As art imitates life, LGBTQ history can be viewed through the stories chosen to be told for mass audiences and their place in the popular conscience. Many films reflect the times and places that produced them, but they are all notable for advancing LGBTQ rights by documenting cultural shifts through steadily improving technical and artistic means.
1920s: Early Pioneers
The Wings (1916) and Michael (1924) are both German silent-film adaptations of the novel Mikaël by gay Dutch novelist Herman Bang, that features a romantic same-gender teacher-pupil relationship. They are most likely the first queer films ever made.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Germany was pioneering the pro-LGBTQ rights movement. The Scientific-Humanitarian Committee was the first LGBTQ-rights organization in history, founded in 1897 and based in Germany with more than 500 registered members at its peak.
Members of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee also worked at the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (the Institute for Sexual and Sexuality Studies), the first pro-LGBTQ institute to be founded with the intention of promoting tolerance and helping queer individuals in their lives. Both organizations were founded and run by Magnus Hirschfeld, an openly gay German sexologist who, apart from being an LGBTQ-rights pioneer, is the person who coined the term “transsexualism.” The clinic also offered the world’s first hormone therapy and gender-reassignment surgery.
1930s: Changes in Ideology
Mädchen in Uniform (1931) is a German adaptation of a popular play whose lesbian themes were toned down for the film in order to appease the right-leaning factions that were spreading throughout Germany as Hitler rose to power.
Call Her Savage (1934) is an American drama that is regarded as an important “pre-Code” film. It is one of the first films to include explicitly LGBTQ characters on screen, including a scene at a gay bar.
As the Nazi Party gained control in Germany during this period, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee was shut down and the Institute for Sexual and Sexuality Studies was ransacked by the Nazis, who burned its books and repossessed the building.
Meanwhile in the U.S., Will H. Hays, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, became the first chairman of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). This group created the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code) to impose censorship guidelines on the American film industry. It was strictly enforced from 1934 to 1968 and it banned nudity, profanity, miscegenation, and, of course, any “sexual deviance and perversion,” which at the time included any allusion to LGBTQ identity.
1940s: Cinematography and Censorship
Rope (1948) is an Alfred Hitchcock classic thriller based on the 1929 play of the same name. Both were heavily inspired by the Leopold and Loeb murder case that was popularized not only because of the cruel nature of the murder, but also because the two men behind it were confirmed to have been lovers.
With the Hays Code heavily enforced, censorship forever changed the way LGBTQ identities and queer desire would be presented in film. Hitchcock wished to adhere to the original play as closely as possible, so he developed a variety of cinematographic techniques (such as long takes and subtextual storytelling) to bypass the censorship of the times. These techniques were so unique and well-crafted that they still shape cinematography and queer storytelling to this day.
1950s: Reality vs. Fiction
LGBTQ pioneer Christine Jorgensen was the first transgender woman to undergo a successful gender-reassignment surgery. Upon her return to the U.S. from her surgery in Denmark in the early 1950s, her story was front-page news and she became an international celebrity overnight.
French actress and signer Coccinelle was also making headlines in Europe by becoming one of the first transgender movie stars, and an international sex symbol known for her showgirl persona.
The popularization of these stories occurred during the peak of the Golden Age of cinema as the “blonde bombshell” of the ‘30s was making a comeback, but now with the opportunity for a queer twist.
Some Like It Hot (1959) is known for Marilyn Monroe’s performance as Sugar, but with gender-bending romances for the three leads. It’s easy to see how the public’s curiosity about gender and sexuality influenced the making of this film.
Even bolder than the queer-themed Hollywood classics, exploitation films such as Glen or Glenda (1953), directed by B-movie legend Ed Wood, explicitly hoped to gain attention by piggybacking on the popularity of Christine Jorgensen and Coccinelle.
1960s: Social Movements
The Children’s Hour (1961) was the second adaptation of the original play and real-life legal case about two female school teachers whose lives unravel due to an allegation that they were engaged in a lesbian relationship. The Hays Code was still in place, so scenes were deleted to hide the fact that the two women’s relationship was not simply platonic. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards.
Midnight Cowboy (1969) was released post-Hays Code enforcement, and prominently featured sexuality and sexual encounters between men. The film won three Academy Awards—the only X-rated film to have ever won Best Picture.
Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) is a Japanese film starring the out actor Peter, and tells the story of the underground queer and transgender communities in Japan at the time.
