The month of June celebrates and recognizes those in the LGBTQ+ community. So many people like Harvey Milk, Marsha P Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Barbara Gittings, and Audre Lorde have fought for equality among the population. More continue to do so to this day, yet the journey has been long in society and the filmmaking world.
The history of the filming industry is a complicated one at best. For those in the LGBTQ+ community and marginalized groups, misrepresentation and stereotyping were prevalent in cinema’s early days. Charlie Chaplin’s 1915’s A Woman was the first film to employ queer characters as a joke. The director would follow that up with 1916’s Behind the Curtain showcasing a man attempting to kiss another man as a punchline.
However, depictions of queer and trans people have been present in the film medium since then with The Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894), which subverted the idea of the traditional male role. Although William Kennedy Dickson’s 1894 The Gay Brothers short is the first to depict same-sex imagery, cinema has a long history of LGBTQ+ representation.
Anders als die Andern (1919) – An Openly Gay Protagonist
During the early 1900s, Germany’s censorship was relaxed after World War I. The film translated to English, Different from the Others, was directed by Richard Oswald. The movie was an early example of an openly gay character that appealed to the idea of gay rights and tolerance. Unfortunately, the film had ended in tragedy as the protagonist— a gay violinist—took his life after being blackmailed when Germany considered homosexuality illegal.
Manslaughter (1922) and Pandora’s Box (1929) – First Gay Kiss and First Explicitly Lesbian Character
Many historians consider Cecil B. Mille’s Manslaughter (1922) to feature the first erotic kiss between two members of the same sex. At the time of the film’s release, romance was a popular genre for movie audiences and made Manslaughter a success. Whether the kiss between two female actresses led to that success is up for debate but move forward the idea of queerness in cinema that wasn’t in a negative light. Though actors and actresses before the film toyed with the idea of romanticism between members of the same sex
Pandora’s Box (1929) is the first film to make it obvious. Alice Robert’s Countess Geschwitz is an admirer of the film’s protagonist, Lulu, played by Louise Brooks. The movie was groundbreaking at the time because of the subplot featuring a romance between the two actresses.
The Hays Code (1934) – Hollywood Halts LGTBQ+ Progression
The self-imposed film industry guidelines began to censor many major studio-produced movies under “moral standards” in America. Created by the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Will H. Hays, The Hays Code was used to set a model for what’s acceptable and unacceptable in movies. For example, the guidelines prohibited the use of nudity, blasphemy, illegal drug use, interracial relationships, and homosexuality.
The code would also include of big “no, nos” depiction of crimes such as acts of violence, locking picking, safe-cracking, or mixing chemicals to create explosives. However, the code now set into motion didn’t stop certain directors from expressing their opinion on homophobia.
Victim (1961) – Openly Criticizing Homophobia
The story follows a closeted gay lawyer, played by Dirk Bogarde. He takes on the case of a gay man being blackmailed for his homosexuality. The plot continues by uncovering several similar instances from other gays and how Bogarde’s character was there to defend them. The film drew attention to and criticized Britain’s homophobia as homosexuality was still considered illegal until 1967. The Victim was also the first English-speaking movie with the term ‘homosexual’ and explored the struggles of LGTBQ+ people at the time to great lengths.
Closer to the end of the decade, things began to change for the good of those in the LGTBQ+ cinema.
Portrait of Jason (1967) and The Killing of Sister George (1968) – The Black Gay Experience, the death of Hays Code, and The First X Rated Lesbian Scene
The 12-hour documentary featured an interview with a gay African-American hustler and aspiring cabaret performer, Jason. Portrait of Jason follows the young man through his troubled life. It employs avant-garde and cinéma vérité techniques to underline Jason’s persona. The documentary has garnered a lot of praise for exploring the topic of being a gay black man in America and showed that times began to change for cinema.
The world was changing, and the filming industry followed suit. The Hays Code was lifted in 1968 and replaced with the new Motion Picture Association film rating (MPAA) that allowed breathing room for what could be shown on the big screen. Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George took the opportunity to push the limit of the rating system by including the first lesbian sex scene in the film. The ‘X’ movie featured a depiction of June Buckridge, played by Beryl Reid. She spends her time drinking, smoking, and sleeping with her younger female lover, Alice, played by Susannah York.
Despite characters not being portrayed sympathetically or positively, The Killing of Sister George carried more nuanced than previous movies. With the death of The Hays Code, another groundbreaking film was around the corner.
