AFTER STONEWALL: THE EVOLUTION OF THE GAY MALE CHARACTER IN AMERICAN CINEMA
By: M. West
In the Beginning: The Stonewall Riots
• Location: the bar of the Stonewall Inn, located in Greenwich Village, New York • The event: 8 police officers enter the bar at the Stonewall Inn on the night of June 27, 1969 – 7 in street clothes, only one in uniform • The officers raid the bar for selling liquor without a license and begin arresting anyone in drag for “indecency” • No one knows what exactly prompted the fighting that ensued but riots broke out that lasted several days
New York Post June 28, 1967
New York Times June 29, 1969
New York Times June 30, 1969
New York Times July 3, 1969
After the Riots
• Riots marked by many as the beginning of the gay liberation movement • And prompted a transition in the role of the homosexual male in American media
American Cinema in the 1970’s: Coming Out and In Your Face
• • Due to the relative freedom from persecution by police and censors gained by the notoriety and resulting gay liberation movement of the Stonewall Riots, the American cinema embraced many homosexual male characters in the 1970’s From the stereotypically gay characters in the famed 1970 movie “Boys in the Band”, to the 1974 debut of the comedy/crime drama “Freebie and the Bean”, to the 1976 release of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show”, the American public was assaulted with flamboyant, neurotic, and sometimes just plain scary images of the gay male However, a new image was emerging – the homosexual male as a “normal” human facing all of the trials and tribulations that heterosexual males face Or example, in the 1974 film, “A Very Natural Thing”, we followed the life of a homosexual man as he teaches in public school by day and looks for love in gay bars by night. We watch as he flounders through the dating game and eventually commits himself to another man. Then, they face all of the same rituals and challenges that a “traditional” heterosexual couple must face. This image of gay men facing all of the same challenges as the “normal” heterosexual people was strongly reinforced by the 1978 documentary “Gay USA” which focuses on the events surrounding the gay rights movement and features footage of on-the-street interviews with gay men and women discussion topics such as coming out, dealing with their lovers, and their families’ reactions to their life choices.
The 1980’s: The Reagan Era and the AIDS Epidemic Change the Cinematic Roles of the Gay Male
• • • After 12 years of newly realized sexual freedom, the discovery of the newly discovered disease AIDS decimating the homosexual population prompted a dramatic change in the cinematic gay male persona Fearing this new disease, some cinematic producers reverted to the portrayal of homosexual males as murderers and maniacs in movies like “Cruising” (1980) and “Partners” (1982) In “Cruising” (1980) a gay music student turned serial killer is stalked through an underworld of gay leather bars and kinky sex by an undercover police officer. This movie also played on the heterosexual fear of being homosexual as the cop struggled with his own sexuality. “Partners” (1982), a gay-themed cop movie, saw the Los Angeles gay community suffering from a series of horrific murders. So, the LA police department sent two of their own undercover into the local gay community. However – here is the twist – one of the policemen is straight and the other is “in the closet”. The movie had a decidedly homophobic bent to the dialogue and implied one of the great fears of the heterosexual male of the era – gay men cannot be trusted to work with straight men without falling in love. However, a change was on the horizon…..
Change is in the Air…
• As the American people began to learn more about HIV and AIDS, they started to more fully understand that it was not only a homosexual disease, but that it affected everyone. • So, once again, the producers of American cinema began making films depicting gay men not as the bad guys, but as victims themselves and normal people just like everyone else. • “Making Love”, which opened in 1982, depicted the struggle of a married man trying to come to terms with his homosexuality and the repercussions of admitting it to his wife. This movie closely mirrored the struggles of any marriage in which adultery occurs. • With the ground-breaking movie, “The Times of Harvey Milk” (1984), American film producers captured the essence of the struggle of the homosexual male in American politics. The movie followed the career of famed San Francisco politician Harvey Milk and the dangers that being openly gay brought him (he was assassinated in the end). It also brought to the forefront of the American moviegoer mind the strife faced by homosexuals.
’80’s Movies and Documentaries Breaking Down Barriers
• In 1985, filmmaker Lucy Winer produced a documentary called “Silent Pioneers”, which highlighted the homosexual relationships of elderly gay men and lesbian women which have withstood the tests of time and prejudice. This film furthered the battle to show heterosexuals that the relationships of gay men and women are as durable and fulfilling as those of heterosexual couples. • The next year also saw the release of a movie called “Parting Glances” which portrayed very realistic gay urbanites facing the challenges of living openly gay in the ultra conservative Ronald Regan Era and at the height of the impact of the AIDS epidemic on the gay community. • Then, in 1989, yet another ground breaking semi-documentary called “Tongues Untied” was released. This movie depicted struggle with prejudice by the gay black man not only in the straight white community but within the straight black community as well; illustrating that prejudice does not only follow racial lines.
The Early 1990’s: The “Outing” of the Extent of America’s Prejudice
• The early 1990’s were a eye-opening time for the average American movie-goer. • With films like the documentary, “Paris is Burning” (1990), the American people were allowed to see into the lives of the often poor, African American and Latino gay and transgendered people who participated in New York’s drag balls. It chronicled their fight against racism, homophobia, poverty, and their struggle to gain acceptance and validation from the rest of the world. • Subsequently, with the release of “Philadelphia” in 1993, the American public was confronted with their own prejudice against not only gay people, but people with AIDS. This movie also reminded people that gay men are not so very different from themselves and that they should shirk their preconceived notions and give them the same chance at life that everyone else gets.
The Mid and Late ’90’s: Using Comedy to Turn the Tables
• During the middle and late 1990’s, American movie producers changed venues once again • In order to reach a wider viewing audience, they hired popular actors to portray gay men and created more comically inspired movies (so called “safe movies”) • Movies like “The Birdcage” (1996) and “In & Out” (1997) used comedy to bring the struggles facing gay men in modern American society. • These films were widely accepted by the American public because of their relative “safety” and intentional comic over exaggeration of the gay male stereotype (especially those found in the film “The Birdcage”). These factors did not make the viewer uncomfortable like the “in-your-face” documentaries and dramas of the past but made the gay characters both more approachable and more familiar
The 2000’s: An Era of Healing and Acceptance
• In 2000 and 2001, movies like “Big Eden”, “Common Ground”, and “Trembling before G-d” portrayed the gay male’s endeavors to reconcile his lifestyle not only with those around him, but with himself. Moreover, these movies illustrated the dilemmas that occur when one’s sexual preference goes against one’s faith and/or upbringing. • 2004 found filmmakers once again focusing on the struggle of the gay black man with the release of movies like “Brother to Brother” and “De-Lovely” both of which show the trials and tribulations which gay black men of notoriety had to face. • Finally, in 2006, the widely lauded “Brokeback Mountain” hit American theaters depicting two cowboys finding their sexuality together and following them through several decades and one of their untimely deaths. This movie was groundbreaking in not only the amount of revenue it brought in, but in the compassion that it engendered for the struggles of homosexual men.
A Final Note from the Author….
• This presentation lists but a small portion of the American made movies portraying homosexual males and if you are interested in finding a list of more films on the subjects mentioned here, type into your internet address bar: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_lesbian%2 C_gay%2C_bisexual_or_transgenderrelated_films_by_year • And remember: …media shapes us as we shape it, it impacts not only our mental images of others – but of ourselves……