Sexuality on the Silver Screen

In honor of June being LGBTQ Pride Month, this post explores the history of queer representation in cinema, with a particular focus on Hollywood.

Forget needle in a haystack—trying to find films with queer protagonists or stories can often feel like searching for that one little gay raindrop in a sea of heteronormativity. Only in the past decade or so has a handful of films starring LGBTQ characters made their way into the mainstream. However, homosexual and gender-queer themes have been present in film since the medium’s beginning.

Take, for instance, The Dickson Experimental Sound Film. This film, depicting two men dancing together, was made in 1894 by William Dickson and is regarded as the first film to have live-recorded sound.  

Despite being less than twenty seconds long and more a sound test than anything else, this film remains a nice image, a tender moment captured in time.

Though The Dickson Experimental Sound Film could be perceived without underlying homosexual connotations, there were other films of the time that intentionally included gay characters. In the early 1900’s, the “pansy” or the “sissy” emerged as a gay stock character and bringer of comic relief. The sissy’s sexuality was never explicitly stated; in fact, in most cases, he seemed to lack a sexuality altogether. However, his exaggerated display of effeminate mannerisms in the way he walked and talked let audiences connect the dots for themselves. Many gay men took offense at this portrayal which reduced them to a comical stereotype. Yet, others took comfort in the sissy’s existence on screen because they felt some representation—however caricatured and desexualized—was better than none.

While the effeminate man was deemed “pansy” or “sissy,” there was no name given to the overtly masculine women who occasionally graced the silver screen. These women often had short hair, wore a suit, and spoke in a lower-pitched voice. Unlike men, women seemed to have more flexibility in gender performance—especially if theater was involved. This held particularly true in Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 picture, Morocco. In one highly memorable scene, Marlene Dietrich performs a song in a nightclub, looking stunning in a tuxedo and top hat. After the number is over, she flirts with a woman in the audience, and kisses her on the mouth. The next time Marlene performs a number, it’s not in a suit, but rather in a beautiful dress. Though an effeminate man often remained effeminate for the duration of the film, women were allowed to traverse the lines between masculinity and femininity.

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Despite the light-hearted manner in which cross-dressing was portrayed, not everyone saw it as such. When the Great Depression hit, the morale of American men and women took a turn for the worse. As David Lugowski asserts in his  study  Queering the (New) Deal: Lesbian and Gay Representation and the Depression-Era this affected queer imagery in film. Men – societally conditioned to associate their masculinity with providing for their family – were left feeling emasculated. The effeminate sissy no longer seemed quite so amusing.

Also around this time a movement arose in response to “indecent” themes and images of the increasingly risqué films of the 1920’s. In 1930, a set of industry moral guidelines was developed, known as the Motion Picture Production Code. The code was composed of a lists of “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls,” which dictated what should not be allowed on the silver screen. This spanned everything from mild profanity and interracial relationships to drug trafficking and nudity. Also on this list was “any inference of sexual perversion,” which at the time encompassed homosexuality.

Even with the motion picture censorship running rampant, gay characters didn’t fully disappear. If the writers and directors were clever enough, they could hint at homosexuality without outright stating it and disobeying the code.  Director John Huston did this in his adaptation of The Maltese Falcon (1941), a novel by Dashiell Hammett. In the book, the character of Joel Cairo is gay. Though this is never made explicit in the movie, the attentive viewer is given enough clues to put two and two together. 

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Though directors danced around the subject of sexuality with suggestive symbolism and imagery, this did not mean their depictions were kind. In fact, implied gays and lesbians were almost exclusively cast in a villainous light. For example, the Hitchcock film Rope (1948) follows two murderous gay lovers. In Caged (1950), a film noir directed by John Cromwell, a sadistic prison matron hits on the young protagonist. And, of course, let’s not forget Lambert Hillyer’s sequel to Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter (1936), which features the still popular trend of using vampirism as a metaphor for lesbianism.

