdue Books!” on the RADAR blog
“In a genius move, Youmans divides his discussion of the film along the lines of the alphabet, where each letter stands to represent a particular analytical thread. As such, we begin with “A is for Anita” (a discussion which takes us back in time to the era of Anita Bryant and her conservative crusades). We then hang around for “G is for Gearhart” and “H is for Hay” (two warm, short and informative portraits of those who came before us), and end with “Z is for Zoom” (an analysis of a cinematic technique that functions within the film to ultimately render gays and lesbians the same as everyone else). “L is for Liberal” is a particularly valuable discussion…”
— Marcin Wisniewski, “Timeless or Timely – The Perils of Editing a Queer Film Classics Series” in Senses of Cinema
“Reading Word Is Out is more like eating granola: Greg Youmans, a scholar with a PhD in the history of consciousness, examines the famous documentary (which premiered six months after Anita Bryant’s successful 1977 crusade to overturn a Florida gay rights ordinance) by creating entries for each letter of the alphabet, which cover everything from Anita to the zoom lens.”
—Andrew Holleran, “New Volumes in Queer Film Classics” in The Washington Post
“Youmans was born the same year Word Is Out was released and admits it was initially difficult for someone who did not experience the 1970s as an adult not to see the film as rather conservative for something heralded as so groundbreaking. But through a wide variety of discussions, he eloquently makes clear why it’s more complicated than that. The result is an impressively expansive take on all things Word Is Out.”
— Peter Knegt, “Word is Out: In Print and On Screen” in XTRA!: Canada’s Gay & Lesbian News
Also of interest:
Erik Piepenberg, “Keepers of the Gay Film Legacy” in The New York Times A great article that mentions the book.
Greg Youmans, “Word Is Out and the World It Transformed” in The Gay & Lesbian Review A short piece about the significance of the film.
Greg Youmans, “Queer as Film” in The Rover A reflection on the process of writing the book.