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Even though one might not think so, LGBT film is almost as old as the medium itself. It has, of course, not always existed in the form it does today but homosexual and transgender characters have always been depicted in film.

Though some scholars would disagree, the first film regarded as LGBT is the 1895 The Dickson Experimental Sound Film, in which a dance between two men is considered the first depiction of homosexuality in film. In silent film, such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Masquerader, it was quite popular for men to dress up as women for comic effect. However, up until the 1940s, most gay characters were based on stereotypes and gender conventions; effeminate men and their butch lesbian counterparts were used to shock a shrinking audience.

From the 1940s on, the Hayes Code restrictions prevented the major US studios from producing favourable LGBT films. Homosexual people were usually depicted as sadists and psychopaths so the film would make it past the authorities. Until the 1960s, it was left to European films to deal with LGBT issues, though censorship influenced cinema over here as well. Most notable, the French film A Song of Love (1950) and the German production Different from You and Me (1957), broached the topic of homosexuality, but were banned and censored respectively.

brokeback mountain

Far-off from equality, but approaching tolerance, Inside Daisy Clover from 1965 is one of the first mainstream films whose character is comfortable with his homosexuality. While in the US, underground filmmakers such as Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger were trying to bring gay relationships to the screen, in Europe, Italian writer and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini started dealing with the topic, though his messages were often hidden in his neorealist works.

After the Stonewall riots, the views of society slowly started to change and the film industry started considering the LGBT community as a target demographic. Most notably, in 1970, were Rosa von Praunheim’s It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives, and William Friedkin’s The Boys in the Band, which were both told from the community’s point of view. While some still portray homosexuality as an abnormality, films such as Sunday Bloody Sunday, Dog Day Afternoon, La Cage aux Folles and The Rocky Horror Picture Show introduced the theme into mainstream cinema in the 70s.

The progression took another blow in the 80s, when right-wing Christian groups opposing LGBT rights gained influence across America. Along with the emerging AIDS pandemic and the panic that it was a gay man’s disease, fewer positive films were made. Only in a slow process did the industry start dealing with the issue from an objective point of view, without assigning blame. Parting Glances, an independent film from 1986, portrayed gay life and the AIDS crisis realistically, and is considered a milestone in LGBT film. Later, mainstream films such as Longtime Companion and Philadelphia followed suit. Documentaries such as Paris is Burning helped portray gay and transgender culture realistically and bring it closer to mainstream audiences.

At the beginning of the 1990s, a new generation of openly gay people became involved in independent cinema, and created what would be known as New Queer Cinema. Mostly independent at first, A-list Hollywood actors gradually became interested in portraying gay characters. In films such as Orlando, Boogie Nights, My Own Private Idaho and Heavenly Creatures, sexuality was portrayed as being fluid, while films such as La Vie en Rose and Transamerica portrayed transgender characters and their struggle to be accepted.

While LGBT characters have thus become acceptable in film, it was still a taboo to depict graphic displays of affection between LGBT characters. It was not until Brokeback Mountain that two gay characters were featured in leading roles in a major Hollywood film (though it is disputed how realistic this depiction is).

Gradually, it became acceptable to portray gay and transgender people, as well as displays of affection between them. Films such as Milk, The Kids are Alright, Weekend and A Single Man paved the way for an increasing number of LGBT mainstream films. Their characters still sometimes struggle in opposing societies, but they are accepted in today’s progressive society.

The most recent examples would be Blue is the Warmest Colour, and Strangers by the Lake, which both feature long sex scenes between the protagonists. More notable examples are Vic and Flo saw a Bear, Keep the Lights On, Kill Your Darlings, Behind the Candelabra, Any Day Now, Dallas Buyers Club and the documentary How to Survive a Plague. The list goes on and on.

LGBT cinema clearly has come a long way through its 100-year-long history, but there is still work to be done. Many films are criticised by the community for misrepresenting gay and transgender people, or portraying them in a bad light. There are still many films that use stereotypes to portray gay people, a trend that should be abolished in the fight for equality and against homophobia and transphobia.

Posted on Mar 4, 2014

2 Responses to “LGBT cinema – a short history”
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  1. Avatar Eileen Smyth says:

    The Dickson Experimental Sound Film is interesting but not queer cinema. Asserting that it is shows a lack of understanding of Victorian culture.

    All evidence suggests that throughout the 19th century anglosphere and other European cultures, it was entirely acceptable for men and women to practice dancing with a same-sex dance partner, or to dance this way in celebration, when no appropriate opposite-sex partners were at hand.

    Likewise, straight women often walked down the street arm-in-arm and straight men might sling their arms around each others’ shoulders for extended moments or kiss a straight friend in times of dire emotional stress (such as a farewell kiss, if one of the friends was dying).

    Straight companions could be so demonstrative for the very reason that homosexuality had been driven so far underground. Such outward displays of platonic affection were simply assumed to be nothing more than that: platonic affection.

    I experienced this same attitude when I lived in South Korea in the 1990s. The country was in deep denial about homosexuality, with some people insisting that it didn’t exist anywhere in the country at all. Therefore, it was no problem for friends of the same sex to hold hands, walk with arms draped over each other, or dance together.

    I’m all for celebrating gay cinema, but it begins in the Wiemar Republic, with Different From the Rest.

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