When asked to identify prominent LGBTQIA+ representation in media, the average individual has plenty of choices. Back in 1894, when The Dickson Experimental Sound Film showed two men dancing together, this was a shocking “subversion of convention” for audiences of the time. In 1915, traditional gender roles of the time were also subverted for the sake of humor. In A Woman, Charlie Chaplin is transformed into a woman and two men kiss. In 1916, Behind the Curtain showed a parody of an effeminate male was shown. While not flattering, it did bring something different into the world of film. Cecil B. DeMille included two men kissing in his 1922 film, Manslaughter. Five years later, the silent film, Wings, showed a male soldier kissed his dying friend on the mouth. Affection of this sort was common for soldiers but depicting it on screen was not. 1929 film, Pandora’s Box, would show a character identified as the first lesbian in cinema. Marlene Dietrich became the first lead actress to kiss another woman on the lips in Morocco, a film made in 1930.
In 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code would be enforced. From 1934 until 1968, this code prevented a great deal of subjects from being used in film.
Cary Grant’s character in Bringing Up Baby stated, “Because I just went gay,” when asked about a bathrobe. For 1938, this was skirting the Code, which was also referred to as The Hays Code. Writers were forced to find other ways to include non-heterosexual characters into film. According to The Celluloid Closet, these characters would be “coded,” with certain traits, often seen as stereotypes. For instance, in 1941, The Maltese Falcon featured a character who liked perfume and was effeminate. Peter Lorre played this character and brought out these features in a unique way. The script for the film was quite clear about the character but the Hays Code would prevent such clarity in the finished product.
Animation was not exempt from the Hays Code, either. Characters like Bugs Bunny, who appeared in 1940, were censored, as well. The Cookie Carnival, in 1935, Ferdinand the Bull, in 1938, and The Reluctant Dragon in 1941 got around the code by showing characters exhibiting characteristics which were seen as stereotypical by its audience.
Before Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock explored what the Code would refer to as deviance in his 1948 film, Rope. Two men murder their classmate, just to do so. Hitchcock wanted to explore the connection between what he considered gender deviance and crime. The men were seen as gay through this director’s film-based lens, even if they were not stated so.
Sal Mineo would be cited as the first onscreen gay teenager in the 1955 film, Rebel Without a Cause. Before Mineo would reveal his own sexuality, he referred to the character of Plato in the same way.
Homosexual relations were illegal in England and Wales until 1967. The film Victim, set in London in the 1960s is about a blackmail scheme against gay men. The message of Victim, made in 1961, is one which spoke out against the unflattering depiction and defamation of gay people. Dirk Bogarde, a prominent actor, at the time, played the lead gay male in Victims.
Other films like Portrait of Jason and The Killing of Sister George explored very different aspects of gay people. Portrait of Jason dealt with “60s Black Gay Identity” while the latter film included a sex scene between two women. Under the new rating system, this gave film an “X” rating.
The first character to be seen as gay, on television, was on a show in 1964 called The Defenders. In the same year, the film, The Pawnbrokers, had one of the first gay characters in an American film. Television shows like The Asphalt Jungle, The Streets of San Francisco, and Police Woman had LGBTQIA+ characters on their shows but often in unflattering roles. The gay-rights movement of the time began to challenge these depictions. 1963 shows like The Eleventh Hour gave audiences gay characters like Hallie Lambert, but with many problematic characteristics.
In the episode, Judging Books by Covers, Phillip Carey played a professional football player and friend to lead character, Archie Bunker. In this episode of All in the Family, the character Carey played would reveal to Archie, he was gay. This episode, aired in 1971, is referred to as a “landmark” because it marks the first gay character in a primetime television show.
All In The Family would go on to introduce the character of Beverly LaSalle, a drag queen whose life Archie saves by performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on. In the 1977 episode, Edith’s Crisis of Faith, the character is murdered. While, on its surface, this course of action might seem to be fulfilling a trope, it shone a very bright spotlight on the plight of non-heterosexual individuals. This show, along with Archie Bunker’s Place, would often have shows around similar themes in their lineup.
This visibility led to 1972 and the first gay-themed television movie, That Certain Summer. It starred Hal Holbrook as a divorced father in a relationship with another man. It was written by Emmy Award-winning writers, William Link and Richard Levison.
Martin Sheen played the father’s committed partner. In an interview with Dallas Voice, Sheen said, ” I thought it was wonderful. There was a great deal of freedom in it because it wasn’t about advocating a lifestyle or a sexuality. It was about two people who adored each other, and they weren’t allowed to have a relationship that involved their sexuality.”
