REEL LIFE

The Evolution of LGBT Representation in Film
in the United States
“In a hundred years of movies, homosexuality has only rarely been depicted on the screen. When it did appear, it was there as something to laugh at — or something to pity— or even something to fear. Hollywood, that great maker of myths, taught straight people what to think about gay people... and gay people what to think of themselves.”
- The Celluloid Closet, 1995
1895 - 1933
Where It Began
Where social norms were far less stringent than what it is today.
1895

The Gay Brothers

DIR. WILLIAM DICKSON

Made by William Dickson, this is the first known film with live-recorded sound. The film features Dickson playing the violin into a recording horn for an off-camera wax cylinder, as two men dance to the music. 

1916

Behind The Screen

DIR. CHARLIE CHAPLIN

When David (Charlie Chaplin) discovers that the new stagehand is actually a female, he gives her a series of quick kisses. An onlooker proceeds to make effeminate gestures at David.

"The Pansy"/ "The Sissy"
"The Man-ish Woman"
1933

Morocco

DIR. JOSEF VON STERNBERG

The lines between expected gender roles were truly blurred with the introduction of overly effeminate males like ‘the sissy’ and the ‘mannish woman’ (Morocco, 1930). This lead to The Production Code (1934) which was enforced by Postmaster General William Hays. Some of the prohibitions set, prevented the ridiculing of religion and the discussion of sexual perversion (NPR, 2008)

1934
The Production Code

Where "cockeyed philosophies of life, ugly sex situations, cheap jokes and dirty dialogue [weren't] wanted. 

- Joseph A. Breen, Head of Production Code Administration 1934

1934
The Production Code
Where "cockeyed philosophies of life, ugly sex situations, cheap jokes and dirty dialogue [weren't] wanted" 
- Joseph A. Breen, 1934 Head of Production Code Act
The Production Code

1934

The Depression had made it hard to bring in audiences, and sex and violence sells..." Lobbied by the Catholic Legion of Decency, The Production Code was forced upon Hollywood. "The Code forbade the depiction of "lustful and licentious acts," among other "sinful" acts.

                        - Kantor and Maslon

1934

These Three

DIR. WILLIAM WYLER

Directed by William Wyler, this film is based on a play by Lillian Hellman. Originally, it depicted a true story of two Scottish teachers whose lives were destroyed when they were falsely accused of engaging in a lesbian relationship. However, due to the code, the same-sex relationship was substituted by love-triangle between one man and two women. This film would be remade by Wyler in 1961 with Audrey Hepburn.

Censored Films/ Altered Storylines
Obsessive Characters/ Implicit Homosexuality
1936

Dracula's Daughter

DIR. LAMBERT HILLYER

The Production Code, only made homosexuals harder to find as they were not entirely removed from the screen. Instead, films depicting homosexuality were highly censored by omitting homosexual themes  or were implicitly stated through subtext and new identities “as cold-blooded villains” as seen in Dracula’s Daughter,1936

1952
Joseph Burstyn Inc.
vs
Wilson
A landmark case where the Supreme Court ruled that film censorship was a violation of the First Amendment (the freedom of speech)
But homosexuality was still considered a sin. So, to compensate, LGBT characters were visible but depicted as self-hating individuals.
1955

Rebel Without A Cause

DIR. NICHOLAS RAY

The only homosexual character is killed at the end of the film."Hollywood’s history of “Bury Your Gays” dates back decades to production codes which required any LGBTQ character’s story to only be told as a tragedy. Their story had to end in death or punishment, so the audience would understand that being LGBTQ was not something they should want to be."

- GLAAD, SRI 2019

Something that can (and should) be corrected
Death as the only option
1956

Tea and Sympathy

DIR. VINCENTE MINNELLI

1961

The Children's Hour

DIR. WILLIAM WYLER

William Wyler's, second attempt to bring to life the play by Lillian Hellman. His first being These Three (1934). Here, there is a homosexual character, although even the word "lesbian" is never mentioned in the film. The lesbian teacher confesses her sins, calling herself dirty and ultimately, commits suicide.

The censorship began to weaken as films showcasing previously censored elements began gaining notoriety. However, this new found “gay visibility” did not equate to nor “guarantee justice” (Haggerty, Beynon and Eisner, 324). Instead, society still managed to impose its views regarding homosexuals as self- hating individuals who can and should change.

