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A short history of LGBTQ+ cinema

Over the last century, film and TV have become a huge part of our culture and a vital medium for entertainment and telling stories. While not always obvious, the stories of queer and trans people have always been a part of the history of cinema, but the evolution of LGBTQ+ representation has been a long and complicated one. While always present, gay characters were often misrepresented or, particularly in the early days of Hollywood, had their queerness coded so it wasn’t explicitly stated.

While there are too many ground-breaking films and characters to put on one list, we’ve picked out a few key moments in LGBTQ+ cinema history to celebrate Pride Month and take a look back at the evolution of LGBTQ+ representation in film over the years. From when gay characters were mere punchlines to queer-coded Disney villains and on to Oscar-winning LGBTQ+ films like Moonlight, LGBTQ+ stories have come a long way and are at last beginning to be shown on screen in a real and celebratory way. 


The Hays Code and Queer-Coding 

What is queer-coding? 

To understand the context of LGBTQ+ cinema, we need to remember that while the LGBTQ+ community has always existed, it has largely been considered outside the “status quo”, periodically being made illegal which forced the queer community to live in secret. This bled over into cinema, with the 1930s Hays Code (or the Motion Picture Production Code) forbidding explicit depictions of homosexuality on film for more than 30 years. Before this point there were a few instances of explicit depictions of LGBTQ+ stories on film (we’ll get into a few of these later on), but after this code was brought into force, telling LGBTQ+ stories and presenting queer characters openly became much harder.  

Of course, this didn’t stop queer characters from appearing on film, but they could never be marked as explicitly gay, their queerness only ever hinted at, i.e. “queer-coding.” 

Queer-coding is when LGBTQ+ stereotypes and tropes are used to hint at a character’s sexuality, but it’s never explicitly confirmed. Once you’re aware of this practice, you’ll spot these characters everywhere. From Faith in Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, they’ll pop up in everything from Disney films to daytime dramas.  

While queer-coding meant LGBTQ+ characters could still exist in film, queer-coding has a complicated and difficult history. In many ways the tropes used to identify these characters reinforce stereotypes, and in others they were used to villainise the community. Prime examples of this are Disney villains like Scar in Lion King and Jafar in Aladdin, who were used to “reinforce assumptions that anyone who deviates from gender norms must be wicked” (The Take). The fact that these villains were used in films intended for children as well as adults makes this theme even more sinister.  

The Take did a great video explaining queer-coding, take a look: 

  

Thankfully, the Hays Code was lifted in 1968, which meant film could once again tell queer stories without having to hide anything in the shadows. These days we’re seeing more openly gay characters who aren’t just a punchline or stereotyped (an example being the flamboyant gay best friend in every rom-com), nor are their stories purely tragic, but instead are celebratory and as romantic and complex as any other character – TV shows like It’s a Sin, Brooklyn 99 and Sex Education are perfect illustrations of this. Queer-coded characters still exist to tease the LGBTQ+ audience with hints of romance without their sexuality ever being confirmed, but this isn’t the only way queer characters can exist on film anymore.  

Now that you know about the existence of queer coding in film, do any other titles not here spring to mind? Can anyone say Top Gun...? They seemed like more than just wingmen if you ask us... 

So, with this context in mind about the history of LGBTQ+ characters on film, let’s get into some key moments in LGBTQ+ cinema and how representation has changed over the decades.  


Significant milestones in LGBTQ+ cinema 

The Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894) 

 

Often referred to as The Gay Brothers, this short film has been deemed as one of the first depictions of same-sex imagery on screen. It is only a few seconds long as was made as an experiment, and was a very early (or perhaps the first) attempt to synchronize sound and moving images. It’s telling that even this early on in film history, depictions of men being intimate was used, though all they do is dance closely while another man plays violin – but for the standards of the day this was seen as a subversion of classic male roles.  


