Written by Finnialla, one of our current world events writers, and edited by Kayla-Jane, one of our editors!
As a queer person myself, I never saw myself in movies, or at least not more than two seconds before the only gay character is killed off. When I went to get my screenwriting degree, I wanted to learn about the queers who came before me, and I realized how little people like me were represented. This is to find where queers have made waves in cinema and how we can do better to portray them.
NICKELODEONS TO SILENT MOVIES:
In their current iteration, movies are a far cry from their first appearances in the turn of the 20th century. The nickelodeons, large buildings full of kinetoscopes that played soundless shorts ranging from 15 to 30 seconds. In a little over a hundred years, movies paved themselves from the vaudeville of silent films to the large Marvel productions we see today. During this early stage, from the first feature length film to the mid ’30s, creativity thrived, and censorship remained virtually nonexistent. It was an explosion of women and black writers/directors, diverse stories, and raunchy suggestiveness.
Before film became readily available, many films would be scrubbed from movie theatre reels and used multiple times, resulting in loads of films have been lost to time. That being said, the first movie to feature a gay scene that we know of is “The Dickson Experimental Sound Film” (1895). Also commonly known as The Gay Brothers, it showed two men dancing along with the music. While many spectators would see the pair as nothing more than friends goofing off, it still inverts such roles for audience members right at the birth of cinema.
Through the silent film era, many directors and scripts started to push the envelope on what could be shown in terms of queers on the screen. A myriad of early movies unapologetically showed queer people and drag queens. While the representation can range in how well it portrayed a character without falling into a stereotype, these films were set to pioneer a way forward before crashing to a halt only a decade or two later.
Gay men would be the first to see actual representation in film, with the first kiss in “Manslaughter” (1922) and the first movie with a gay protagonist being the German film, “Alders als die Anderen” (1919).” In both movies, while the idea of open queer sexualities was still seen as wrong and immoral, it still broadened audiences to the existence of gay people. Both films would be the first in different categories of stereotypes prevalent in queer media. “Alders als die Anderen” is the first “Kill your Gays” trope, or the continuing problem in media to kill the one queer character, and “Manslaughter” employs the “Relegated to the Closet” stereotype, which is when a character pretends to be straight but is secretly gay. Another honorable mention is “Wings” (1922), with a kiss between two soldiers when one of them is about to die. While it was considered a completely normal thing for soldiers of WWI to do, it still showed a love that was not considered normal by any standards at the time. The movie would go on to win the Oscar for best picture that year.
For lesbians, it’d be a decade later before the first same sex kiss is seen in the movie, “Morocco” (1930), while the first female protagonist hits the big screen in “Pandora’s Box” (1929). While “Pandora’s Box” does introduce another stereotype, the “Camp Villain” trope, or the tendency to make gay characters “depraved perverts”, “Morocco” is memorable in two ways. While the lesbian kiss can be interpreted as nothing more than comradery, it also employs one of the first female to male drag kings in media. Marlene Dietrich, a known bisexual woman herself, dresses up in a suit, tie, and top hat before singing, acting, and pretending to seduce a female audience member that ends with a kiss. This performance on Dietrich’s part shines as an example of positive and gender bending media from a time of relegation of second-class citizens.
However, some of the best-known queer and drag performances of this age come from none other than Charlie Chaplin himself. A silent film legend, Chaplin would pioneer gay suggestion and drag in his earlier silent classics. In one of Chaplin’s first movies, the 1915 movie, “A Woman”, Chaplin dresses in drag to seduce two men who accidentally kiss each other at the end. At this time, many men dressed in drag for comedic purposes. Other silent film comedians would don drag for the sole purpose of trickery and the act of it to laugh at, but it is still important. It showed audiences something new, and while some of the examples were worse stereotypes than the others, some of the earliest examples were actually quite realistic, and gave humanity to the audience.
Many other Chaplin films had some sort of queer undertones, a commonplace in movies even up until today, but the two well-known ones were “Behind the Curtain” in 1916 and “City Lights” in 1931. “Behind the Curtain” has one of the earliest examples of the “Sissy” stereotype, or that all gay men are feminine and weak; it set back queer progress in characterization even more. “City Lights” is the most well-known early gay suggestion movies. While Chaplin’s character doesn’t explicitly kiss another man, it is well documented throughout the movie that he flirts with another man, and they do seem to walk off together and return later, and the movie purposely doesn’t acknowledge where they went.
