The depiction of the LGBTQ+ community in film has been present almost since the introduction of film into society, but not always in the manner in which it is portrayed today. Due to censorship and varying levels of acceptability, onscreen representation has had a rocky, complicated history, with queer characters, especially gay or transgender women, being utilised primarily for laughs. While such characters were not explicitly stated as queer, common characteristics were noticeable in each film striving to add the aspect of humour, a problematic concept that saw a much-needed change with the release of The Boys in the Band, an American movie released in 1970, widely regarded as revolutionary for the LGBTQ+ community in film.
To comprehend the odious journey of the LGBTQ+ community in film, it is imperative to understand that theatre played a major role in increasing awareness: Broadway plays were highly inclusive, creating room for gay characters, as well as queer actors. The Boys in the Band was adapted from Matt Crowley’s 1968 play, the movie offering a glimpse into the harsh reality of what it means to be gay in New York City, where the term ‘queer’ loosely translated to ‘outsider’. The first film regarded as LGBTQ+ centric is The Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894), otherwise referred to as The Gay Brothers. This short film displayed two men dancing together. Despite not sounding like much, it defied numerous gender conventions of society, aptly summed up by film critic Tyler Parker — “the dance shocked audiences with its subversion of conventional male behaviour.”
The introduction of crossdressing in the 1910s initiated a slew of films with gender-role-reversal-scenarios. It may be noted that the reason for doing so was to integrate comedic action into films, but ironically, it led to the normalisation of crossdressing to some extent. Focusing specifically on the Indian subcontinent, crossdressing was a frequent occurrence, with no strings connecting it to homosexuality or other ‘non-regular’ sexual orientations. Eunuchs, a fundamental part of Indian mythology, further contributed to the acceptance of gender non-conforming expression. Being a patriarchal society, acting roles, whether in theatre or in film, were awarded solely to men, during the first two decades of film. Crossdressing became a normal feature, as women were prevented from doing anything other than housework.
1915 and 1916 saw the consecutive release of two Charlie Chaplin films - A Woman and Behind the Curtain — both highly stereotypical and generalising the ‘behaviour’ of queer men. Charlie Chaplin eventually came out as gay, thus justifying his level of advocacy in comparison to others during such conservative, traditionalist times.
As times progressed, prior to the implication of the Hays Code, Hollywood’s rules that governed filmmaking, in the 40s, 1919 commenced with a breakthrough: Anders als die Anderen (a German film whose title translates to “Different from the Others”) was released, during a precarious time period, and one of the oldest surviving films with a gay protagonist. With German censorship relaxed after the conclusion of World War I, the movie centres on a violinist who commits suicide after getting blackmailed for his sexuality, ending with an appeal for gay tolerance by German gay rights activist Magnus Hirschfeld. Though an extremely debated topic, several scholars refer to Anders als die Anderen as the first LGBTQ+ film, rather than The Dickson Experimental Sound Film.
Playwrights took encouragement from the meagre success of the German film, Broadway broadening its scope to portray gay characters, even if it was solely for the progression of the storyline and add comic relief. Employment in the LGBTQ+ community rose dramatically — artistic expression became the foremost job option for queers. Charles Bryant’s adaptation of gay writer Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name reportedly featured several queer collaborators—namely, bisexual lead actress Alla Nazimova — which drew controversial attention from New York censors for the mere suggestion that two of its male characters may be gay. The unrest was heightened by the fact that several female characters were in fact men in drag.
Thus far, male homosexuality was the prominent factor in terms of homosexual representation, the first lesbian character being featured in Pandora’s Box, a film following a woman whose sexual appeal leads to lust and violence in her proximity, released in 1929. Perhaps taking inspiration from this, Morocco (1930), depicted the leading lady kissing another woman, making actress Marlene Dietrich the first lead actress to kiss another woman on screen. The film caused a stir, inciting yet another explicitly lesbian story to make it to the cinema in 1931: Mädchen in Uniform was groundbreaking, with its portrayal of a young schoolgirl falling in love with one of her female teachers. Despite the efforts of the Nazis to destroy the film due to its queer content and anti-authoritarian themes, it ultimately survived, and reclaimed its titles as the first forthright, openly lesbian story.
With growing affirmation for lesbianism, it can safely be deduced that in the 19th century, and the majority of the 20th century, Hollywood saw its queer characters as nothing but flamboyant laughingstocks. Homosexuality was depicted as a mental illness, rather than a reality, subjugating the LGBTQ+ community to mockery by displaying them in an extremely unkind light.
Indian cinema, at this stage, showed continued confusion to forming an opinion towards the portrayal of homosexual characters on the ‘big screen’. Deepa Mehta was one of the earliest film directors to create a movie that openly dealt with homosexuality. Released in 1996, Fire tells the tale of two women in similar situations, stuck in loveless marriages. Breaking the patriarchal mould, the film unfairly received criticism, claiming that lesbianism was a byproduct of a failed relationship, and not a natural orientation. Following year of homosexual oppression on behalf of heteronormative outlooks, Aligarh became an internationally acclaimed film, starring Manoj Bajpayee and Rajkumar Rao. A simple Google search reveals several Indian films that are pro-LGBTQ, but upon examination, it becomes clear that, similar to the initial queer films in Hollywood, queer individuals are seldom more than jokes.
Reeling the timeline back to the 1940s, Hollywood’s Hays Code was strictly enforced in 1934, officially recognised as the ‘Motion Picture Production Code’, setting stern guidelines for the content produced by U.S. movie studios from 1934 to 1968. One taboo was homosexuality, meaning that any instances of queerness on film had to be carefully coded. Filmmakers took this in stride, and a slew of queer-coded villains began to take the stage. The Hays Code was eventually lifted in 1968, with the termination of the sexual revolution, which left society more open to supposedly ‘vulgar’ topics.
When discussing the representation of the LGBTQ+ community in the modern era, Brokeback Mountain, 2005, was a film audiences were unable to quit watching. The discontinuation of the Hays Code led to numerous drag shows, along with lesbian, gay, and transgender films being released, yet Brokeback Mountain was the first to become a highly appreciated and beloved movie. These days, award shows recognise queer films, producers, actors, and directors – an idea that would have been unimaginable a mere hundred years ago. Yes, there are many films which still perpetuate stereotypes, calling for urgent change, but the progress is undeniable, in the fight for equality and against homophobia and transphobia.
Written by Srijaa Chatterjee
Edited by Thenthamizh SS and Adi Roy
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