2014 is shaping up to be a banner year for LGBT representation. I may not call it the New Queer Television, for reasons I outlined just a few weeks ago, but it’s still worth pausing on the number of shows and films that feature LGBT characters and storylines. From the seductive allegory of Stranger by the Lake and the real-life story of Pride to the quaint marital drama of Love is Strange, from the San Francisco boys of HBO’s Looking and the family at the heart of Transparent to the various women at Litchfield in Orange is the New Black, LGBTQA* folks have been handsomely represented this year. Expand the field, and you find funny dramedy The Skeleton Twins (with Bill Hader offering a nuanced performance far from his Stefon caricature), The Circle (focused on the eponymous gay publication in 1940s Zurich), 52 Tuesdays (about a mother’s gender transition), Lilting (which focuses on gay grief), Yves St Laurent & Saint Laurent (two films focused on the fame designer), and Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. Even when not at the center of their shows/films, LGBT characters made an impression; think of Dr Alvar in Jane the Virgin, Ronny in the McCarthy’s, Kenji in Red Band Society or Dorian Gray in Penny Dreadful (Film, as GLAAD’s latest report shows, is still far behind). Of course, these representations have not come without its attendant issues; Jared Leto may have won an Oscar this year for playing a trans character in Dallas Buyers Club but character and portrayal (let alone the press thereafter) garnered plenty of ire and criticism from a community that continues to be represented through the eyes (both behind and in front of the camera) of straight artists; How to Get Away with Murder may feature a gay series regular, but the constant bottom-shaming courtesy of Jack Falahee’s Connor has been widely discussed, while Oscar hopeful The Imitation Game found itself dodging necessary questions about the downplayed issue of Alan Turing’s homosexuality.
Thus, while we continue to make strides, there are plenty of hurdles as we aim for equitable (if not for that solely positive) representations. The debate over what and how gets represents continues to be a stalemate between those (like GLAAD) who’d like for all representations of LGBT characters to be positive ones (the argument being that for too long these characters have been vilified and better representations will inevitably lead to more awareness and more inclusive tolerance) and those who acknowledge the pitfalls of negative representations, but who understand how closely issues of the sort can veer into censorship. I’ve said it before when discussing Looking, we don’t need better representation; we just need more of it as to avoid putting the burden of representation in every single LGBT character in mainstream fare.
This got me thinking about the various ways LGBT characters are depicted on screen. To do this, I narrowed by purview by focusing on gay men. This was motivated by the way gay men continue to be the most visible members of the LGBT community when it comes to mainstream fare and thus have been at the center of many of the breakthrough films that get cited as representative of the community at large. Note, for example, how 9 out of the top 10 films in AfterElton’s Top 100 Greatest Gay Movies are centered on gay men with the sole outlier being The Rocky Horror Picture Show which still leaves lesbians and transexuals very much outside of the conversation altogether.
And so I set about creating a montage of the various ways LGBT characters are represented by mainstream fare.
Gay Men on Screen: A Place for Us (Supercut) from Manuel Betancourt on Vimeo.
A couple of things to note:
– We’re still back in Vito Russo’s world; the many categories represented in the montage date back to his breakthrough book and film The Celluloid Closet, from the mincing queen, to the villainous queer, from the sex-crazed homo to the AIDS victim.
– So many white men! This is indicative of the current state of representation: as GLAAD notes, 76% of LGBT characters in mainstream films in 2013 were white, while of the 65 LGBT regular and recurring characters on broadcast networks in the 2013-14 season, 26% are people of color. These are rather troubling numbers even as they index larger racial biases in the industry. That said, I welcome suggestions as to what key films/shows were left out, especially in terms of depicting a more diverse slate (I wasn’t trying to be exhaustive but it’s always helpful to identify my own inadvertent blind spots).
– While a number of out actors are represented here (Ian McKellen, Jim Parsons, Jonathan Groff, Andrew Rannells, Nathan Lane, Sean Hayes, Rupert Everett, Ben Whishaw), most of the higher profile performances come from straight actors (from Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Matt Damon, Sean Penn, Jim Carrey, and Ewan McGregor — who has three films throughout the piece!)
– The same could be said about the people behind the cameras. Ang Lee, Jonathan Demme, Alfred Hitchcock, Mike Nichols, Sam Mendes, Steven Soderbergh and Baz Luhrmann may be amply represented but a number of out directors and writers (Bill Condon, Todd Haynes, Ryan Murphy, John Cameron Mitchell, Xavier Dolan, Pedro Almodóvar, Tony Kushner, Greg Araki, Gus Van Sant, Andrew Haigh, among others) make up a significant portion of the montage.
– There are close to 90 films and television shows represented, from The Maltese Falcon (1941) to American Horror Story: Freakshow (2014), with key films making a requisite appearance (Milk, Brokeback Mountain, Velvet Goldmine, In & Out, Rent, Angels in America, The Normal Heart, Six Feet Under, Brothers & Sisters and Looking).