I speak of the earliest age of cinema because it was a time of experimentation. Early Hollywood still had many queer performers and workers, and they were allowed to find somewhat a place to be acknowledged, even by audiences all around the country. The rise of minorities, women, and queer creators was unprecedented. It was one of the places in the country that was less segregated and morally strict until one man changed everything.
William Hays was many things. A chairman of the Republican National Committee, a Postmaster General under President Warren Harding, and probably the most prude man to ever exist. Along with religious leaders all across the country, Hays created a set of guidelines and rules, and in it, relegated queer films and creators to the sidelines for the next thirty years.
The Motion Picture Production Code, which would later be named after Hays, was a loose set of rules that mostly dealt with violence, sex, and language in movies. It was a crackdown of anything the Christian religious leaders disapproved of. For its controversial and often hated control, many studios and movie makers would increasingly find loopholes to skirt around the rules.
As I mentioned, many of the rules were around “unmoral” behavior. This was seen in the crackdown on violence or violent acts, nudity or overt sexuality, making fun of religious leaders, and “ungodly” language. The idea of homosexuality, or “sex perversion” as it’s lovingly called, is strictly prohibited in the code, along with interracial relationships, as it was seen as the breakdown of the nuclear family. It also cracked down on anti-Nazi films in the earlier years of WW2, despite having many studios run by people of Jewish faith.
In many movies, “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) being one of the best-known examples, overt homosexual characters were changed into straight characters. In the book, the villain expresses an overtly gay relationship with his driver, but it’s shown as a strictly business relationship in the movies. However, as many movies learned to find loopholes, so did this one, as the villain is called a “gunsel”, slang for homosexual. Apparently, the censors didn’t catch that.
Throughout the 40s, 50s, and 60s, all “unsavory” and “immoral” characters were subjected to the background, forced into villain roles, and made so subtle that only other queer people saw them. As one gay screenwriter, Paul Rudnick says, “you can’t keep gay life, gay behavior out of the movies. It’s like keeping it out of life in general – so it sort of pops up, often in somewhat hidden, or somewhat coded ways.” Drag was mainly used as a form of disguise and is used in films like “I Was a Male War Bride” (1949) and “Some Like It Hot” (1959). Only one, “Some Like It Hot” would not receive a stamp of approval from the MPPC.
For thirty years, this system remained largely unchanged, but by the mid 60s, Hollywood would start to see the cracks in the Hays Code, which eventually led it to its demise. One of the main blows to the code was the influx of foreign movies, which had no such moral rules they had to follow. Nudity and taboo subjects were the norm, and Americans flocked to see what they couldn’t in Hollywood block blusters.
MPAA TO TODAY:
By the late 60’s, the MPPC had lost virtually all of its power, and with the changing landscape of the civil rights movement and burgeoning gay and women’s rights movements, it got even weaker. In 1968, it finally died in a fire and Hollywood rejoiced. The Motion Picture Association of America rose out of the ashes, a ranking system still used today. Categories G, M, R, and X were the first, with PG and PG13 being added in the 80s proving significantly better for Hollywood.
For representation, it was a turning point. Studios realized they could market to the queer community. While basically, none were blockbuster films, the “gay” films for gay people started popping up in small indie theaters, like “Boys in the Band” (1970) and “Fortune and Men’s Eyes” (1971). These films of the seventies did reach acceptance in all its forms, but none reached the massive audience needed to enact real change. In mainstream films, any if at all queer characters were still subjected to the butt of every joke.
The rise of the evangelical movement, the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and the AIDS crisis caused the queer community to be pushed back to the corners of society once again. Many movies made of the time were responses to the AIDS crisis and showed any gay character at the time as having the disease. While the continuing indie movie community made films about queer people, the consensus of Hollywood was to avoid backlash at all costs.
Some films did include queer characters, but many were dying of AIDS. It was the epitome of the “Kill Your Gays” trope. “Longtime Companion” (1989) and “Philadelphia” (1993) both portrayed upper middle class white men dying of AIDS, a long cry to the very diverse spread of the disease back then. Both of these films, that released at the end of the decade or even in the 90’s, were released after it was well known that heterosexual people could contract HIV, a sentiment not shared with the beginning of the decade.
Years of protests led to more acceptance in the 90’s, and we get the movement called Queer New Cinema. Many queer scholars state that LGBTQIA+ films have been around since the beginning of movies, and as you can guess, I agree with them. What changed here in the late 80s and 90s is content made by gays and for gays. These films and documentaries pushed the envelope with inclusivity and representation.
