Out of the closet and into the limelight

A history of LGBTQIA+ representation in Hollywood
Pedro Moral | Mirada’s Chief Editor

Originally written in spanish.

Los Angeles, February 27, 2017. «La La Land!» read Faye Dunaway to a stammering Warren Beatty as she presented the Best Picture award at the 89th Oscars ceremony. Just as he was closing his acceptance speech and much to the audience’s bewilderment, the film’s producer, Fred Berger, was warned of a mistake prompting him to announce «By the way, we lost.». It was then that Jordan Horowitz produced a second envelope with the actual winner and rectified: «The award goes to Moonlight, it’s not a joke!».

That is how the first LGBTQIA+-themed film to earn an Oscar in the Academy’s long life almost lost its statuette. But, beyond the mix-up, the success of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016) came in as a breakthrough in a Hollywood history, long known for its troubled relationship with diversity.

The Hays Code, a form of censorship, prohibited the exhibition of films that violated ‘the American way of life’.

The portrayal of homosexuality in a negative light was an early practice in American films. In William Dickson’s The Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894), the two men dancing are shown as ridiculous and humorous, introducing the concept of a ‘sissy’. The word describes ‘effeminate’ men, frequently depicted in the first decades of the 20th century. These flamboyant characters donned mannered behaviour but showed no attraction to men, as their homosexuality only existed in a subliminal and derogatory way.

This representation was the price for visibility in film for the LGBTQIA+ community, which even included some gay bar scenes in early instances such as in John Francis Dillon’s Call Her Savage (1932). Matters took a turn for the worse in 1934 when the American production system adopted the Hays Code, a form of censorship. It prohibited the exhibition of films that violated ‘the American way of life’, and, of course, limiting sexual choices of protagonists to the ‘sacred’ marriage between a man and a woman.

Several cinema tropes were born around stereotypical archetypes of homosexuality: the sissy, not perceived as a real threat if portrayed humorously, the main character’s ‘gay friend’, like Katharine Hepburn’s neighbour Kip in Adam’s Rib (1949), or the villain that portrayed homosexuality as a synonym for evil. For a long time, villains in film carried negative stereotypes and traits linked to their queerness… think of Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

Several cinema tropes were born around stereotypical archetypes of homosexuality, like the ‘sissy’ or the main character’s ‘gay friend’.

It was nine years after Psycho was released, in 1969, that the Hays Code disappeared and changes in American society were mirrored in cinema: the Second Feminist Wave, the Civil Rights Movement and, of course, the Gay Liberation Movement and the first Pride Parade in history.

Shortly after, in 1971, Peter Finch broke moulds with his Oscar-nominated interpretation of a doctor competing with a woman for the love of a scientist in Sunday Bloody Sunday. This openly homosexual character was the first of many to come.

A few masterpieces followed that included diverse characters key to the plot. Cabaret (1972) was the recipient of eight Academy Awards, and A Cage of Crickets (1996) became the highest-grossing LGBTQIA+ production in history. Dog Day Afternoon (1975) featured the star of the moment, Al Pacino, pulling a heist to pay for the costs of his partner’s sex-change operation.

And then, in 1983, along came Cher to make history as the first female nominee to play an openly gay character in Silkwood.

Cher made history as the first female nominee to play an openly gay character in Silkwood (1983).

A decade later, LGBTQIA+ cinema reached mainstream status when Philadelphia (1993) became a worldwide phenomenon, blowing up the box office and multiplying its budget. In it, Tom Hanks shines as a young lawyer fired after his bosses learn that he has contracted AIDS. Despite its success, the film also exemplifies the Bury your Gays trope (as it is known in the United States): either killing off gay characters or shaping their stories around tragedy or abuse. This is the line followed in Boys Don’t Cry (2000), where Hilary Swank played a young transgender boy who is raped and murdered by his male friends when they discover his assigned sex at birth.

Fortunately, this narrative archetype, harshly and rightly criticised by LGBTQIA+ collectives, is becoming less and less common. Aside from the Ang Lee masterpiece Brokeback Mountain (2005), the last decade has been full of critically and audience-acclaimed films that brought forward truly thought-provoking LGBTQIA+ plots and characters in films such as Carol (2015), The Kids Are All Right (2010), Call Me By Your Name (2017), and many more.

Moonlight was the first LGBTQIA+-themed film to earn the Best Picture award at the 89th Oscars ceremony.

Visibility and representation were not without controversies, like Eddie Redmayne, a cisgender man, giving life to titular character Einar Wegener in The Danish Girl (2015), one of the best-known films on this subject.

And so 2017 arrived, with Barry Jenkins picking up the Oscar for Moonlight. At the same time, viewers around the world were radically changing how they consumed content thanks to platforms such as Netflix, HBO or Prime Video, opening the door to more diverse content production, from a positive and natural perspective.

Finally, reflecting on the pulse of current trends, we have enjoyed during the past five years plenty of exceptional content, summed up here in our top films:

  • Call Me By Your Name (2018)
  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
  • Elisa y Marcela (2019)
  • The Half of it (2020)
  • And then we danced (2020)
  • Ammonite (2021)
  • A Secret Love (2020)
  • Uncle Frank (2020)

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