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Categories: Features

Producer Savannah James-Bayly explores the past, present and future of LGBT+ representation on our screens and asks “is the future itself queer”?

Before exploring the future, let’s first step into the past. History is awash with violence towards LGBT+ people. In the U.K. this persecution was first cemented into law in 1533 when Henry VIII put into place the ‘Buggery Act’, making anal sex punishable by hanging. Hundreds of gay and bisexual men were sentenced to death before this punishment was abolished in 1861. Such persecution is not limited to the past. Today, 72 countries still criminalise same-sex activity and eight countries still punish it with death. Violence continues even in countries where the law is supposed to protect; 22 trans people have been unlawfully killed in the USA so far this year. So, it’s understandable why for many queer people, looking to the future has appeal. In the future there is hope – hope for a safer, more accepting world.

Queer futurism in cinema can be defined as films set in future worlds, often combing elements of sci-fi and fantasy with queer culture and concerns, to provide a lens through which we can reflect on our present lives, struggles and the possibilities that lie ahead. It’s not just sci-fi with LGBT+ characters – it’s about imagining future worlds that don’t put identity in the same boxes we do today.

The Wachowski’s Sense8

As filmmakers, we should recognise that our ways of thinking and existing in this world are determined by the established hierarchical structures that are often replicated and reflected in the work we create, with a very real exclusionary effect. It’s not a coincidence that our cinematic protagonists have predominantly been cis-gendered, straight, white men. Futurism provides a means to change that. By imagining the future, we can examine what a society that’s more embracing of queer love and diverse gender expression would look like, and once the limitations that society places on queer identities are removed, you’re left with characters who aren’t so governed by their sexuality or gender expression.

One group exploring queer futures is ‘Dream Babes’, a long-term project featuring artists using speculative fiction as a medium for intersectional queer expression. ‘Dream Babes’ is the brain child of artist Victoria Sin.  Speaking on the mission of the group they explain: “History and science are parafiction: patriarchal, colonial and capitalist storytelling reified into cultural metanarratives… Representation is reality, and in the face of representational violence, speculative fiction is a productive medium to invade existing narratives”. In these speculative futures we can create a space where it’s universally recognised that sexuality is fluid; where society allows disabled bodies to integrate; where gender isn’t policed; where the historic structures of racism have been dismantled. We can make outsiders insiders, and put those characters at the centre of narratives of power rather than endless struggle, allowing them to live out their full potential.

Victoria Sin and Evan Ifekoya. Photo by Holly Falconer.

With an infinite future to explore, why then aren’t there more queer sci-fi films hitting our screens? Unfortunately, limitations that are often placed on queer filmmakers and stories – that ours are niche and therefore uncommercial identities –  inhibit the variety of queer narratives that we see portrayed. The hurdle facing filmmakers is a marketplace that’s still reticent about the value of LGBT+ films. Much queer cinema is made on the fringes of the industry, in a more DIY style. This has its benefits – allowing storytellers to express themselves without heavy commercial constraints – but from an independent budget perspective this lends itself mostly to ‘drama’, as ‘genre’ demands more expensive elements. That, coupled with the fact sci-fi has historically been marketed as a hyper masculine genre, means that queer stories haven’t had much opportunity to explore their futurist potential.

What does exist therefore tends to be pretty transgressive. Track down a copy of the iconic ‘I.K.U.’ written and directed by Shu Lea Cheang, which became the first pornographic feature to premiere at Sundance in 2000. It’s a techno-charged world where replicants roam the city collecting data on orgasms with willing participants whose genders and sexualities are diverse. Famous queer critic, B Ruby Rich, says of Cheang: “whether her work can be considered postporn, postgender or postqueer, it makes the audience think hard about their most basic assumptions.”

This year at the BFI Flare Festival there was much talk about social-realist/sci-fi blend “The Untamed” (2017) directed by Amut Escalante, which was chosen as Peter Bradshaw’s film of the week, and which he described, concisely, as “a film about love, pleasure and a tentacular sex monster”.

Ruth Ramos in The Untamed.

Helen Wright, who runs Scottish Queer International Film Festival, and is a lover of queer futurism, was able to make further recommendations from this years programme, including “The Polymath” a 2007 documentary directed by Fred Barney Taylor about gay sci-fi author, Samuel R. Delany; “Nowhere” made in 1997 as part of a trio of films directed by Greg Araki, exploring sexual fluidity, alienation & Armagedon; and Scottish short film “Amber Blue” directed by Hong Anh Nguyen and currently doing the festival circuit.

Television is certainly opening it’s storylines to more LGBT+ characters in fantasy & sci-fi. From The Wachowskis’ “Sense8” to young adult show, “The 100”. In “The 100”, much of the queerness was actually driven by the audience – the chemistry was so strong between two of the female characters that the fans took to social media to demand they get together, and subsequently lashed out when one of these characters was killed moments after consummating their romance. The fans were so incensed that the show had fallen into the tired “lesbian character dies” trope that they boycotted the series until the showrunners apologised. It was a real win in busting the myth that LGBT+ romances only appeal to queer audiences.

Lexa and Clarke from The 100.

Although queer futurism is still somewhat of a rarity, other forms of futurism are leading the charge into the mainstream. “The Handmaid’s Tale” has been a win for feminist futurism in entertainment. By drawing inspiration from real historical oppressions, it allows us to reflect on societies treatment of female bodies in today’s society. With its lesbian and gay “gender traitors”, it highlight the danger of “reproductive futurism” – which deems creating children is the main motive of society, by which LGBT+ people are seen to be failing their civic duty to procreate. The series has had huge critical and commercial success, and a wave of feminist futurist books have been popularised in its wake. Recent bestseller, ‘The Power‘ by Naomi Alderman, has been optioned by Sister Pictures after an eleven-way bidding war. Similarly the popularity of Afrofuturism is surging. This summer it was announced that Ava DuVernay will be directing the TV adaptation of sci-fi legend Octavia Butler’s 1987 afrofuturist novel ‘Dawn’; whilst Nigerian fantasy/science fiction writer, Nnedi Okorafor, has a done deal with HBO for her novel ‘Who Fears Death’, with George R.R. Martin as executive producer. Sci-fi author Ursula K Le Guin’s award winning ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ – set on a planet whose inhabitants are genderless – has also been optioned for a television adaptation.

Young adult novels are, it seems, playing a significant part in mainstreaming the movement – perhaps because the culture many teens experience today is more accepting of LGBT+ people than the generations that came before. As this audience reaches their twenties and becomes the peak target for most multiplex movies, simple economics likely mean we can look forward to an increasingly queer cinematic future.


Posted on Dec 18, 2017

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