A Woman (1915) 

Charlie Chaplin’s film A Woman shows the famous comedian dressed as a woman to toy with two men’s affections, eventually tricking them into kissing each other. This is a perfect example of how many queer characters were represented even before the Hays Code came into place – as a comedic punchline. This trope continued even through the days of the Hays Code in films like Some Like It Hot (1959), a comedy starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.  


Anders als die Anderen (1919)  

 

During a brief period where German censorship was relaxed after World War I, this film is an early example of a story with an openly gay protagonist and was seen as an appeal for gay rights and tolerance. The title translates to “Different From the Other,” and follows a gay violinist who takes his life after being blackmailed by someone who knew about his sexual orientation in a time where being homosexual was still illegal in Germany, as well as much of the world. While tragic, this film showed a more sympathetic gay character for the time.  


Pandora’s Box (1929) 

 

In Pandora’s Box there is perhaps the first explicitly lesbian character in the Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), who is shown as an admirer of the film’s protagonist, Lulu (Louise Brooks). Rather than being hinted at, the Countess’ romantic love for the sensual Lulu is made very clear and was groundbreaking for the time. This lesbian subplot was soon followed in 1931 by Mädchen in Uniform, which is considered the first explicitly lesbian movie where a young lesbian’s interests in women is at the core of the film. Despite the Nazi’s later attempts to destroy all copies of Mädchen in Uniform, it has managed to survive.   


Morocco (1930) 

 

In this 1930 romantic drama, a cabaret singer played by bisexual actress Marlene Dietrich kisses a woman on the lips while dressed in men’s suit and top hat. While this was not the first gay kiss on the silver screen (this was in Manslaughter, 1922) it was the first time a lead actress kissed another woman on screen. It was Dietrich who suggested the kiss, and her who managed to get into the final cut and avoid censorship by cleverly taking a flower from the woman before kissing her, then giving the flower to Gary Cooper, who played the leading love interest, making its inclusion necessary for the scene to make sense. This is a great example of how queer actors and directors tried to find loopholes around censorship and sneak LGBTQ+ representation into films, even if these depictions are small and fleeting.  


1934: The Hays Code comes into force making depictions of homosexuality illegal, using the justification that "if motion pictures present stories that will affect lives for the better, they can become the most powerful force for the improvement of mankind". It was based on these three core principles:  

- No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin. 
- Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented. 
- Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.1 

As well as homosexuality, the code also prohibited: 

  • nudity 

  • suggestive dances 

  • blasphemy 

  • the ridicule of religion 

  • illegal drug use 

  • venereal disease 

  • interracial relationships 

  • childbirth 

  • detailed depiction of crime (to prevent imitation): This included acts of violence but also lockpicking, safe-cracking, or the mixing of chemicals to make explosives. 

  • Any word stronger than “damn” 

However, the Hays Code didn’t totally erase homosexuals from film – instead, queer-coding came into play with concealed queer characters. Sometimes, as in Morocco, this was innocent and positive for the community. On other occasions, it was harmful and demonised queer people and traits associated with the queer community while never openly confirming these insinuations.  


Rebecca (1940) 

 

Rebecca is significant as it marks a clear example of a queer-coded villain in film. Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca’s former housekeeper, shows a clear and obsessive romantic attachment to the late Rebecca, and proves a highly disturbing and dangerous villain in this atmospheric Hitchcock film. Hitchcock played with this theme in several more of his films, including Psycho (1960), which sees Norman Bates cross-dressing as his mother, and Rope (1948), which follows the story of two men (who are portrayed as gay, although it’s never confirmed in the script) who murder someone for the fun of it – to name a few! You can read more about queer-coding in Hitchcock films in this great MysteryTribute article where they delve further into the subject.  


Rebel Without a Cause (1955) 

 

Not only was Rebel Without a Cause a huge box office hit, but it also features an obvious, coded gay subtext between the rebellious Jim Stark (played by James Dean, who was also supposedly bisexual), and Plato, who was played by Sal Mineo, one of the first big Hollywood actors to openly admit to being gay. In fact, Mineo later referred to Plato as the first gay teenager on film. The film also featured a bisexual director in Nicholas Ray, who encouraged Dean to channel his own bisexuality in intimate scenes with Mineo. While nothing was explicitly said or done in Rebel Without a Cause, anyone watching today can clearly see the LGBTQ+ themes and queer-coding which runs throughout.  