1969
The Stonewall Riots
A series of demonstrations by members of the LGBT community against the police raid that began in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. 
These demonstrations were an important event in the gay liberation movement and propelled the modern fight for LGBT rights in the US.

The Stonewall Riots

1970

The Boys In The Band

DIR. WILLIAM FRIEDKIN

Openly gay characters visible on screen, with non-derogatory depictions.

Films did not end with their deaths either.

Some progress shown
1972

Cabaret

DIR. BOB FOSSE

Early 80s
The AIDs Epidemic
Gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men are the population most affected by HIV in the United States. In 2017, adult and adolescent gay and bisexual men made up 70% (27,000) of the 38,739 new HIV diagnoses in the United States (US) and dependent areas.d Approximately 492,000 sexually active gay and bisexual men are at high risk for HIV; however, we have more tools to prevent HIV than ever before.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The AIDs Crisis

1982

Making Love

DIR. ARTHUR HILLER

Positive Depictions
1980

Cruising

DIR. WILLIAM FRIEDKIN

Negative Depictions

When the AIDs epidemic struck in the 1980s, films were split both ways showing both positive (Making Love,1982) and negative (Cruising,1980) views.

2000 - 2018
Where Are We Now
If These Walls Could
Talk

2000

The film follows three separate storylines about lesbian couples in three different time periods (1960s, 1980s and 2000s). The film is a poignant illustration of the realities and challenges faced by LGBT individuals throughout history.

Today, while there are more open and positive LGBT characters on screen, it is still hard to find diverse representations of the community. And negative and harmful representations still prevail. 

2005

Brokeback Mountain

DIR. ANG LEE

While LGBT characters are seen on screen and working to live their authentic lives, they engage in this by extramarital affairs. The narrative of homosexuality as a sin, is still enforced as characters are allowed to live and love openly, and are still met with death.

2012

Pitch Perfect 1

DIR. JASON MOORE

2016

Moonlight

DIR. BARRY JENKINS

2018 

Call Me By Your Name

DIR. LUCA GUADGINO

2018

A Simple Favor

DIR. PAUL FEIG

2018 

The Girl in the

Spider's Web

DIR. FEDE ÁLVAREZ

Having a bisexual woman at the forefront of an action movie is an exciting step toward more inclusion in the genre, especially in leading roles. The film was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award in Outstanding Film –

Wide Release. - GLAAD, SRI 2019

"Emily, sexually manipulates people to get her way, including her husband Sean, Diana, and even Stephanie. There is a lack of feeling or desire toward the women Emily seduces, thus GLAAD did not count her as bisexual. The repeated trope in media of women only sleeping with other women to get something
they want or need – thus directly linking their queer relationship with a negative behaviour - is one audiences have seen too many times."

- GLAAD, SRI 2019

A24’s second highest grossing film is GLAAD Media Award recipient Moonlight, the coming-of-age story of a young Black queer man which was the first film with an LGBTQ lead, and the first with an all-Black cast, to win Best Picture at the Oscars.

- GLAAD, SRI 2017

Out lesbian character Cynthia Rose again returns.Cynthia Rose is delegated to the sidelines for the majority of the film, only present to make her straight "love interest" uncomfortable through her unwanted sexual advances. "Ultimately, she had no real impact on the plot of the film and her removal would not make any significant difference. - GLAAD, SRI 2018

A coming-of-age romantic drama about a summer romance. 

Sources

Russo, Vito. 1987. The Celluloid Closet. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. Print.

 

The Celluloid Closet. Dir. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. TriStar Pictures, 1995. Film.

 

Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), “Studio Responsibility Index” from 2013 - 2019. Web. 

"Remembering Hollywood’s Hays Code, 40 Years On.” Narr. Bob Mondello. All Things Considered, 2008 NPR. Nat. Public Radio. Web. 

 

Benshoff, Harry M. and Griffin, Sean “Queer Images: A History of Gay Lesbian Film in America”, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006, 21. Web. 

 

George E. Haggerty, John Beynon, and Douglas Eisner, eds., Gay Histories and Cultures (New York: Garland, 2000), 324. Web.

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