Hollywood has had something of a turbulent relationship with the LGBTQ+ community. While we have largely moved away from the unhelpful, demeaning, uber-camp depictions that were still common just a decade or so ago, for the most part, LGBTQ+ representation in movies is surface-level. There are gay characters, but the real-life struggles they face appear to be glossed over or barely acknowledged.
However, we all know popular culture and media can be a key tool in continuing to highlight prevalent issues. With that said, which movies, exactly, have leaned away from Hollywood’s stereotypical depictions of LGBTQ+ relationships? What offerings dig a little deeper and seek to provide a more meaningful representation? Where do we still need to make improvements?
It’s a white heteronormative myth that our 21st-century world is a place that is safe to be from a minority group. That violence and prejudice are mostly relegated to the past. We hang onto these comfortable yet inaccurate ideals, and Hollywood perpetuates this progressive illusion by serving up safe, middle-class, caucasian LGBTQ+ characters to audiences.
Yet to ignore the problems of marginalized communities beyond those with which we are familiar is to fail to understand how discrimination truly impacts a variety of lives. One of the most moving LGBTQ+ centric movies in recent years is Moonlight (2016). It follows the Afro-Cuban character, Chiron (played by Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and Alex Hibbert), largely focusing on his formative years in Miami. The filmmakers committed to a story that shows how homosexual discrimination has a detrimental impact the character’s life from an early age, compounded by the tension of a childhood surrounded by poverty and drug dealing, and coupled with abuse from both his mother and his peers.
Often, when LGBTQ+ struggle is depicted on screen, it is the big, scary battles such as the HIV/AIDS crisis in Philadelphia (1993) and Dallas Buyers Club (2013). It is rare that movies provide us with real insight into the day-to-day issues that people continue to face. There remain serious systemic hurdles to overcome to live the same way that heterosexual couples enjoy. For example, the Fair Housing Act in the U.S. seeks to prevent housing discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and national origin among others. Yet, there are some states in which this isn’t applied with regard to sexual orientation. These issues might not be theatrical, but they can affect lives in dramatic ways.
It’s difficult to argue against the idea that there is an age bias in Hollywood in general; it rarely shows us the truth of aging. This also extends to depictions of LGBTQ+ relationships on screen. For the most part, filmmakers appear to have a tendency to lean toward couples that meet a saleable aesthetic — young and conventionally attractive — that does a disservice to the rich, varied, strong relationships that form the basis of the community.
Love is Strange (2014) is a French-American movie that seeks to tell a story of how an older, gay couple in a long-term relationship cope when faced with adversity. After 39 years together, the characters of Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) get married, and as a direct result, George is fired from his position as a music teacher in a Catholic school, leading to the pair becoming homeless. The movie shows how this all too common prejudice (one still considered acceptable in many places) affects couples of all generations.
Similarly, A Secret Love (2020) is a documentary that explores how Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel navigated prejudice and discrimination, having to keep their relationship secret for almost 70 years. The documentary covers the lengths they went to disguise their love from even their own families, insisting to the world that they only shared an apartment due to high rent prices. The prevalent discrimination that often forces couples to conceal their truth also often prevents them from accessing valuable sources of assistance as they get older. LGBTQ+ seniors already tend to have reduced access to care and struggle with paying for health costs. Our society is still not often supportive of these couples’ needs as they age.
It’s awful that in 2020, we still need to so frequently reiterate the fact, but trans rights are human rights. Unfortunately, whether due to a lack of education or transphobia, even those who purport to be progressive still struggle to see how their actions and opinions are discriminatory toward those in the trans community. We only need to look to JK Rowling’s repeated insulting remarks, and clumsy attempts to defend her apparent transphobia to see how mired in discrimination the issue is.
In the last couple of decades, there have been some attempts at the serious exploration of the lives of those who are genderqueer. The Danish Girl (2015) is loosely based on the life of Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne), her experiences as a trans woman in the 1920s, and her eventual gender reassignment surgery. Boys Don’t Cry (1999) is a dramatization of the trans man Brandon Teena’s life (as played by Hillary Swank), and the struggles he faced living as a man in a system that insists that he was a woman because he was born with female genitalia.
It’s also problematic that both of these movies featured actors who are not trans. The casting of cisgender actors in trans roles is rightly, controversial, and passes high-profile opportunities for LGBTQ+ actors onto people who have no direct relationship to the subject matter. In fact, in a 2018 interview with GQ, Redmayne questioned whether — despite learning a lot about trans life and meeting people in the trans community, if accepting the role was the right thing to do.
While films that feature LGBTQ+ characters and explore related themes are becoming more common, they don’t always explore as deeply as they should. It is important for studios to produce media that depicts the day-to-day struggles and rich relationships in the same way they have for heterosexual characters. By also investing in LGBTQ+ filmmakers to lead productions, we can continue the important work of creating honest, accurate, and enriching representations in movies.