LGBTQ movies date back as far as the late 1800s, shortly after motion pictures started. How we’re portrayed in those movies is a different story. LGBTQ people were portrayed as villains and depraved. These portrayals still exist today to a lesser degree. It was two movies from the 1970s that showed, a little closer to reality, how gay men lived, in all the dark and gritty detail. These are two LGBTQ movies that helped change cinema history.
Early LGBT Cinema
Some people say that the very first LGBT movie appeared in 1895, the Dickson Experimental Sound Film by William Kennedy Dickson. Or as some have called it, The Gay Brothers. This movie showcased two men dancing hand in hand, though at the time many critics failed to see it as anything other than acting fancifully. Speculations go further in saying that the terms pansy and sissy may have come from this kind of acting in films.
Others say that the first movie would have been Manslaughter(1922) by Cecil B. DeMille. This movie showed Marlene Dietrich kissing another woman on a Moroccan street. During the Great Depression, movie attendance dropped off. Directors started thinking of ways to get viewers to return to the movie houses. What better way than making movies that created a sense of shock, awe, and racy topics. With this one act, directors started including more “pansy” type men, prostitution, and, of course, lesbians.
By 1930 we saw the implementation of the Hays Code. At the time, the government felt that the film industry was not protected under the First Amendment. This simple act forced all LGBT characters to become villains or criminals in movies. Why you may ask? At that time, being gay was still illegal. By this portrayal, it was thought that it would deter this “deviant” behavior.
By 1958 the Hays Act changed to the current version of the Motion Picture Classification system. But the stigma of the Hays Act left an indelible mark on the film industry. We went from being criminals and villains to people that, instead, housed deep emotional trauma. Emotional trauma does happen with LGBT people of that era and still today. The protections we now have were not even dreamed of then. Sodomy laws were still normal in most states and we were still viewed as a sinner that needed changing.
Boys in the Band
By 1970, the first film that helped change LGBT film history, Boys in the Band made its way to cinemas, by way of Broadway. This film was an adaptation of a play by the same name. This was the first movie where the majority of the cast were gay men focusing on their normal day to day lives. It showed us as the flawed people that we are, like everyone else. This film took a unique approach in explaining why gay men felt like outsiders. It showed gay men as deeply unhappy as a result of homophobic repression.
Homophobic repression describes how living “in the closet” can affect us, both, psychologically and socially. In this movie, we see it in the way that the main character. Michael, asks his friends to butch it up when an old school mate, Allen, decides to drop by while in town. Allen has a distaste for gay men that are effeminate or too emotional. The movie is about Michael hosting a birthday for a long time friend, Howard, with whom he has a love-hate relationship.
As the night progresses and alcohol flows, we watch the characters descend into darkness. Their chiding of each other becoming darker and meaner. This movie even shows how gay men, at the time, have their caste system that based on skin color and how you lived. This is evident by how the group treats a sex worker, a hustler, they hired as a gift for Howard.
If you prefer, Boys in the Band got an updated remake starring Jim Parson, from Big Bang Theory, as Michael. You can check it out on Netflix.
Some Of My Best Friends Are…
The last movie that, I feel, changed how LGBT characters are viewed in movies is, Some of My Best Friends Are. This movie also deals with LGBTQ people living in New York in the 70s. On Christmas Eve 1971, both lesbians and gay men meet at a mob-owned bar called The Blue Jay Bar, to ring in the holiday. We see a bit of a back story of the major characters involved that show various types of lifestyles. It shows a wealthy, older gay man involved with a younger kept boy, a married man trying to come to terms with his sexuality while having a relationship with a gay man, a frustrated clergyman looking for a relationship, and yes, drag queens.
The Blue Jay Bar is the type of gay bar that I remember when I first came out, a place that felt safe and secure. It was a place where the patrons felt like they could be who they are without judgment from others. What the movie shows us is that even in our safe places there can be open hostility, sometimes from our very own community.
The cast includes actors from that era but two stand out, among them. First is Fannie Flagg who wrote Fried Green Tomatoes. She also acted in the movie adaptation of her book, as well as Grease and the Wonder Woman TV series. The second celebrity that many will know is Rue McClanahan. We all know her as the sexy senior with a quick wit from Golden Girls.
The Reality Of LGBT Life Shown In Cinema
These are two of my favorite early LGBT films, because of how they showcase the reality of LGBT people, at the time. We get to see, in vivid color, how hard life can be for LGBT people. It reminds us of how we had to hide who we were to stay safe in a world that is easier for our straight peers. It allows us to see our darker sides so that we can recognize and grow from them. It’s also entertaining to see how life can be at times and how we all have our coping mechanisms to get by.
If you haven’t seen these two movies, I recommend checking them out. You can buy Boys in the Band here. You can watch Some Of My Friends Are on Amazon Prime here. I do not get any endorsement from you watching or purchasing these movies. So, don’t feel any pressure to click the link other than your curiosity to watch them.