Victim (1961) 

 

Based in 1960s London, Victim was a stand-out film which openly criticised homophobia in Britain, where homosexuality was still illegal and remained so until 1967. It follows a closeted gay lawyer, played by Dirk Bogarde, who picks up the case of a gay man who is being blackmailed for his homosexuality and uncovers a ring of other gay men who are also being blackmailed. It was the first English-speaking film to use the term ‘homosexual’ and explores the struggles queer people would go through at the time and the lengths they were forced to go to conceal their sexuality, from paying off blackmailers to committing suicide rather than be outed.  

In a similar vein, in The Children’s Hour (1961), Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine play two teachers accused of being in a lesbian relationship by a student with a grudge. While this isn’t true, the rumour results in the suicide of one of the teachers who was in fact a lesbian. Here we can see the theme which started with Anders als die Anderen where queer characters aren’t just used for comedic effect but for tragic and unjust plotlines. However, this becomes a queer trope in itself, the “tragic gay ending” becoming a stereotype which is also problematic as it deprives gay characters of any kind of happy ending on film.  


1968: The Hays Code is lifted and replaced with the new Motion Picture Association film rating (MPAA).  


The Killing of Sister George (1968) 

 

Within months of the Hays Code being lifted, The Killing of Sister George was released and featured the first lesbian sex scene. It was rated ‘X’ for its depiction of an actress, June, who spends her spare time drinking, smoking cigars and sleeping with her younger female lover, Alice. The film also shows the couple at a lesbian nightclub, and Alice engaged in sex with another queer character, network producer Mrs. Croft. While the film was explicit in its queerness, none of the lesbian characters are portrayed sympathetically or positively – though they were at least more complex than some other depictions, but would still be considered highly problematic today.  


June 1969: The Stonewall Riots took place in New York City following a police raid at the Stonewall Inn. The unjust raid at the well-known gay hotspot sparked three days of riots and unrest from the LGBTQ+ community, frustrated with police brutality. It is because of this riot that June is Pride Month to commemorate this key moment in LGBTQ+ history.  


The Boys in the Band (1970) 

 

Originating as an Off-Broadway play (and recently remade by Netflix), The Boys in the Band gave an unprecedented depiction of multiple gay characters and their friendship group’s complex dynamics and relationships. It’s based at a birthday party in New York attended by a close-knit group of gay men, but when a straight friend (who doesn’t know the host is gay) unexpectedly arrives, old tensions bubble to the surface of the group as the host tries to conceal his sexuality. Showing multiple and varied gay characters from a gay perspective in this intimate, personal setting was huge at the time, and the fact that the film has been remade for modern audiences shows how necessary the story still is today. 


Dog Day Afternoon (1975) 

 

Based on a real crime, Dog Day Afternoon follows the story of a man attempting to pay for his partner’s gender affirmation surgery by robbing a bank. Chris Sarandon, a cisgender actor, even got an Oscar nomination for his role as trans woman Leon. While this was one of the first mainstream trans film characters to appear on the big screen, this also became part of the now widely criticised issue of cis actors receiving awards and acclamations for playing trans roles, the issue with this trend being that these roles are not only taken from trans actors who already might struggle to get work, but also that it distorts the image of trans men and women, and can even incite violence against the trans community.  


The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) 

rocky horror picture show

 

There was no way this one could be left off the list... Nothing encapsulates queer camp quite like the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show in which a naïve and straight-laced couple stumble upon a wonderfully weird and gothic castle inhabited by some remarkable characters. Murder, cannibalism, hedonism and music dominate the castle, presided over by the seductive, pansexual trans scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry). While Rocky Horror arguably shows homosexuality in a negative light, the film was embraced by the LGBTQ+ community and the wider public alike. Intentionally over-the-top, dramatic and hilarious, queer camp has always been a huge part of LGBTQ+ culture, making Rocky Horror a highly celebrated queer romp and a cult hit for the community which poked fun at queer cinema tropes in excessive fashion.  


