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Winning sexual freedom for gays in the movies

This article is over 16 years, 5 months old
As the new film Brokeback Mountain wins plaudits, Colin Wilson looks at the representation of gay people in the movies
Issue 1982

There have been gay films since the very first movies were made — and their history has often been connected with broader social and political struggles.

In 1919, as revolution brought down the German monarchy, gay campaigners made Different from the Others. It’s the fictional story of a gay man and pleads for tolerance and legal equality. After the Nazis took power in 1933, they banned this and similar films.

Things were little better in the golden age of Hollywood. Hollywood studios adopted the Hayes code — named after Will Hayes, film industry head and former chair of the Republican party.

The code said, “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it.” Kisses could last no longer than 1½ seconds and interracial relationships were banned, as was homosexuality.

In the 1960s, as gays took their first steps towards campaigning for equality, the silence was broken.

In 1961 Dirk Bogarde starred in Victim. This film showed that because gay sex was illegal, gay men were targets for blackmailers. It’s grim stuff, as is The Children’s Hour, the story of two teachers accused of being lesbians — one teacher hangs herself.

These films paved the way for a transformation in how gays were shown on film.

The 1970s saw cinema influenced by radical politics such as the black power and anti-war movements. Major directors and stars were involved in films which portrayed homosexuality. Joe Orton’s comedy Entertaining Mr Sloane saw amoral Mr Sloane seduce a brother and sister.

In Sunday Bloody Sunday young artist Murray Head has relationships with both Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson.

Death in Venice is a slow, beautiful account of an elderly writer’s infatuation with a teenage boy. Cabaret delights in sexual non-conformity, as does The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Despite the homophobia of the Tory governments elected after 1979, in the 1980s and 1990s gay characters continued to appear in British films. My Beautiful Laundrette showed actual snogging (which was new) in the political context of the multi-racial inner city.

Maurice was given the period drama Merchant-Ivory treatment. By 1994 a gay couple was included in Four Weddings and a Funeral, which is about as mainstream as you can get.

US cinema also continued to deal with gay themes. Kiss of the Spider Woman examined the relationship of a straight revolutionary and a drag queen imprisoned in the same cell. Gay prostitution mixed with Shakespeare’s Henry IV in My Own Private Idaho.

The homophobic and racist days of the 1950s were examined in the recent melodrama Far from Heaven.

Less widely distributed films like Go Fish gained a cult following.

A huge number of films are now being made — the annual London Lesbian and Gay Film festival showed 61 films this year to an audience of 2,500 — see

Yet the record of the Hollywood studios, the big US directors and stars, remains pitiful.

The publicity machine ensures that not a single major star is openly gay. Hollywood’s track record in the last 20 years consists of one film.

Philadelphia, a movie about Aids, was only made in 1993, by which time 200,000 Americans had died of the disease. Squeaky-clean Tom Hanks plays a gay man who at no point even kisses his lover.

So, Brokeback Mountain seems a fine film, but it’s long overdue. And will it herald more lesbian and gay lives portrayed in Hollywood movies? Or openly gay stars? I’m not holding my breath.

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