Select Page

When we go to the movies, we see complex characters carefully crafted by screenwriters, studio executives, producers, directors and actors, but what makes it to the screen, and what it says about that person and their traits can have meaning beyond what we see. This has been true of the depiction of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people throughout the history of cinema. One of the most maligned groups throughout the 20th Century, queer cinema has had a long road. Here is a brief history of the path it has taken since the birth of the medium.

Sissies on screen

Queers on film debuted in 1895, where the first reported on screen “gay” act was two men dancing together. While some historians say that this was not perceived by audiences as queer, rather it was interpreted as the men just being “fanciful”, others say that it was disturbing to viewers as it was against what was considered to be polite and “normal” male behaviour.

As film moved from a novelty to a narrative form, gay characters were depicted on screen as flamboyant and effeminate, something that was very easy to portray in silent film, and may have formed the basis for gay stereotypes that persist to this day.

These flamboyant mannerisms easily made the transition to talkies and evolved to become a fussy, flowery, mincing character, who was largely only there to provide comic relief. This character was often referred to as the “sissy” or the “pansy”.

At its height in the ’30s, sissies existed in many forms throughout cinema that included everything from confidantes to valets to secretaries to matchmakers. Sissies were embraced by filmmakers like Eric Blore, who directed many of the Astaire/Rogers movies and Edward Everett Horton (Arsenic and Old Lace) as characters that showed a side of life that was sophisticated, pleasurable and carefree. Frequently the comic relief, the sissy was used to lighten up the “real” lives of the characters on screen, which meant that they were rarely taken seriously.

The sissy evolved in the ’40s, however, to be a thinly veiled threat to regular society and especially to heterosexuality. This was often communicated by depicting the sissy in darker tones, often with violent subtext.

Actors in drag: a staple in mainstream cinema.

Actors in drag: a staple in mainstream cinema.

Shockingly gay

Despite the reassuring use of sissies throughout the ’20s and ’30s, there was another way in which homosexuality was widely used by filmmakers: shock value.

After the stock market crashed, studios began to look for projects that had as much shock value as possible to get audiences in the door as low attendance began to threaten the movie industry’s survival.

Everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Fatty Arbuckle to Katharine Hepburn employed this tactic to get butts in seats, giving rise to the idea that actors in drag is something people will pay to see, even if only for curiosity’s sake.

Actors in drag is a device that has been employed by both gay and straight filmmakers for various purposes up to present day. Films like Some Like It Hot, Glen or Glenda, Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire have employed this device for a variety of purposes, but frequently for some kind of personal gain (get the girl, get the story, get the family back), while films like Priscilla Queen of the Dessert and The Birdcage have characters who dress in drag as a lifestyle choice, something that is considerably rarer on screen.

Villains and the Hays Code

In the 1930s Hollywood bowed to considerable public pressure from women’s and religious groups to remove “immorality” from film. Called the Hays Code (named for Will H. Hays, its creator) it was a set of general principles by which film could be made. (The loosening of the Hays Code ultimately resulted in the creation of the film rating system currently employed by the Motion Picture Association of America and similar bodies internationally.)

The Code gave filmmakers a “moral standard” by which to make their films which included swearing, excessive violence, drug use and, of course, sexuality and sexual “perversion” by which they specifically meant homosexuality.

The Hays Code drove the sissy directly out of cinema and led filmmakers to create their gay characters in a more subtle and subversive way. Unfortunately, this frequently led to the treatment of gay characters as criminals or villains who directly threatened the life, liberty and happiness of other, better (read: more morally upstanding) characters in the story. You see, it was okay to have queers on screen, just so long as everyone knew they were terrible people.

Joel Grey in "Cabaret" - a change for the better.

Joel Grey in “Cabaret” – a change for the better.

Change for profit

In the ’60s, the Hays code was liberalized, not because the original Hays Code was limiting to the point of human rights violations, but because Hollywood wanted to be able to compete with the slow takeover of television in the entertainment sphere.

Released from their bounds and emboldened by the New York City Stonewall riots (an event that marked a major turning point for the LGBT rights movement, please see this Wikipedia entry for more details), the motion picture industry began to see gays as a potential important consumer market.

Attempts were made to create product that appealed to them, however, films created during this time had significant problems. The Boys in the Band is considered to be the Hollywood’s first attempt to market directly to a homosexual audience. Released in 1969, the film was based on a play of the same name and attempted to create an honest depiction of what it meant to be gay in the US. Of course, mainstream press and audiences celebrated the film while many in the gay community felt that it only reinforced stereotypes and, again, depicting gay and bisexual men as deeply unhappy.

Despite this, the depiction of gay life in cinema did improve over time. Films like A Natural Thing (1973), Something for Everyone (1970), and Cabaret (1972), which were aimed at gay or mainstream liberal audiences, are considered to be good representations of homosexuality on film for the time.

Underground, like everything good

Unfortunately, the Hays Code did a great deal of damage to queer cinema, and like everything good, it went underground. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, queer cinema and depictions of good, complex gay or bisexual characters on screen were left to artists like Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger (controversial experimental filmmaker and author of both Hollywood Babylon books).

In the ’80s, religious and political groups got active and angry about people loving other people who simply happened to be of the same gender and lobbied successfully to stamp out most gay culture. The good news is that the gay community was having very little of that and in the ’90s, a boom of gay film began that set the foundation for queer cinema today.

New Queer Cinema, as the movement is called, is a term applied to films written and directed by openly gay people, frequently highlighting openly gay characters who are likewise open about their sexuality.

Filmmakers like Gregg Araki, Alexis Arquette, Todd Haynes, Jennie Livingston, Cheryl Dunye, Gus Van Sant, John Waters and John Cameron Mitchell created films frequently known for their irony, open criticism of the way gay people are treated by mainstream culture and challenging heteronormativity.

"Brokeback Mountain" - LGBT cinema still hasn't progressed as far as you think.

“Brokeback Mountain” – LGBT cinema still hasn’t progressed as far as you think.

Hollywood responded to this independent and underground movement with films of their own. For a while, gay characters became a new and interesting draw for both gay and mainstream audiences alike. Films like The Birdcage (1996), To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995), In & Out (1997), and Flawless (1999) all feature bankable stars – Nathan Lane, Robin Williams, Kevin Kline and Phillip Seymour Hoffman- as main characters.

However, these films returned to the same campy depiction of homosexuality as the beginning of the 20th Century, often coming under criticism from the gay community. While depictions of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals in mainstream cinema are getting better, there is still a long way to go. Even Brokeback Mountain, a beautiful love story about two people who happen to be gay, is also about two men who spend their lives passing for straight and tortured by their closeted sexuality and inability to accept themselves.

Depictions of gay characters have come a long way (see this month’s TFS List about characters who are more than their sexuality), but they still have a long way to go. Don’t shy away from demanding what you want in cinema and vote with your wallet. Don’t pay to see movies that openly discriminate against people of any gender, race or sexual orientation.