LGBTQ+ Representation: A rich and complicated cinematic history


Emily Harvie on the history behind LGBTQ+ representation in film.

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Image by Altitude Film Distribution

By Emily Harvie

The first example of LGBTQ+ representation in film comes in the form of a short, silent film titled The Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894), commonly known as ‘The Gay Brothers’ which features two men dancing. Although not explicitly stated as queer, these men caused outrage with their non-conformist representations of masculinity as they held hands and joyously danced together – how scandalous! We have come a long way since this first example of queer characters in film. From systemic homophobia in Hollywood, to an age of queer cinema, there is a lot to unpack in this rich and complicated cinematic history.

During the early years of cinema, most LGBTQ+ characters were not ever stated as such, and were often the subject of ridicule or the punchline of a joke. For example, in Charlie Chaplin’s Behind The Curtain (1916), he kisses a man in an effeminate, stereotypical fashion by posing with his backside stuck out. However, even in the early twentieth-century there were examples of pro-LGBT narratives. The 1919 film Anders als die Andern, featured a gay protagonist and anti-homophobic sentiments. Consequently, the Nazis desperately tried to destroy all the copies of the film (and nearly succeeded) during the second world war.

It would be false to assume there was much positive representation at this time. In 1934 Hollywood went so far as to enact the “Motion Picture Production Code'' resulting in the censorship of any LGBTQ+ representation. This rule lasted until 1968 and consequently, LGBTQ+ representation was conducted trepidatiously throughout much of the century.

Nevertheless, as we moved into the middle of the twentieth century, more prominent examples of representation emerged. In 1961, Victim became the first British film to say the word “homosexual,” and contributed to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK. Yet, even positive examples of LGBTQ+ characters had serious flaws. Many films featuring queer characters focussed on homosexuality as something to pity. Although films such as The Children’s Hour (1961) were sympathetic to the LGBTQ+ community, they commonly portrayed these characters as damaged by society or killed before their time.

As LGB representation became more widespread, it finally gave space for a growth in transgender representation. Dog Day Afternoon (1975) was the first of its kind. Based on a true story and featuring a trans woman, many now view the film as ahead of its time. However, the actor Chris Sarandon was a cisgender male who proceeded to get an Oscar nomination for his role and consequently, birthed the damaging trope of cisgender actors in trans roles. This trope has since prevailed through to recent cinema with Eddie Redmayne’s The Danish Girl (2015) landing him his own nomination. Having cis actors in these roles meant trans actors struggled to make a name for themselves, and these films also perpetuate the damaging idea that trans women are men or otherwise masculine.

Drag culture also experienced a new sense of recognition when the documentary film Paris Is Burning (1990) allowed people to step into the world of the New York ballroom scene. This cult classic brought drag culture into the mainstream and paved the way for the juggernaut empire that is Ru Paul’s Drag Race (2009–). Yet, even this film was shrouded in controversy after it was discovered that many of those who featured in it were not given fair pay or treatment for their contributions. Consequently, it can be seen that in the latter half of the twentieth century, although LGBTQ+ representation had massively progressed, toxicity and damaging stereotypes still prevailed. There was a long way to go before these characters were treated properly, and even longer before the actors and people who lived these experiences were given the jobs and opportunities they deserved.

Recently, queer cinema has reached new grounds. In 2017, Moonlight became the first LGBTQ+ film to win Best Picture at the Oscars. In the same year, A Fantastic Woman won Best Foreign Film and opened more conversations about trans rights in Chile. This film demonstrated that there are plenty of trans actors more than talented enough to play trans characters, a fact that is finally being more widely realised.

It cannot be doubted that the representation of the LGBTQ+ community in film still has a lot of progress to make. With the success of films like Moonlight, I truly believe we are moving in the right direction and, through cinema history, we can easily look back to reflect on our past mistakes. It is incredibly important that we do look back and use this history in order to grow. Personally, I can’t wait to see how these narratives progress with so many other untold stories just waiting to play out on the silver screen.