A human document that deserves the wide fame that has largely eluded it.



Some years ago the American critic Emanuel Levy wrote a brief survey of gay documentaries made in the 1960s and the 1970s and in it he picked out two which, if not the very first to appear, were in his opinion landmark works. As it happens both of them date from 1977 and I share his view as to their value. I have long regarded Word Is Out made by the Mariposa Group and featuring the testimony of a range of gays and lesbians as the very best of its kind, but until now its companion piece, Gay USA, had not come my way. It is the work of Arthur J. Bressan Jr. well known for his 1985 Aids drama, Buddies, which was reissued here last year and acclaimed afresh. Even now Word Is Out remains my favourite, but Gay USA turns out to be almost as good and the chance to see it during its appearance on MUBI should not be missed.


These documentaries are two of a kind despite having been made quite independently of each other: both aimed to show on screen something not seen earlier, namely the diversity and humanity of gays and lesbians living in America. They did so by showing individuals who were ready to acknowledge their sexuality despite the homophobic climate of those times. Shot on 26th June 1977, Gay USA concentrates on gay pride marches undertaken on that day but also incorporates older footage on occasion to provide context. It is suggested that the first gay parades, which had taken place earlier, were linked directly to coming out and proclaiming Gay Liberation but that they had then led on to a period when they were essentially celebratory before combining that aspect with a strongly political edge. Other references to the past involve actual footage from those times: Nazi Germany is evoked both to refer to the Pink Triangle that marked out gay victims of the holocaust and to point out that Fascist doctrines sought to impose conformity whereas gay rights were an issue centred on a belief in individuality and the acceptance of difference.


These historic references are useful but the importance of Gay USA lies in its record of an era. Word Is Out featured twenty-six individuals in some detail and I had assumed that Gay USA would be a contrast to it through being centred on actual parades. It does indeed contain footage from San Diego, New York, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles even though it is San Francisco that features the most (oddly enough the material from the other cities is cut in without being clearly identified). But, if we don't get to know those approached on the streets and asked to comment in the way that we come to feel close to those in the substantially longer Word is Out, the individuals featured in Gay USA do make an impact. They are deliberately a very varied bunch (gay, straight, hostile, sympathetic and with older women in the latter category noticeably present) and the views which they express touch on a number of issues that can create differences of opinion in this context (thus we get talk about such matters as drag, religion and the approval or dislike of lesbians for the word 'dyke').


This approach results in a film which is about those in and around the parades rather than being a piece tightly focussed on the parades themselves. For much of the time the cameras pick out the faces concerned, but there are also examples of comments heard in voice-over while the visuals provide a background montage of crowd scenes. Such sequences as these illustrate just how talented Bressan was (he was editor as well as director) and he was adroit too in featuring on the soundtrack songs that are relevant to the film's themes as a substitute for a standard music score. Seen today Gay USA is historically important for capturing its era and the sense of hope and optimism felt then by gays and lesbians. In addition, it has become a work of singular pathos due to our awareness of what lay just ahead. All too soon the devastation of Aids would follow and among its many victims would be the filmmaker himself. But the film remains and, in addition to all its other valuable qualities, it stands as a tribute to its creator.




Dir Arthur J. Bressan Jr, Pro Arthur J. Bressan Jr. and David Pasko, Ph Various, Ed Arthur J. Bressan Jr.


Blossom Studios/Image Works/Leo Diner Films/W.A. Palmer Films Inc.-MUBI.
78 mins. USA. 1977. Rel: 26 September 2020. Available on MUBI. No Cert.