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Monday, June 25, 2007

I Could Be Who I Felt I Was

I first saw Word Is Out in 1981; I was a high school senior in small-town Essex Junction, Vermont, and was dating a Harvard freshman who was active in the gay student organization there. Word Is Out was one of the featured films at their annual G/L pride week.

The film had an incredible impact on me -- it was my first exposure to the diversity of our community, after having had the 'I'm the only one' feeling for so many years. It helped me realize I could be who I felt I was and did not have to be constrained by any one stereotype. Later, in my travels, I came across the Word Is Out book in a used bookstore, and snapped it up. Each portrait brought back memories of being seventeen years old and the expansive awe I had first felt when watching the film.

Zoom forward almost twenty years. I'm still living in Vermont and become friends with a local guy, Freddy, who, after one confusing connecting-the-dots conversation years into our friendship, I discover is Freddy from the film! 'I have a book with you in it!'

We recently celebrated his 60th birthday, at which I put up copies of his portrait from the book. I joke with him that I met him twenty years before he met me.

Jay Schuster, jay@pcc.com

Indelibly Printed In My Memory

I can't begin to tell you how grateful I am to the late Peter Adair and the Mariposa Film Group for making this landmark film. I was an 18-year-old high school senior when Word Is Out was released, in heavy denial about being gay, and sheltered, shy, and naive to boot. I saw the film on my local PBS station, which screened it at least three times that month. I watched it every time -- once with my Mom and twice secretly down in the basement on the grainy black and white TV. I didn't want my folks to know how riveted I was by the movie (as if my Mom couldn't tell!).

When my Mom asked me what I thought of the film, I didn't know how much there was behind that question. I didn't know that the counselor I had seen in junior high school had told her he suspected I was homosexual (without discussing the subject with me), or that she had long harbored suspicions of her own. I do remember that I panicked, and said something about how the film showed how important it was for all people to have equal rights in society, or something to that effect. And I remember that we talked for a while about some of the people in the film and how moving, funny, or tragic their stories were. I was trying to be calm, but inside I was bursting with exuberance (to have found others like me), grief (over the torture some of them had endured), and confusion (about what gay life would mean for me). But more than anything, I was elated that this film existed.

I especially loved the diversity of the people interviewed and their leadership by example. The women and men of Word Is Out taught me more clearly than anyone I had known how ordinary people could become absolutely heroic by virtue of who they are and the lives they lead. They gave me hope, for the first time, that I could have a loving relationship and a meaningful life as a gay man. They taught me that my tribe had a living history deserving of deep, abiding respect, and that lesbian and gay identity was inextricably tied to all the political debates that were (and still are) raging around race, ethnicity, gender identity, class, age, and nationalism. They taught me that there is no single way to be as a gay man or lesbian, and that a whole world of possibilities existed. And they taught me that in this living, organic civil rights movement, much work remained to be done, and the path ahead would not be a clear one.

The faces and voices of the "cast" of Word Is Out were indelibly printed in my memory and I have never forgotten any of them (including my crushes on David and Dennis!). They inspired me as a budding gay activist in college, and in the decades since. I had the great pleasure of meeting Betty Powell about five years ago, and have often wondered what became of the others in the film. I look forward to hearing their stories and hope that these many years have found them happy, fulfilled, and pleased to know that their strength and courage have inspired countless others worldwide to live open and proud lives as LGBT people in the quest for full and equal rights.

Doug Edelson, ornans@cs.com

A Great Cheer Went Up

I was an 18 year old freshman at UMass/Amherst, and I saw a screening of Word Is Out offered by the gay student group. One of the people interviewed in the film is a UMass student, and he is shown outside of the Student Union building, a building which we all saw every day. When that shot appeared, a great cheer went up in the movie theater. I felt for the first time the tremendous power of coming out, and how as more and more people came out of the closet it would change our world forever.

I also remembered that the student interviewed in the movie was carrying on a long distance relationship with a man he had met off campus. I had just had a wonderful sexual experience with a man from Boston, and the film inspired me to have the courage to call him up and tell him I'd like to continue seeing him.

David Finkelstein, lakeivan@earthlink.net