Making Love (1982)  

making love 1982

 

While there were still many instances of queer characters being vilified on film, gay screenwriter Barry Sandler tried to combat this in Making Love. In the film, the main protagonist is a happily married to a woman, but has been struggling for some time with his attraction to men and falls in love with an openly gay man. Although still complex, the film shows gay characters in a more realistic and romantic light and avoids the usual doom and gloom endings seen previously in LGBTQ+ cinema.  

Making Love was followed a few years later with Desert Hales (1985), which gives a similarly happy ending to a lesbian couple, adding some joyful queer stories to the mainstream media.  


Parting Glances (1986) 

parting glances 1986

 

It would be remiss not to mention the huge impact of AIDs on the LGBTQ+ community in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The illness was widely misunderstood and associated with the community, even becoming known as the “Gay Disease”. This did huge damage to the community, not only to public view of the LGBTQ+ community, but also the thousands of gay men who didn’t receive proper care and treatment and died from the disease.  

Parting Glances was a key illustration of the crisis in film. The story revolves around two men in their late 20s living together in a romantic relationship, and deals with the subject of AIDs and its impact on the gay community frankly, realistically and warmly, humanising those with AIDs rather than demonising them. Parting Glances was directed by Bill Sherwood, a first-time director and gay man himself, who sadly died of AIDs before he could make more to LGBTQ+ cinema. 


Orlando (1992) 

orlando cate blanchett

 

During a burst of independent films from gay directors, a new movement of “New Queer Cinema” came about in the early 1990s. Within this trend was Orlando, a subversive and stunning adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s original novel about an androgynous young nobleman in Elizabethan England who is granted a large castle and land by the late Queen Elizabeth I. Orlando was told by the Queen not to grow old, so he doesn’t, and lives for centuries in his castle, and later magically wakes up transformed into a woman. The gender-bending film, directed by Sally Potter, is artfully tinted with gender and queer politics and is an often overlooked addition to queer cinema.  


The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) 

priscilla queen of the desert

 

This Australian, arthouse comedy follows the stories of two drag queens and a trans woman who drive across the Australian desert in order to perform a drag show. It’s joyful and funny, showing queer drag culture in all its vibrancy while also touching on the emotional stories of the lead trio, without ever drifting too far into melancholy. The film was a surprise hit and brought drag into the mainstream of cinema with dry, camp humour.  


Brokeback Mountain (2005) 

brokeback mountain

 

Brokeback Mountain was another box office smash hit in 2005. Directed by Ang Lee, the film is an intimate and openly gay love story between two cowboys who have had a secret romance for many years. The film won three Oscars, and thanks to its success, both critically and in mainstream Hollywood, it was proven that LGBTQ+ stories weren’t just for the niche market but the wider population too. It was also a breakthrough in portraying the sexual side of a gay relationship in a romantic light, showing sex scenes rather than just alluding to them. 


Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) 

blue is the warmest color

 

This coming-of-age drama won the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, and received BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations. It follows a young woman who discovers herself through a close, sexual relationship with a female art student she meets in a lesbian bar. However, despite the critical acclaim, the film was also seen as highly problematic. Some queer critics considered it voyeuristic and rife with male gaze, fetishising lesbian relationships for male viewers with a graphic, seven-minute long sex scene between the two women, reenforced by the fact the female love story was directed by a man, Abdellatif Kechiche, who was also accused of creating awful shooting conditions for the cast, making it a bittersweet and controversial addition to queer cinema.  


Tangerine (2015) 

tangerine 2015

 

2015 was a pretty great year for queer cinema, with Carol also hitting the big screen abnd Cate Blanchett nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role along with numerous other nominations for the romantic lesbian period drama. However, it’s Tangerine which truly stands out due to its leading characters of multiple trans women of colour, who were played by trans actors of colour rather than the cast being whitewashed or having cis-actors play the roles.  