The film was criticized for its line of, “…if I had a choice, it isn’t something I’d pick for myself,” and for a lack of physical contact or even long gazes. Without this inclusion of another point of view, That Certain Summer would not have been aired. This is said to have been the first time the love between two men was shown as sympathetic, even if they had restrictions.
A 1972 episode of Hawaii Five-O would give audiences a short glimpse of a homosexual act between two men. In Two Doves and Mr. Heron, one character interacts with another in a way which suggests he might be open to a far more physical encounter. The same year, the episode, Didn’t We Meet At A Murder, depicts a gay male who is blackmailed. V for Vashon: The Patriarch, another 1972 episode has a prominent storyline involving two gay men in a one-sided relationship.
1973 was the year An American Family premiered. Aired on PBS, it told the story of the Loud family, one “white middle-class Americans can identify with,” according to The New York Times of the 70s. The show featured Lance Loud, a magazine columnist and performer who is credited as the first continuing character on television who was seen as gay. The show would make later reality television popular.
Shows like Marcus Welby, M.D., Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Pat Collins Show, Sanford and Son, Harry O, Maude, and M*A*S*H would also feature gay characters. While not all were portrayed in the most flattering light, they were not excluded from television life. In the M*A*S*H episode, George, the title character reveals, he’s been the victim of a severe beating after getting drunk and revealing to them he was gay. Almost two decades later, this behavior would be shown to happen on a regular basis within the military.
In 1974, the Lesbian Feminist Liberation organized a sit-in at NBC over the Police Woman episode, Flowers of Evil. In the episode, a lesbian “gang” running a care facility is killing off their patients. The lead tries to persuade one of the members to turn on their girlfriend. Because of the sit-in, NBC agreed not to rerun the episode.
The episode of Police Woman, entitled Flowers of Evil, is available on YouTube.
The television show, Medical Center, featured Brady Bunch actor, Robert Reed as a transgender doctor. This was in 1975. The character and the issues surrounding it were treated with sympathy and surprising compassion. This same show would feature a gay research scientist in the episode, Undercurrent.
The Naked Civil Servant, a 1976 adaptation of Quentin Crisp’s book, was broadcast. Of John Hurt’s performance, The Los Angeles Free Press said, “Dignity is the core of Hurt’s characterization, a dignity that turns every negative situation toward the positive.” The complete film is available on YouTube.
Billy Crystal would portray a gay character on the television series, Soap. The character would be written as having an affair with a prominent, professional football player and contemplating, what was then called a “sex-change operation” in order to be with his love interest. Said football professional was played by 1968 Olympic Gold Medalist and 1972 Olympic Silver Medalist, Bob Seagren. Both characters were portrayed well with Crystal’s character being a man of common sense and an easy-going demeanor. The show spawned a sequel entitled, Benson, which would also feature recurring gay characters.
1981 introduced audiences to Steven Carrington, a character portrayed by Al Corley on Dynasty. In the 1982 episode, The Two Princes, Steven is revealed to be gay. An innocent embrace between himself and his romantic interest results in the other man being killed by Steven’s father. The incident remains a strained point for several seasons. Steven marries a woman, in spite of proclaiming his homosexuality. They have a child. This parental dynamic then becomes the pivot-point for several more seasons with Steven’s fitness to be a parent called into question. Steven is married off to yet another woman before finding a male love interest in Luke Fuller, who is killed in 1985’s fifth season finale The Moldavian Wedding Massacre.
In 1982, an important film by gay screenwriter, Barry Sandler, would introduce a concept few thought about. A married man falls in love with another man. This was not a case of a sudden conversion from heterosexual to homosexual, but a slow realization of one’s own self. Making Love would feature Charlie’s Angels star, Kate Jackson and future Clash of the Titans star, Harry Hamlin. The film was written to be the first mainstream feature to deal with these topics in an attempt to provide “positive role models.” (IndieProd Company Productions)
Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon, and David Bowie would star in The Hunger, which featured the three in a relationship with one another. For 1983, this glimpse into something different made the horror film stand out. 1985 saw Desert Hearts give a lesbian couple a “happy ending,” in terms of how the relationship blossomed and ended.
Also in 1985, a made-for-television movie with Aidan Quinn aired on NBC. An Early Frost dealt with an attorney visiting his family and revealing his sexuality and the fact, he was living with AIDS. Parting Glances, in 1986, had similar subject matter. A television production of the play, As Is, was the first to deal with the AIDS epidemic. It aired in 1986, as well.
