Historical and Legal Contexts 

Lynne Stahl

As this chapter’s title suggests, the history of LGBTQ+ film and media is bound up with social and political constraints that have consistently limited the expression and representation of non-normative genders and sexualities. Restrictions notwithstanding, all sorts of gender and sexual diversity have found ways to make themselves legible since cinema’s early days.

Film’s Beginnings through the Hays Code

The cover of the Motion Picture Production Code.

In the 1930s, the Motion Picture Production Code, often called the Hays Code, established “moral guidelines” to which films produced for public consumption must adhere. These guidelines prohibited or restricted the depiction of subject matter such as profanity, drug trafficking, religious effrontery, and childbirth scenes; a motion picture was not to “lowe[r] the moral standards of those who see it” (qtd. in Leff & Simmons, 2001, p. 270). But before the Code, films featured more homosexual content than one might expect, e.g. Harry Beaumont’s The Broadway Melody (1929) and Cecil B. DeMille’s the Sign of the Cross (1932).

Pre-Code depictions of gay and lesbian characters were often caricatured and insulting: mincing, dissolute men and unflatteringly mannish women. These stereotyped conceptions of homosexuality reflect the era’s prevailing notions of “inversion”—the idea that queerness equated to femininity in a male body or vice versa: in sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s words, “the masculine soul, heaving in the female bosom” (1906, p. 399). Though these stereotypes persist today and have been explored in such venues as David Thorpe’s Do I Sound Gay? (2014), queer and feminist theory have helped dispel the assumption that biological sex (male/female) is inherently connected to gender (masculine/feminine), or indeed that there are only two of either.

Poverty stopped many from attending movies when the Great Depression hit, so filmmakers tried shock-value tactics to lure audiences. These tactics encompassed controversial material ranging from unprecedented violence to sexual “perversion,” including homosexual characters (Benshoff & Griffin, 2006). Partially in response to this trend, Will Hays, then president of the MPPDA (now MPAA) banned all gay male characters in film in 1933 (Doherty, 1999). Representations of homosexuality were barred under the ban on “sex perversion or any inference of it” (qtd. in Lewis, 2002, p. 304); depictions of interracial relationships were also proscribed.

Just because the Code forbade queer content doesn’t mean none existed, however. Think of the “pink elephant” game, where the objective is not to think about pink elephants. If one knows something is not supposed to be present, one often becomes especially attuned to the possibility of its presence; censorship is notoriously ineffective way at enforcing silence on a topic. Further, censorship often begets interpretive tendencies that seek out subtexts whose direct expression has been foreclosed—tendencies Chon Noriega has called “reading against the grain” (1990, p. 20).

McCarthyism and Onward

The Code’s later years dovetailed with the Red Scare of the 1950s and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist smear campaigns. Josh Howard’s documentary The Lavender Scare (2017) explores the wave of homophobia that arose in conjunction with the Red Scare; it entailed extreme scrutiny, including firings and other forms of discrimination against individuals suspected of same-sex inclinations. Homosexuality was viewed as dangerously subversive and associated with Communist activity—a huge stigma during the Cold War years.

Still, film depictions of queer men and occasionally women proliferated during this time. Due in part to the Hays Code’s proscription on positive portrayals of “perversion,” these characters were often villainous and/or mentally ill. Indeed, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual listed homosexuality as a mental illness until 1973 and renamed gender identity disorder as gender dysphoria only in 2013, so it’s unsurprising that depictions of queer characters have frequently conformed to prevailing popular and medical opinion. Queerness and psychological disturbance remain linked in productions such as Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), Sonny Mallhi’s The Roommate (2011), and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Killing Eve (2018-).

Post-Code Film and Television

Vito Russo, author of The Celluloid Closet and co-founder of GLAAD.

The 1960s saw pushes for civil rights and freedom of expression in many walks of life. Uncoincidentally, the Hays Code was finally laid to rest in 1968. Having proven unpopular and largely unenforceable, it was replaced by the precursor to the current MPAA rating system: G (general audiences), M (mature), R (restricted), and X (under 16 not admitted). PG (parental guidance suggested), PG-13 (parental-guidance suggested for those under 13) and NC-17 (under 17 not admitted, replacing “X”) were added later.

As Vito Russo’s book The Celluloid Closet (adapted into a 1995 documentary by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman) points out, same-sex representations historically have a much lower threshold for obscenity than do those of heterosexual relations. That is, a man kissing another man has been in a film has been treated as much more “obscene”—i.e., likelier to incur an R rating—by the MPAA and other stakeholders than a man kissing a woman has been.

Free Expression: Then and Now

The first United States Supreme Court case to address homosexuality in terms of free speech was One, Inc. v. Olesen in 1958. In it, the Court ruled that neutral or positive homosexual content was not inherently obscene. The case had major implications for the media industry, as productions with LGBTQ content or themes could not be instantly labeled as pornography even if they flouted the constrictions of the Comstock laws or other “moral” strictures that had historically mandated negative depictions.

Progressive changes in the portrayal of LGBTQ individuals, communities, and issues across media owe much to the continued activism of many groups, from local to international. In 1985, Vito Russo and Jewelle Gomez, among others, founded the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (now simply called “GLAAD” so as not to erase constituents who identify in ways other than gay or lesbian) in response to negative media coverage of the AIDS crisis. GLAAD promotes inclusive, non-pathologizing language—e.g. successfully lobbying The New York Times, the Associated Press, and other outlets to drop “homosexual” in favor of “gay” in 1987. GLAAD also hosts a media awards ceremony each year and compiles indexes related to LGBTQ+ representation in mainstream film, plus an annual report addressing the inclusion of LGBTQ+ elements in television.

Underground and Experimental Film

Filmmaker Barbara Hammer

Contemporaneous legal and cultural restrictions notwithstanding, a gay underground cinema arose with iconoclastic independent filmmakers such as Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger. Warhol’s Blow Job (1964) consists of a single long take—implicitly of the face of a man on whom another man is performing oral sex. Anger, who worked with sexologist Alfred Kinsey, made experimental films with homoerotic undertones (and sometimes overtones). Fireworks (1947), which features a group of muscular male sailors with a range of sexually suggestive imagery, led to obscenity charges against a distributor who screened it. A theater manager who screened Anger’s Scorpio Rising in 1963 faced similar charges. in both cases, the charges were dismissed.

Though born in Hollywood, lesbian filmmaker Barbara Hammer spurned the mainstream. She directed the groundbreaking Dyketactics in 1973—a four-minute short that consists primarily of fragmented, non-linear imagines of naked women walking around the outdoors. The later Nitrate Kisses (1992), funded partially by the National Endowment for the Arts, features intimate footage of various “deviant” couples; a thread related to author Willa Cather and her rumored lesbianism; and the victimization of lesbians in Nazi Germany. Unprecedented and avant-garde as Hammer’s style was, she has met criticism from within the feminist community for her association of female bodies with fruit, trees, and other natural images that some view as complicit with the heteropatriarchal construction of women as passive, flowery, and fertile.