Moonlight (2016) 

moonlight 2016

 

Telling the story of a young Black gay man coming to grips with his identity from childhood to adulthood, this tender coming-of-age drama made history as the first LGBTQ+ film and the first film with an all-Black cast to win Best Picture in 2017 for its stunning cinematography, inclusivity and groundbreaking script.  


Rafiki (2018) 

rafiki 2018

 

From the director Wanuri Kahui, Rafiki depicts a lesbian love story set in Nairobi, where homosexuality is still illegal and punishable with up to 14 years in prison. Due to this, the film was banned in Kenya, although this ban was later temporarily lifted for just seven days after Kahui sued the Kenya Film Classification. After being screened for these seven days, Rafiki qualified for Oscar consideration, and was the first Kenyan film at Cannes Film Festival. The setting of Nairobi makes Rafiki a significant and risk-taking film as it depicts a love story of young, queer women of colour in a place where it’s forbidden.  


Love, Simon (2018) 

 

Love, Simon is another recent release which has been celebrated by both queer and straight audiences alike. Adapted from the hit Young Adult novel Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, the film is in many ways a classic coming-of-age drama about a closeted young teen called Simon (Nick Robinson) who comes out online to an anonymous friend, only for a fellow student at his school blackmail to him about his sexuality. However, far from bringing him down, the blackmail helps Simon accept and embrace his identity with the love and support from his friends, making it a feel-good, positive celebration of sexual identity which is proud, defiant, heart-warming and relatable, especially for young audiences who might be dealing with similar teenage identity crisis's themselves.  

Simon’s relationship with his father especially (played by Josh Duhamel) makes this film seem different, as his father at first struggles with Simon’s news but quickly accepts his son for who he is, and wants to support him so much he suggests joining Grindr together (mistakenly thinking it’s just a social media site...) This shows a refreshing change from the classic coming out narrative, and we loved it! 


Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) 

portrait of a lady on fire

 

This French historical romantic drama from Céline Sciamma, who also directed Tomboy in 2011, is a great example of how far LGBTQ+ films have come from just 2013. While Blue is the Warmest Colour was criticised for fetishizing the female body and lesbian relationships, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is praised for its use of the female gaze, complex female characters and intimate, genuine storytelling of a lesbian relationship. Sciamma wanted to focus on the eroticism of consent, and this shines through the direct and beautiful film which defies many of the classic tropes queer cinema has been trying to shed for decades.  


princess bubblegum and marceline kiss

 

Along with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, 2019 was a huge year for LGBTQ+ cinema with many more inclusive films and more gay characters than ever before on screen – however, there is still work to be done to show more gay characters of colour as the majority was still white queer characters, as well as transgender characters.  

Fast forward to 2021 and we’re seeing some positive gains. Films like Love, Simon show coming out of the closet in high school as a positive experience rather than something to fear, and many more recent LGBTQ+ films have an emphasis on pride rather than tragedy. We’ve even started to see LGBTQ+ characters in mainstream children’s entertainment like The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021), as well as cartoons like Adventure Time and Steven Universe showing clear romantic same-sex relationships. Similarly, Disney+’s Loki, set to release this June, has also confirmed that Loki is gender-fluid. Although this is still a continuation of Disney’s willingness to portray villains as queer, it’s at least a villain we love and with more complex motives than previously – and their gender fluidity is explicitly stated rather than just hinted at.  

Hopefully these small wins are a positive sign that even children’s television and films are becoming more willing and eager to include LGBTQ+ characters and stories without fearing it could jeopardise profits, which means we’ll see more inclusive stories at the cinema and on our tellys.  

Big shout out to Stacker’s article on the history of LGBTQ+ representation in film which has an extensive list of significant LGBTQ+ films and is also a great read if you want to find out even more about LGBTQ+ cinema and its progression. If you found this article interesting, check out Freesat’s own top picks of LGBTQ+ TV and film to see if your favourites are on the list!  


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