Post-Occupation Japan led to radical cultural changes and an era of sexual liberation and exploration. Out queer writers like Yukio Mishima, Mari Mori, and Nobuko Yoshiya, who were known for their sexually explicit work featuring homosexual or bisexual characters, became household names as their works found an audience in the newly liberated Japanese society. While many Western cultures might not associate Japan with sexual liberation, their social movements had a far-reaching impact on LGBTQ representation in film and television that laid the foundations for queer themes and representation on-screen.
1970s: Queer Liberation
While the 1960s were known for its radical social movements, the 1970s actually began the new era of cinema. Fresh off the demise of the Hays Code, which stopped being enforced in 1968, the 1970s ushered in a whole new era of sexual liberation in film.
The Boys in the Band (1970) took the world by storm as the first film to sympathetically and realistically portray LGBTQ characters.
Cabaret (1972), another film with a queer protagonist, was hailed by Armisted Maupin (in the Celluloid Closet) as the first film to “really celebrate homosexuality.”
Following the 1969 Stonewall Riots, the LGBTQ+ community received a lot more visibility in the media and in society. The first Pride parade was held in New York City on the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, and the first rainbow Pride flag was designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978. Additionally, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of psychiatric disorders in 1973, a long-overdue step forward in reducing the misinformation and prejudice surrounding LGBTQ identities.
1980s: Stepping into the Spotlight
The AIDS crisis was ravaging LGBTQ communities while massive sweeps of conservative political thought were being seen around the world, with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher being the chief conservative voices.
Before Stonewall (1984), The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (1984), Liberace: Behind the Music (1988), Personal Best (1982), and Mishima: Life in Four Chapters (1985) are all examples of critically acclaimed nonfiction on-screen portrayals of LGBTQ communities and individuals.
Both realism and fiction were in high demand, with queer play and novel adaptations becoming more popular than ever, as well as biopics and documentaries centered around LGBTQ individuals.
1990s: New Queer Cinema
While American queer cinema had previously focused on white male homosexual Americans, the ’90s brought more diversity to the forefront of queer cinema.
Paris Is Burning (1990) the quintessential ball-culture documentary that changed mainstream LGBTQ culture forever, was received with universal critical acclaim and furthered the voices of queer individuals, particularly those of color.
New Queer Cinema was the term coined by B. Ruby Rich to describe the thematic similarities of the increasing number of LGBTQ films that came about in this period.
My Own Private Idaho (1991) helped bring New Queer Cinema to mainstream audiences. Many mainstream films featured LGBTQ protagonists, with the roles played by either well-known actors or unknowns who were launched into stardom. Some notable examples include The Birdcage; Boys Don’t Cry; Philadelphia; and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.
2000s: Representation Matters
Queer fiction classics were finally being adapted to the big screen, and this tradition of adapting popular LGBTQ novels led to universally acclaimed classics.
The Hours (2002), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Transamerica (2005), Milk (2008), A Single Man (2009) all received widespread critical success, and were either nominated for or won several Academy Awards. Critics and audiences alike were now being exposed to explicitly queer characters and storylines in the high-art cinema circuits.
With the slew of highly regarded queer films, and other media beginning to feature more LGBTQ characters than perhaps ever before, the impact of positive representation became apparent. Although coming-out stories are now a-dime-a-dozen in LGBTQ media, they were revolutionary at the turn of the 21st century, and it was through these stories that many queer individuals found the encouragement to explore and openly share their identities.
2010s: A Rise in New Voices
Moonlight (2016) made history by winning the coveted Best Picture award at the Oscars. Black queer men were at the forefront of cinema for the first time, although the disparity in intersectional representation is far from over. Still, Moonlight’s win offered the spotlight to a historically sidelined group within the queer community.
As many parts of the world have experienced a gradual expansion of LGBTQ civil rights in the last decade, art remains one of the most effective ways to garner societal support.
Rafiki (2018) is the first Kenyan film to ever be screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Homosexuality remains criminalized in Kenya, and the film has been banned from its home country. It was allowed a limited screening in Nairobi in order to qualify for submission to the Academy Awards. The film was screened there to a sold-out audience.
The Handmaiden (2016) was not only a powerful statement on female sexuality in South Korea, but also a critically acclaimed lesbian love story in a country experiencing a new wave of feminist thought.
The Dawn of a New Decade: What Do We Hope for the Future?
By moving away from one-dimensional queer characters and simple coming-out narratives, the future of queer films should be able to focus on bringing more intersectional queer voices to the forefront. A variety of LGBTQ+ actors, writers, directors, and producers have yet to have their moment in the spotlight. With the female-led Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) closing out the last decade and The Half of It (2020) featuring queer women of color both in front of and behind the camera, we can hope for the new decade to bring forth filmmakers eager to develop topics, identities, and stories that have yet to be explored and celebrated in the way they deserve to be.