They say you always remember your first time. This is especially true of movies. The first time I went to the theaters (Return of the Jedi), the first R rated movie I saw (Purple Rain), and the first time I saw nudity in a film (Airplane!) are just some of the things I remember. However, when it comes to queer characters it is a little more difficult.
(I am not counting the overly effeminate male characters Hollywood used to love to trot out in the 1950s and 60s. Here is the cliff notes version: movie studios were brave enough to mock homosexuality but did not have the courage to have those characters declare they were gay. This was also an era when being a man’s man was more important than finishing school.)
The first openly gay character I remember seeing was not even in movies. Billy Crystal in Soap is the first on screen gay character I recall. Jodie Dallas was a stereotype to be sure, but the show never seemed to be making fun of the character or the community. He was just a man that happened to be gay. Of course, he also ended up marrying a woman and when the show was cancelled believed he believed he was a 90 year old Jewish man.
It was not until years later that I saw a movie with an openly gay character. Starring Rivers Phoenix, My Own Private Idaho initially sounds like it is going to be another movie in which the queer character is a devious villain. The fact that Phoenix plays a narcoleptic street hustler only seems to validate that fact. The movie actually ends up being a touching story about a young man trying to find love. It is a typical story of love, loss, and jealousy. The only difference is the story involves one man’s love for another man.
The early 1990s saw the birth of the New Queer Cinema movement in Hollywood. Films like The Living End and documentaries like Paris is Burning treated homosexuality in a more honest and less patronizing manner. This was supposed to extend to mainstream Hollywood, but it never seem to lead to more than just more token gay characters. (This was more of an issue on television than movies.) It was not until about a decade later that I saw a movie that stood out for the story it told.
When I think of movies that paint the LGBTQ+ community in a positive light, I think of 2001’s Mulholland Drive. In Mulholland Drive, David Lynch captures the love between Naomi Watts and Laura Harring beautifully. They are simply two people in love with each other. It is never stated in the story the two are lesbians. It does not have to be since the gender does not even matter. Lynch’s stories have always been very sexual, but here more than any of his other movies (with the possible exception of Wild at Heart) you see two people in deeply in love.
Even though Philadelphia proved in 1993 that audiences would be willing to see a movie about a gay man who was not crazy or a villain, mainstream Hollywood still took a while to catch up. There has been much more representation in recent years. Even better, these were not token queer characters or those obviously added just to meet some internal quota. Characters like Amy from 2019’s Booksmart show that studios are open to the idea of having characters that just happen to be gay.
I have plenty of memories when it comes to movies. Unfortunately, my earliest memories of LGBQ+ characters are not the most flattering. I saw straight men pretending to be gay and was led to believe that every queer person was suicidal or homicidal. Once Hollywood was willing to tackle the subject of homosexuality, it was through a magnifying glass that focused on the worst aspects of being gay. These movies were important, but it also made it seem like being a member of the LGBTQ+ community was horrible.
Things have changed for the better in recent years. There are romantic comedies, legal dramas, and horror movies that prominently feature queer characters. They are no longer background or token characters included just to show inclusivity. Best of all, they do not have grandiose problems that make their lives endlessly difficult. They are just people in a movie. Hopefully, we are reaching a time when seeing an LGBTQ+ character is not memorable, it just is.
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