If gay characters were not villains, they were almost always punished. In Rebel Without a Cause (1955), a character hinted to be gay is shot. In The Children’s Hour (1962), Shirley Maclaine’s character, who is in love with Audrey Hepburn’s character, commits suicide. In The Detective (1968), the gay characters are dead or self-hating. People questioning their sexuality can hardly find refuge in these bleak, isolating images, in which being gay is a life-long sentence of loneliness and death.

However, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. In the 1960’s, the code’s enforcement  lessened, and by the end of 1968, it was replaced with a more reasonable rating system. For the first time, homosexuality’s presence in film didn’t rely on subtle editing and symbolism. In 1970 – just a year after the Stonewall riots – a film was released The Boys in the Band Directed by William Friedkin. The film revolves around a group of gay characters in New York City. Despite its honest and, at times, somewhat unflattering depiction of homosexuality, The Boys in the Band did something that previous films had not: it displayed a sense of a gay community.

If the late 60’s and early 70’s marked progression of homosexuality in film, then 80’s were a giant step back. With AIDS emerging as an epidemic emerging in the United States in 1981, the decade proved to be a horrifying time to be gay. As a result of AIDS’ prevalence among gay men, it was informally coined as the “gay disease”. Though ill-informed, this association led to a backlash against homosexuality. Despite this, a few LGBTQ-friendly films made their way onto the silver screen, such as Arthur Hiller’s Making Love (1982) and Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1985).

Up until the late 80s, finding an LGBTQ film—especially one with a happy ending—was a feat unto itself. The 90’s changed that—to an extent. The decade that brought us Beanie Babies, The Spice Girls, “all that and a bag of chips,” also ushered in Gay New Wave. In 1992, B. Ruby Rich coined the term “New Queer Cinema” to refer to the blossoming movement of independent, unapologetically LGBTQ-focused films blossoming in the early 90’s.

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Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning (1990) was one of the first films to be included in this movement. A pillar of New Queer Cinema, it documented the black, Latino, transgender, and gay cultures’ involvement in New York City’s drag balls. A little over a year later, Gus Van Sant’s Shakespearean-inspired drama My Own Private Idaho (1991) came out, starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. Many more films followed, including Ang Lee’s comedy-drama The Wedding Banquet (1992), Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993), Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996), Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine (1998), and Kimberly Pierce’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999). The early 2000’s continued this trend with films like John Cameron Mitchell’s musical comedy Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) and the British-American drama The Hours (2002) by Stephen Daldry. Though The Hours boasted an impressive cast—Meryl Streep, Juliane Moore, and Nicole Kidman—it wasn’t until the mid-2000’s that an LGBTQ film made its way into the mainstream.

In 2005, Ang Lee’s adaptation of an Annie Proulx short story Brokeback Mountain about two cowboys who fall in love in the 60’s hit theatres. Winning numerous awards—including three Oscars—and grossing $178 million at the box office, Brokeback Mountain became a milestone for queer cinema. Since then, a few other LGBTQ films have garnered  such recognition among the public—the biopic Milk (2008) by Gus Van Sant, Lisa Cholodenko’s comedy-drama The Kids Are Alright (2010) or instance—however, none have matched Brokeback‘s level of critical and commercial success.

Though ground-breaking, Brokeback Mountain is an example of the public’s willingness to accept homosexual love stories if the narrative ends tragically. Brokeback also showcases another issue with LGBTQ films: they are dominated by able-bodied, white gay males. LGBTQ films lack focus on queer women, people of color, as well as people who are disabled, bi, trans, asexual, or identify as anything other than gay. Beyond that, on the rare occasion a film features a trans character, trans actors are rarely cast in those roles. Hollywood has made it clear: LGBTQ visibility does not necessarily equate inclusivity.

That being said, the LGBTQ presence in film has come a long way since the early 1900’s. Queer people are no longer relegated to being the comic relief or villain of a story. Now LGBTQ stories are told, unabashedly, without relying solely on subtext. A LGBTQ-positive future in film is on the horizon, a future in which kids questioning their identity can go to the movies and find themselves on the silver screen.


Author: Emily Graves is a senior at Columbia College Chicago, where she is studying Writing for Film and Television. She is particularly fascinated by French films, LGBTQ+ representation, and anything by the director Ang Lee. This summer she is Facet’s Media Archivist Assistant.

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