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The Evolution of Queer Representation in Film 

In 1970, the mainstream media was shocked and intrigued by the release of the film The Boys in the Band. Based on the play of the same name, the movie received a widely positive reception, beginning to set a standard for a Queer presence, not just on stage or in recording studios, but on the silver screen as well. Despite the early presence of gender-bending and some queer representation in previous films (these portrayals mostly comprised of either blatantly homophobic or just poorly done characters of queer individuals), The Boys in the Band established a new norm. Allowing mainstream audiences to see the lives, the ups and downs, and the struggles of queer individuals rather than stereotypes allowed new doors to be opened up for queer representation on the big screen. Though the film was criticized for its “unhappy and miserable” portrayal of the lives of gay and bisexual men, these doors opened regardless. 

The 1970s were filled with new queer films that were marketed toward the mainstream liberal audience, slowly closing the gap between the mainstream and queer media. Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1971), A Very Natural Thing (1973), Something for Everyone (1970), and my personal favorite from this era of film, Cabaret (1972) starring Alan Cummings as the titular, and ever queer, Emcee role, all contributed to this era of queer identities being depicted in media, without hate or spite behind them. 

The 1980s brought an onslaught of queer representation that was filled to the brim, with white, middle-class men battling AIDS. Though this representation was important, and very necessary in battling the negative reception gay and queer individuals were receiving during this era, it narrowed the already narrow expectation of queer identities, showcasing only the white, wealthy, perspectives of being a queer, male, cis-person during this terrifying time.  

The 1990s film scene both embraced and rejected this cis-white ideal of queerness. With the release of Paris is Burning (1991) which was a rejection of the cis-white norm within queer spaces, showcasing the ins and outs of the ballroom community, and Watermelon Woman (1996) being released shortly after the white-cis-lesbian film Go Fish’s(1994) release almost directly combatted each other, with Watermelon Woman (1996) depicted the life and struggles of a queer black woman. The Bird Cage, also a 1996 release, managed to showcase queerness in both a comedic, and positive light, with two mainstream actors (Nathan Lane and Robin Williams) taking the screen as a married couple attempting to navigate their sons' new relationship while simultaneously attempting to “play-straight”. 

Finally, the 2000s arrived, and again, this cis-white narrative was simultaneously upheld and bashed. In 2005 one of the, arguably, most famous queer films was released - Brokeback Mountain. The two leads, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger produced one of the most heartfelt and honest portrayals of a gay relationship, all while setting the scene in a cowboy aesthetic. The film, while still following the cis-straight rule of representation that mainstream media tends to follow, broke down barriers for queer representation on screen, showcasing that anyone, even cowboys, can be gay. One of my personal favorite queer films to come from this decade is Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) tells the story of a German immigrant living in Kansas, of all places, that has to live with a failed sex reassignment surgery. The film follows the heartbreaking, and impressively musical, story of Hedwig in her journey for love, fame, and self-acceptance. 

Now, in the 2010s and 2020s, the rise of queer media has brought a seemingly never-ending wave of queer representation on screens everywhere. The acceptance of queerness has become so expected that even all pleasing mega corporations (Disney, I’m looking at you) have begun to slip queer representation into their films. Even though queer representation and acceptance still have a very, very, very, long way to go in our mainstream media, and within cultures globally, the films discussed in this article had a great impact on the way queer individuals are viewed. A few of my favorites will be listed below, I hope you enjoy! 

  1. Bottoms (2023)

  2. Drive Away Dolls (2023)

  3. The Haunting of Hill House (2018) (not a movie but still)

  4. Across the Universe (2007)

  5. It: Chapter 2 (2019)

  6. Jennifer’s Body (2009)

  7. The Craft (1996) and Newsies (1992) (neither are technically gay but… c’mon…)

  8. But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)

Written by Lucy Anderson

Photography by Aj Ult

Creative Director: Sophia Querrazzi

Production Manager: Mark Bluemle

Talent: Rain Mercado, Marc Semana, Walker Burdine, Tahj White

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