LGBT+ cinema throughout the ages has served as a mirror to reflect societal attitudes at different points in history regarding sexuality and gender identity. Looking back at early, silent cinema, transvestitism was used as a mere comic device and any portrayals of supposedly gay characters relied heavily on offensive stereotypes. More recently however, we have seen a slow progression towards the emergence of films which deal sensitively with transgender, gay and bisexual issues.
From 1930 – 1968 existed the Hays Code, a set of censorship guidelines ensuring that Hollywood production companies agreed to avoid ‘indecent’ subject matter, including any romantic relationships which strayed outside the heterosexual mould. Consequently, there is not really any American LGBT+ cinema from the 30s-50s. In fact, it is hard to find anything that can really be described as queer cinema before the French film Un Chant D’Amour in 1950 – an avant-garde and explicit depiction of sexual tension and forbidden love in a men’s prison. Elsewhere in Europe, the German production Different from You and Me also openly dealt with homosexuality, although not in as accepting a way as the former.
With the loosening of the aforementioned production code came The Children’s Hour in 1961, starring Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn. While it deals with a non-heterosexual character, the film’s subtext is still that gay women have no place in society, as signified by the lesbian character’s suicide at the end of the film. In the same year in Britain there was another tentative foray into LGBT+ cinema with Victim, a feature which explored the persecution of gay men. However, at the end of the decade came Midnight Cowboy which openly dealt with the underground gay-sex scene in New York.
Moving into the 70s, when gay individuals were edging towards more societal acceptance, The Boys in the Band (1970) dealt with a group of gay men and their distinct, non-heterosexual lifestyle and community, and served as a genuine attempt from Hollywood film-makers at targeting that gay and bisexual audience. Whether or not this was successful in its representation, the decade also saw gay and bisexual characters in mainstream films including: Sunday Bloody Sunday, Dog Day Afternoon, and La Cage Aux Folles, Furthermore, it is worth noting that the iconic Rocky Horror Picture Show was released in 1975.
The HIV/Aids crisis in the 80s stunted the gradual progress made in the 70s due to the fear of conservative groups and a strong right-wing movement that could boycott anything broaching topics of homosexuality. However, 1986 produced Parting Glances, a film which realistically and sensitively portrayed the experiences of an Aids sufferer and was soon followed by Long Time Companion (1989) which dealt with similar themes.
The 90s saw an explosion of LGBT+ cinema — often consisting of independent and highly artistic productions. 1990 saw the release of the iconic documentary Paris is Burning which focused on drag ball culture and documents the origins of ‘vogueing’. The 90s also saw the birth of ‘New Queer Cinema’, with a stream of films being released which remain influential today, including: My Own Private Idaho, The Adventures of Priscilla; Queen of the Desert, Boys Don’t Cry and But I’m a Cheerleader.
It was in the noughties, however, that LGBT+ cinema broke into the mainstream. Making over 178 million dollars at the box office and winning three academy awards, Brokeback Mountain (2005) was the definition of a commercial and critical success. Three years later Milk, the biographical film of Harvey Milk’s life, was released and was a hit with audiences and critics alike.
Eight years later came one of the most memorable films of modern times: Blue is the Warmest Colour, which shifted the focus onto the female experience of same-sex love. Furthermore, the film reached wider audiences as well as doing well on the festival circuit. Having proved that LGBT cinema could deliver commercial results, directors have in recent years been making art house LGBT cinema, proving that the lives of queer and transgender characters are as fitting a subject for high-art as anyone else’s.
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