“Paris is Burning” in 1991 introduced the rest of queer America to the ballrooms of black and POC trans and drag communities, and was directly responsible for the mainstream of Vogue, taken from that culture and found into everyday life by Madonna. However, drag in the mainstream was more accepted than overtly sexual queer relationships. Still, at this time, many of the movies played the character for laughs and were played by cisgender, straight males.
Many of the documentaries and movies surrounded around the ongoing AIDS crisis, but what they offered was new perspectives. Their talking points were generally more diverse and showed the failure and blame directly at the Reagan administration for their botched response to the epidemic. Movies also showed explicit queer sexual relationships and the vitriol from heterosexual people at the time.
The 2000’s saw the rise of queer media with the first blockbuster to feature gay protagonists, “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005. While it still loves to keep the stereotype of “Kill Your Gays”, A-list actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal allowed for the massive audience it reached. For the next decade, the diversity in Hollywood was called out, and many young queer creators started writing their own stories. In those, LGBTQIA+ people aren’t pushed to the sidelines, killed off for plot, or used as the butt of the joke.
Progress has only increased in the 2010’s. For many, it was a shock that “Moonlight” in 2016 won Best Picture at the Oscars or was even nominated at all. The story revolving around a black gay protagonist was something that screamed progress, yet the promises of more inclusivity still fall short most times. When “Everything Everywhere All at Once” this year swept the awards, it was a lovely welcome with its openly lesbian Asian character, but it still only could do so much. Explicit queer characters are still bounded by their stereotypes, by bad or ignorant writing, and still lose in ratings to shows with straight protagonists.
From the beginning of cinema to today, queer creators and stories have always played second fiddle to straight stories. While it’s much better than the Hays Code era, Hollywood has eons to go before queer stories get the same amount of love or treatment as their straight counterparts.
Today, Hollywood is more diverse, but not all agree. In the past couple of years, the United States has seen a rise in the Christian Nationalism movement and far right. After the 2016 election of Donald Trump, many Republican policy makers have attacked the queer community.
In the years since gay marriage has been legalized by the supreme court in the historic 2015 case Obergefell v. Hodges, the conservative right has tried to get it overturned. For many in the queer communities feel that the right to freedom can be taken away at any moment, and it feels like it might be sooner than anyone thought.
In 2022, Ron DeSantis signed the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida, severely limiting the amount of discussion of sexuality or gender in Florida public schools. While the immense backlash and multiple lawsuits seem promising, it falls short of real change to the controversial bill, especially as DeSantis has garnered support for his tumultuous presidential run.
By April 2023, the American Civil Liberties Union told CNN that 417 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in state and federal legislatures. By the time of writing this in May, the number of bills have grown to 491, according to the aforementioned ACLU. Many of these bills have been the direct rise of anti-trans sentiments, and most affect trans youth. Just this past week, Target pulled some of the more openly trans supportive merch from their 2023 pride collection due to backlash and threats from the far right.
On the drag front, too many times this year, we have seen the Proud Boys, Patriot Front, and other domestic terrorist far right militias show up to drag brunches and story times screaming about the “safety of children” while they wave semi-automatic rifles with little regard for public safety. For the future of drag, it shows a clear threat to their experiences and practice, and while many queer people support them, it now shows the road ahead the LGBTQIA+ have to fight.
How does this affect cinema? Many conservatives have been calling out queer work, calling it “woke indoctrination” of their kids. I raise that it says a lot about a person who can’t see other people happy without finding a reason to get mad at it.
Queer cinema has always existed, and it always will. Since the beginning, queer people have been behind the scenes and in front of the camera, pushing for some kind of inclusion, and their voices will not be silenced now. From two men dancing in Thomas Edison’s workshop over one hundred years ago to a black queer story winning Best Picture at the Oscars, queer cinema has shaped to define the ever-evolving landscape of the LGBTQIA+ community. It still has a long way to go before we can truly be on par with straight cinema, but there’s no time like the present.
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This piece was written by one of our current world events writers, Finnialla. Reach 'em at @finni_all_uh on Instagram!
This piece was edited by one of our editors, Kayla-Jane. Reach 'em at @kj.poetrytherapy on Instagram and https://medium.com/@kaylajbarrie on Medium!