The Boys in the Band (1970) – A Predominantly Gay Cast with Complexity
Based on an Off-Broadway play by the same name, the film showcased a depiction of multiple gay characters and their friendship group’s complicated dynamics and relationships. In the story of a close-knit New York-based group of gay men during a birthday encounter, a friend unexpectedly arrives and is unknowing of the host’s homosexuality. The Boys in the Band circled the multiple gay men, and their varied perspectives made the movie more intimate and personal for some audiences at the time. The film would be remade several times, but much after, a well-known queer cinema was about to reach cult status.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) – Embraced by the LGBTQ+ Community
Though the cult classic film shows a negative light on homosexuality, the film was a massive hit in the LGBTQ+ community. The dramatic, hilarious, and queer camp story displayed a considerable part of the LGBTQ+ culture and has been celebrated for decades. The Rocky Horror Picture Show queer romp poked fun at queer cinema tropes in excessive fashion. In addition, it helped help discover the Midnight Showing culture that has become part of the moviegoing experience.
Making Love (1982) and Parting Glances (1986) – Realistic LGTBQ+
Gay screenwriter Barry Sandler decided to combat the gay villain trope that had been a part of cinema for decades with his movie, Making Love. Instead, the film looks at a happily married man, played by Harry Hamlin. He struggles with his attraction to men and falls in Love with an openly gay man. The movie’s realistic tone opened the door to the situation’s complexity in a romantic light and stepped away from the typical doom and gloom of the previous LGBTQ+ films. Yet, it would not be the last cinema that shined a natural light on the community.
1986’s Parting Glances came at the height of the AIDS epidemic thanks to first-time director and gay man Bill Sherwood. People were misinformed about the crisis that some had called the “Gay Disease.” The film illustrates two romantically involved men who dealt with AIDS and the impact on the gay community. It was another realistic showcase but warmly carried heart and even humanized those with the deadly disease.
Even these films and others that began pushing forward correct presentation in gay cinema, the 90s would have a long-overdue movement in cinema.
The New Queer Cinema (the Early 1990s) – Cinema Takes Another Leap Forward
One of the most prolific documentaries on the LGTBQ+ community is Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning. The acclaimed documentary brought a lot of attention from the public to the vital subculture of New York City’s Black and Latino Harlem drag ball scene of the late 1980s. Paris is Burning showcased many aspects of the gay, drag, and trans community. Fortunately, the movement would hit into high gear after the premiere of Paris Is Burning.
Several openly gay filmmakers became involved in independent cinema and helped create several queer movies that treated sexuality as fluid. For example, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991), Todd Haynes’s Poison (1991), Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992), Rose Troche’s Go Fish (1994), and Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996) capture the experience of disenfranchisement within society for gays, lesbians, and other sexual minorities. These films helped academic B. Ruby Rich coined the phrase “New Queer Cinema” in the British monthly film magazine, Sight & Sound.
Brokeback Mountain (2005) – A Box Office Smash LGTBQ+ Film
Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee, was a commercial and critical hit. The intimate and openly gay love story between two cowboys won three Oscars. It showed Hollywood that films like these are much needed in the mainstream. In addition, the cast’s performances cemented their status in the filmmaking world. They helped the story reach a wider audience, and the trend would continue to this day.
Queer Cinema and Beyond (2010 – Present)
The success of Brokeback Mountain helped along string more LGTBQ+ films well into the 2010s. Sean Bake’s Tangerine (2015) notoriety is due to its leading characters of multiple trans women of color, who trans actors of color played. Tangerine was a far progressive move because of the lack of correct representation of the trans community in previous films featuring whitewashed cis actors playing the roles.
One of the biggest pushes for LGTBQ+ stories in the forefront of mainstream and artistic movies is Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (2016). The film is the first with an all-Black cast to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 2017. It is a story of a young Black gay man coming to grips with his identity from childhood to adulthood. A filmmaker was doing her part in queer cinema in another part of the world.
The lesbian love story in 2018’s Rafiki was another progressive step, thanks to director Wanuri Kahui. The film is set in Nairobi, where homosexuality is considered illegal and punishable by 14 years in prison. Although initially banned in Kenya, the director sued to have the ban lifted for seven days where it qualified for the Oscars and was the first Kenyan film at Cannes. That same year, history would happen again.
Sebastián Lelio A Fantastic Woman (2017) is a Chilean drama centered on trans singer Marina, played by Daniela Vega. The singer wrestles with work and coping with the sudden death of her boyfriend. The film won Best Foreign Film in 2018. In addition, Vega appeared onstage at the Academy Awards, making her the first openly trans person to present at the awards ceremony.
2018’s Love, Simon became the first movie by a major Hollywood studio to feature a gay lead character, with many more productions in the cinema world today. Visual entertainment has become a massive part of our culture in teaching and telling stories of those in marginalized groups and correct representation. Netflix, HBO Max, and Hulu have several series and movies that showcase that and shines a positive light on those who are LGTBQ+. The LGTBQ+ have just begun receiving their long overdue correct representation. The stories the community share are a lesson to learn for the betterment of society.