“I think the fate of gay characters in American literature, plays, films is really the same as the fate of all characters who are sexually free.” – Arthur Laurents
LGBT+ characters have a long history in Hollywood movies. Since the 19th century, cinema followed mostly dominant notions of homosexuality. In this context, LGBT+ history in film is a history of laughter, pity and fear. It has also been full of misinformation and negative portrayals of all kinds.
Mirroring western culture, Hollywood’s reflection can be delusional, even mythical in its nature, which may emphasize the industry’s role in creating a certain public image and of how LGBT+ people perceive themselves. Starting with the early 20th century, showing a sissy or a pansy as a flowery, feminine or an asexual male, played into the stereotype of homosexuals as a safe source of comedy. The Great Depression in the 1930s brought financial struggles for movie theaters. In order to bring back audiences, movie makers began spicing it all up with themes of prostitution and violence. Naturally, this provoked an immediate reaction from the Catholic Church and conservative politicians who were concerned about the negative influence of movies on American society.
Because a U.S. Supreme Court ruling excluded 1st Amendment protection for the movie industry, The Motion Picture Production Code (aka Hays Code) was created in 1934. While censorship due to the Hays Code lasted for the next three decades, the Code itself didn’t explicitly forbid homosexual characters in movies, but it did refer to ’’sexual perversion’’. So, the portrayal of homosexuals in drag or as sissies ended. In lieu, studios begin showing LGBT+ characters as villains or victims of their own sexual ’’wrongdoing’’. The censors tolerated this as long as ’’the crime is not above the law’’ and this rule continued to exist even after the WW2.
Often, LGBT+ characters were presented in a negative light, such as, individuals suffering from mental illness (The Rope, 1948), and only some wiser directors could bypass the rules, by showing something in between (The Maltese Falcon, 1941). Unfortunately, the 1950s were no better for LGBT+ characters in cinema. “Real man” were supposed to be masculine and full of machismo, so the slightest hint of sensuality in a male would be interpreted as homosexual. Movies continued to support this stereotype, again with the ‘’hidden meaning’’ of their characters (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953).
Unlike the previous decades, the 1960s marked a significant liberalization of censorship. In 1961, The Victim was the first English language movie to use with word “homosexual” followed in 1964 by The Best Man which also used the word ’’homosexual’’ for the first time in American film history. We also shouldn’t forget The Pawnbroker, which depicted a more complex homosexual character played by Brock Peters.
While Hollywood remained more open to homosexual characters until the late 60s, it continued to ignore the existence of LGBT+ audiences. The Boys in the Bandreleased in 1970 is the first movie created specifically for an LGBT+ audience. It was, without a doubt, a realistic portrayal of what it meant to be gay in America during that time. Its release was not a turning point in how homosexual characters were portrayed, though. Movie studios continued to depict stereotypical roles offering two ’’happy endings’’ for queer characters: cure or death.
With the exception of Making Love (1982) and a couple of other films, which show homosexual relationships as more complex and loving relationships, gay characters in 80s films remained psychopaths and killers. This all led to the first protest against Hollywood’s treatment of homosexuals, as a direct reaction to the filmCruising (1980). Tensions between the liberal and more conservative film depictions followed all throughout the 80s, this time fueled by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Movies supported the general homophobic ’’if you’re gay, you have AIDS’’ stereotype, showing queer characters as tragic.
It really wasn’t until the 90s when more individuals and celebrities started coming out as LGBT+ that we begin to see a shift in how gay characters were portrayed. Queer movie and television characters became more decent, mainstream and likeable, often in roles of a best friend or someone who decided to come out. It also worth noting that Philadelphia released in 1993 was the first mainstream Hollywood film to acknowledge HIV/AIDS and the discrimination that people living with HIV/AIDS endured.
In the 90s, we also saw a younger generation of filmmakers involved in The New Queer Cinema. Theyprovided a new direction in films. Films that were often written, acted, and directed by openly LGBT+ people. Needless to say, this had a significant influence on mainstream Hollywood. It paved the way for multi-layered, dignified and respectful queer characters. Vito Russo’s book The Celluloid Closet, including the documentary of the same name (1995) offers an excellent overview of LGBT+ characters in history of the mainstream and indie movies up until 1987.
When it comes to contemporary Hollywood cinema, the turning point is The Brokeback Mountain (2005) film winning three Oscars, followed by Milk (2008), A Single Man (2009), The Kids Are All Right (2010), Weekend (2010) and Blue is the Warmest Colour and Stranger by the Lake from 2013. The rise of gay characters in the 21st century is evident. Still, only 12% of major studio films included LGBT+ characters by the year 2017, which is the same year when Moonlight won an Oscar for Best Picture. Out of that 12%, only 64% of those films included characters that were more importantly tied to the plot.
Movies have the power to influence societal changes. So, the rise of gay characters in 21st century cinema is important and offers an opportunity for filmmakers to portray LGBT+ characters in a way that spurs greater acceptance for the community.