Today, an early example of gay and lesbian visibility and a brand-new documentary that the trans community’s answer to The Celluloid Closet.
Though made more than 40 years apart, Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives and Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen echo one another significantly — the first relaying the everyday lives of queers in one of the earliest films made by gay people about gay people; the second offering an exhaustive examination of trans visibility in a film by trans people about trans people.
Neither was originally on my list for this month’s project. Word Is Out, in fact, was only a title I vaguely recognized (though, as it turns out, I did watch it at an early Amarillo Pride Film Fest), but when I saw that it was airing on a special Pride Night on TCM, I quickly set my TiVo. Disclosure just dropped last week on Netflix, though with the volume of new streaming options, I wouldn’t be surprised if you missed hearing about it.
Word Is Out was first released in 1978 and even got some national airplay on PBS stations, but it wasn’t widely seen again until it was restored in 2010; the DVD runs up to $60 on Amazon, but it’s still available for half that on the official site and for even less digitally on Vimeo. It offered audiences the first chance to see how more than two dozen gay men and lesbians lived their lives — from gay-rights activists like Harry Hay and Sally Gearhart to regular folk from around the country.
The interviewees are frank and revealing, talking about their teenage sexual awakenings, about how “macho behavior was as much a conditioned behavior as my faggot behavior,” about life’s loneliness when you don’t know any other queers, about castration and shock therapy and abuse by police officers.
“Until recent times, as a homosexual, you realized you were three things. To the doctor, you were sick. To the lawyer, you were a criminal. And to the minister, you were wicked,” says Hays’ partner John Burnside.
Their stories are interwoven throughout the two-hour runtime, and the cumulative whole is more than its parts. I can see why some gay activists thought it was a little tame, a little like eating your vegetables, when it was released, but it’s a crucial document showing how very, very brave these men and women were to live their lives — and then to talk about it in front of a camera (including one woman who was then 77 years old, born in 1898, who out-Gagas Gaga by matter-of-factly stating that she was simply “born that way”).
“That’s really what it comes down to when we talk about visibility, when we talk about inclusion,” critic Alonso Duralde said as he helped introduce Word Is Out to TCM audiences. “It’s not just sort of standing in the background somewhere. It’s getting to tell your story, getting to be the protagonist of your own story, and then sharing that story with everyone else.”
That’s the precise argument that Disclosure makes as it traces the way crossdressers, drag queens and transgender men and women have been featured since the very dawn of the motion picture. I found it extraordinarily enlightening and thought-provoking, and it made me rethink some of my basic assumptions about films and TV shows I’ve seen often, sometimes countless times.
That’s partly because I’m watching through my own filter, often looking for stories that reflect my life as a gay man, and partly because I’m watching with an unconscious filter as a cisgender man.
But the way directors Sam Feder and Amy Scholder show us scene after scene after scene after scene of trans characters being exploited and killed just slaps you across the face and wakes you up to the reality of how negatively trans people have been portrayed over decades. It’s sobering, and more than a little shameful, to realize how many of these depictions I’ve just accepted over the years.
But I won’t soon forget the rare combination of frankness and grace that Jen Richards displays when she talks about how scenes like the infamous reveal in The Crying Game, after which the film’s hero vomited in repulsion, made her internalize that she might be a monster for being trans. And, a breath later, Richards wonders if she would have even known she was trans if she hadn’t seen even problematic depictions in movies and TV shows. It’s similar to the later-in-life grappling that Survivor contestant and trans activist Zeke Smith recounts when discussing Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and its detestable transphobic finale.
Richards also makes the most succinct, salient argument against casting cisgender people in trans roles, tying it directly to the horrifying incidents of violence trans people face, particularly Black and Brown trans people.
“In my mind, part of the reason that men end up killing trans women is out of fear that other men will think that they’re gay for having been with trans women — is that the friends, the men whose judgment they are in fear of, only know trans women from the media, and the people who are playing tarns women are the men that they know,” Richards says. “This doesn’t happen when a trans woman plays a trans woman. Laverne Cox is just as beautiful and glamorous off-screen as she is on screen.”
It’s just a vile stew of misogyny and homophobia and transphobia that even the most well-intentioned of media folk has fallen into, but Cox (who executive produced the film) helps find some kind of hope by pointing out how people can and have evolve, citing examples of cringey interviews by the likes of Katie Couric and Oprah Winfrey, as well as the way Ryan Murphy evolved from writing trans characters for sheerly exploitive reasons on Nip/Tuck to now running the amazingly inclusive and open series Pose.
Cox isn’t the only one displaying uncommon grace, qualities she and her fellow transgender people share with those featured in Word Is Out. Check them both out when you can.
Up next: Two films chosen by readers!