Television shows such as Taxi, Hotel, Trapper John, M.D., Hill Street Blues, Too Close for Comfort, and Magnum P.I. all have episodes addressing gay people, drag queens, transvestites, and lesbians. In the episode, Melissa, the lead character of Gimme a Break sets up her boss with someone who is transgender. The surgeries involved in changing one’s gender is also the topic of the 1983 episode, Release of the popular medical drama, St. Elsewhere. The show would have other episodes dealing with the medical aspects facing LGBTQIA+ individuals. Miami Vice would have an episode in 1985 called Evan, in which suicide after being revealed as gay is the topic.
The CBS Schoolbreak Special entitled What If I’m Gay, in 1987, dealt with sexual experimentation between two men and the revelation of its lead possessing gay magazines. The two incidents are intertwined and explored on many levels.
Perhaps one of the most famous instances of gay issues being addressed in the 80s was the episode of Designing Women in 1987 entitled, Killing All The Right People. The Sugarbaker Design firm is asked, by one of its clients, to design a room in which the client will be memorialized. The show would win two Emmy awards for Writing and Editing. The title of the episode came from something writer, Linda Bloodworth overheard in a hospital and incorporated into the script.
Lifetime Companion, in 1989, was the first widely-released project to address the subject of AIDS. It followed a group of gay men through their lives. The title came from a description of a surviving same-sex partner of an AIDS victim written about in a New York Times article.
The restrictions placed on representation of anyone who was not heterosexual were less restrictive in the 1990s. The message of being “other” leading to tragedy, and even death, was also being phased out. Very often, as in the case of Voltron: Legendary Defender, a side character is revealed to be gay, only to have him die much later. Dismissal of these depictions would lead to other aspects of LGBTQIA+ being explored in media.
Paris is Burning, a 1990 film, shone a deserving spotlight on the New York Ballroom culture. Venus Xtravaganza, Willi Ninja, and Pepper Lbeija all spoke about the importance of Harlem drag-ball culture in their interviews. In 1993, Tom Hanks would dispel the myth of gay roles ruining the careers of straight actors by taking the role of a gay lawyer in Philadelphia. Two years later, Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo would take on the roles of three drag queens in To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar. While being a comedy, it confronted heavy issues of discrimination, self-doubt, and coming to terms with one’s self.
1993’s The Living End followed two HIV-positive gay men on a road trip after one kills an offensive police officer. Zero Patience, also released in 1993, was a music about the alleged “patient zero” of the AIDS epidemic. AIDS would dominate film and television representation of gay men for nearly a decade.
Based on a non-fiction book of the same name, And the Band Played On, premiered in 1993. The television-film docudrama about the AIDS/HIV epidemic starred Matthew Modine, Ian McKellen, Lily Tomlin, Donal Logue, B.D. Wong, Phil Collins, Richard Gere, Steve Martin, Swoosie Kurtz, and many other recognizable celebrities. It won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding TV Movie.
Jeffrey, with Patrick Stewart, and The Cure were released in 1995. Both films addressed different aspects of the AIDS epidemic. It’s My Party, in 1996, starred Eric Roberts and Olivia Newton-John, and addressed the issues around a man losing his life to AIDS. All About My Mother, in 1999, won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for this story about a single mother encountering a number of people impacted by AIDS.
Shows like Beverly Hills, 90210, Blossom, Chicago Hope, Empty Nest, and Fallen Angels would go on to have episodes involving LGBTQIA+ people. NYPD: Blue, Roseanne, and Melrose Place all have recurring gay characters with involved storylines running in the background of their shows. Ellen, in 1997, would be the first to feature a lesbian lead character. Also in the 90s, shows like Sex and the City, Felicity, Action, Any Day Now, Beggars and Choosers, Party of Five, and The Practice featured stories involving non-heterosexual characters. Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire-Slayer would feature lead characters who were gay and/or lesbian.
Based on the British television series of the same name, the U.S. version of Queer as Folk began in December of 2000 and ran until 2005. According to Wikipedia, “The series follows the lives of five gay men living in Pittsburgh.” It had the distinction of depicting the first (explicit) sex scene between two men shown on American television. It is also lauded as the first adult television show to focus on LGBTQIA+ individuals in the way it did.
The evolution of LGBTQIA+ characters from the repressive 1930s to the more progressive and inclusive 2000s has been interesting to see unfold in television and film. Representation has been as varied as the group, itself.
Evolution of LGBT+ Cinema and TV
User Review( vote)