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A Brief History of LGBTQ+ Cinema

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Film and television have been looked to not only as entertainment, but as a means of bonding over specific cultures. Cisgender heterosexual people were always depicted on-screen without question. It was viewed as normalcy that hadn’t a need to be censored or restricted. As such, stories and series in cinema history have revolved around conventional and conservative family units that promoted them as the ideal standard in civilizations. Major studios were hesitant to share the stories of LGBTQIA+ people and began to rely on “queer-coding” methods to convey ideas that certain characters could be non-heterosexual without having to explicitly mention queer themes. Certain traits, stereotypes, and allusions were key indicators that a specific character was not to be perceived as “straight.”

Queer themes emerged in film over time as they were not as buried beneath exposition as before. However, per Stacker, the Hays Code attempted to rid LGBTQ+ stories and characters from film, which only presented a challenge to determined filmmakers. An unwavering and resounding requirement for LGBTQ+ concepts to make their way into mainstream entertainment arose from those who had a desire to see their own realities on the big screen. Efforts to bring every aspect of life to the movies warranted a call to action to fight for LGBTQ+ rights in the motion picture industry. The Hays Code was removed, and the restriction being lifted was instrumental to the future of LGBTQ+ cinema. Forward progression towards a state of being moderately unregulated could not have been made without the history of queer representation in cinema.

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LGBTQ+ people have always been present in cinema and have sprouted a subgenre dedicated to such. The Dickson Experimental Sound Film was alternatively known as The Gay Brothers. This film was the first to take the steps towards on-screen representation as it was the pioneer in cinematic same-gender attraction. In its title, The Dickson Experimental Sound Film was indeed an experimental film. The few seconds of footage launched an everlasting need for queer representation in film. Other early examples of queer filmmaking stood can be reflected upon more bold plotlines that have been approached through the beginnings of film as an art form. A Woman presented actor Charlie Chaplin in drag and featured a scene where two men share a kiss. Censorship in Germany subsided following the first World War and permitted LGBTQ+ imagery to appear in foreign releases.

Anders als die Anderen was an international LGBTQ+ film that labored for LGBTQ+ rights and was considered to be a form of activism. Anders als die Anderen was released when same-gender attraction was still considered to be a violation of the law and cautioned filmgoers about the consequences of homophobic oppression. Pandora’s Box and Morocco brought about sapphic affection in film for the first time in the 1930s through both lesbian and bisexual characters. Queer-coded villains have been a recurring trope in cinema, but found their beginnings in Rebecca. Rebel Without a Cause platformed both LGBTQIA+ characters and cast. Sal Maneo came out as gay, and it was heavily alleged that James Dean was bisexual. Rebel Without a Cause director Nicholas Ray identified as bisexual and channeled it into his filmmaking.

Victim was a commentary piece on the homophobic attitudes rampant in London and elaborated on the oppression against LGBTQIA+ individuals through a cinematic sense, and Portrait of Jason featured the experience of queer people of color. Funeral Parade of Roses took a daring leap into Tokyo’s LGBTQIA+ community while highlighting the conversation around trans youth. The niche subgenre and specific stylization associated with LGBTQIA+ communities, “camp,” was first introduced through Pink Flamingos. Camp was ultimately championed by The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The cult classic has now been recognized as a celebrated icon in LGBTQIA+ cinema. Parting Glances was the first cinematic release that called attention to the ongoing AIDS crisis and emphasized the importance of paying attention to the epidemic.

Related: Here’s How Some Like It Hot Affected the LGBTQ+ Community

The 21st Century has been more generous towards open and transparent depictions of LGBTQ+ points of view that stretch over historical eras. New Queer Cinema refers to the cinematic genre founded by B. Ruby Rich in the 1990s. The genre was most prominently used by American filmmakers that created independent work to embrace the rise of independent filmmaking. New Queer Cinema was a direct response to the censorship from Hollywood and the blatant aversion to centering film around queerness. Those who were willing to reject the boundaries of LGBTQIA+ inclusion in blockbuster films opted to understand the truths of non-heterosexual experiences. This new genre would remove itself from associating with gay cinema that would choose to focus only on white, gay men. New Queer Cinema pushes for the removal of censorship around LGBTQIA+ representation in media and normalized identities under the queer umbrella. Films categorized under the genre are determined to speak on gender expression, social class, and race relations. New Queer Cinema has been viewed as a momentous push for reintroducing queer protagonists and relationships into commonplace cinema as a centerpiece. Despite their “underground” and lesser-known statuses, New Queer Cinema films have been able to earn the industry praise that they deserve.

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