History of Gay Films in United States and Worldwide
LGBT inclusion in the cinema may appear, at first glance, to be a modern invention. However, a look at the history of film shows many portrayals of gay and lesbian characters, as well as those who defy gender norms and expectations, reaching back to the earliest history of film.
Gay Film Prior to the Hays Code
In 1895, The Dickson Experimental Sound Film portrayed two men dancing with each other. Although the culture of the time was different, and the subtext of this action was not necessarily meant to be homoerotic, the subversion of conventional male behavior nevertheless shocked audiences at the time and critics in the years that followed.
Throughout the 1920s and 30s, a great number of gay characters were included in film. Although they were often depicted with flamboyant stereotypes, and their inclusion was often meant to shock audiences rather than incite sympathy for the characters, there were some positive representations as well. Some standout films from this era include:
– Different from the Others (1919)
– Michael (1924)
– Mädchen in Uniform (1931)
These films play explicitly and earnestly with themes of same-sex romance, although the outcome is generally tragic for those involved.
The Development of the Hays Code
The Hays Code, more properly called The Motion Picture Production Code, was adopted in the early 1930s and stayed in place for more than 30 years.
The code was put in place by Hollywood, creating a set of production values that would protect films from costly government censorship or banning. With religious organizations and conservative groups crying out in protest over the often scandalous content seen in previous films.
The Hays Code essentially laid out rules for the way morality should be regarded in film. Crime and immoral behavior could not be portrayed in a positive light, for example, and perpetrators must receive consequences. Overt sexual behavior and nudity, as well as any form of “perversion” (including homosexuality and interracial relationships) were also banned.
Nevertheless, filmmakers continued to slip gay films in past the censors. Ingmar Bergman’s “Thirst” (1949) touches heavily on lesbian themes. Jean Genet’s “A Song of Love” (1950) was eventually banned in the U.S. for depictions of homosexual love. During this time period, gay characters were often frequently depicted in the role of villains, whether explicitly or not. There were also a number of tragic gay characters in films of this era, adding to the foundations of what some would call the “Bury Your Gays” trope that persists even into modern film making.
Years of Revolution
The Hays Code began to lose its power by the late 1960s, and films became increasingly daring around that time. Films like “A Taste of Honey” (1961) and “Victim” (1961) showed gay characters in a more positive light. Some other stand-outs from the time include:
– This Special Friendship (1964)
– Winter Kept Us Warm (1965)
– With Beauty and Sadness (1965)
– The Producers (1967)
After the Stonewall Riots in 1969, a major turning point for LGBT rights and awareness in the country, Hollywood began to release increasingly gay-friendly films. For the first time, the LGBT community was seen as a potential market or audience, and some films were made with gay audiences in mind. Some of the better-known examples include:
– The Boys in the Band (1970)
– Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1971)
– A Very Natural Thing (1973)
– Ode to Billy Joe (1976)
Unfortunately, as the LGBT community well knows, social change is a long and messy process. Even as Hollywood began to create more gay-friendly films throughout the 70s, cultural backlash from conservative groups continued to stifle the growth of gay cinema for many years.
The Rise of New Queer Cinema
The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s brought the lives and issues of the LGBT community into the spotlight in a larger way than ever before. In the wake of this tragedy, Hollywood responded with increasingly positive portrayals of gay characters. By the 1990s, it became a more common theme to depict gay characters as positive or sympathetic role models. Films dealing directly with homosexuality and cross-dressing became much more common in the mainstream, appealing to a wider audience than the gay target audience of previous avant-garde art films.
Some of the most iconic films of gay cinema in this era include:
– The Birdcage (1996)
– The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
– To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995)
These films included big-name actors and showed gay characters in a positive light without the heavy, tragic connotations of earlier films. However, same-sex relationships were consistently portrayed as being primarily chaste; on-screen intimacy and PDA were still topics for filmmakers to shy away from.
Out and Proud: The Gradual Acceptance of Gay Film
As the 90s bled into the 2000s, gay characters became more frequent and diverse on both the big screen and television.
The HBO miniseries “Angels in America” (2003) provided a bleak but sensitive look at the AIDS epidemic and the intertwining lives of multiple gay characters.
A major milestone in gay cinema was Ang Lee’s adaptation of “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005. This love story, produced for general audiences and starring two big-name actors often associated with straight heart throb roles, caused quite a stir at its release. Unlike previous “safe” explorations of same-sex attraction, Brokeback Mountain does not shy away from intimacy and on-screen affection.
Other stand-out gay films of the 2000s include:
– Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
– Milk (2008)
– Mysterious Skin (2004)
– Kissing Jessica Stein (2002)
Although some troubling tropes and stereotypes persist in the depiction of gay characters, the wider variety of stories being told and a general growing social acceptance of LGBT causes has helped gay films to flourish or at least be perceived as more mainstream than ever before.
The Future of Gay Film
By the 2010s, filmmakers have to compete with television dramas, which are subject to fewer content restrictions and limitations due to differing rating systems. This has shifted some of the most socially progressive content toward TV, rather than Hollywood, with explicitly homosexual content making its way into popular mainstream TV shows like “Spartacus,” “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones.”
As audiences become increasingly accustomed to seeing gay characters on the small screen, Hollywood will almost certainly need to adapt to keep up. The future of gay cinema is promising as more stories, voices and experiences make their way to the big screen.