Once confined to illegal hookups and midnight cruising, queer experiences now stand tall and proud in the light of day, something which is also reflected in the progress that’s been made by LGBTQ cinema.
Predatory stereotypes and full-blown erasure in Hollywood classics like Rope and Silence of the Lambs have mostly given way to more nuanced depictions of our community, complete with three-dimensional characters who aren’t defined purely by their sexuality.
Much has changed in the twenty-five years that have passed since Tom Hanks won an Oscar for "daring" to play gay, but does that mean we’re now living in a golden age of LGBTQ cinema or does Hollywood still have a long way to go?
Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas in Philadelphia.
Back when Philadelphia first found mainstream success, it might have been tempting to suggest the 90s were the true golden age of queer cinema. Sure, LGBTQ films still operated mostly on the fringes, but at least directors like Pedro Almodóvar, Gus Van Sant, and Gregg Araki all fought to shake the establishment, one VHS copy at a time.
However, these films were also held back by a near-obsessive focus on the twin issues of coming out and dying of AIDS. Such problems were a reality for many back then and still are today, but the modern queer films released since strive to represent a more rounded depiction of sexuality.
Just look at the recent success of films like Carol, Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name. From the outside, it certainly seems like queer cinema is the strongest it’s ever been. Never before have queer stories enjoyed positive exposure like this in the mainstream.
Such progress literally came to a head on Sunday when Olivia Colman was crowned Best Actress at the Oscars for playing a character obsessed with cunnilingus of the female persuasion. After all, it’s not every day that a royal lesbian drama ties with a prestige film like Roma for most nominations and Colman's win is certainly one for the history books.
The Favourite wasn’t the only queer film in contention either. Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody and Can You Ever Forgive Me? centered queer characters, suggesting—on the surface at least—that this may have been the queerest awards season yet. Unfortunately, not all of these films represent the LGBTQ community as favorably as one might hope.
Best Picture winner Green Book tries its absolute hardest to sideline Don Shirley’s sexuality throughout, and Bohemian Rhapsody is more interested in selling Queen concert tickets than getting to the core of Freddie Mercury’s experience as a bisexual man living with AIDS.
Although some outlets are celebrating the respective victories of these films at both the Oscars and the box office, it’s also vital we highlight the harmful impact of erasure at this scale—particularly when said erasure is coupled with the demonization of queerness in its entirety.
Unfortunately, even films more widely celebrated by the LGBTQ community can also be problematic. Call Me By Your Name might be one of the most beautiful coming out stories ever told, but whose story is it really telling?
Openly gay director Luca Guadagnino made the curious decision to foreground Elio’s brief experimentation with women while his far more meaningful encounter with Oliver took place almost entirely off-screen. Why is it that most films remain so afraid to explore the realities of queer sex while straight lovemaking scenes are regularly crowbarred unnecessarily into any number of blockbusters?
Just as most people were getting over their love of Elio and Oliver, Love, Simon broke new ground last year as the first studio film to star a gay teen protagonist. Young queer people deserve to see themselves reflected on screen, too, just like their straight counterparts, and the release of this film sent out a vital message, proving that LGBTQ stories can also succeed in the multiplex.
But when are we going to see a diversity of queer people and their stories in film and not just gay white men?
We’re still a long way from seeing equal representation of this nature. Despite the best efforts of films like Rafiki, The Favourite, and A Fantastic Woman, the G in LGBTQ still towers unfairly over the rest of the community, the rainbow flag remains predominantly white, and diverse LGBTQ characters are regularly cut out of Hollywood stories.
Just last year, director JA Bayona edited out the reveal of a character’s queerness from Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom because of "timing issues." And the year before, Marvel didn’t even bother to make excuses when Valkyrie’s bisexuality was erased from Thor: Ragnarok in 2017.
Such erasure is indicative of a wider problem for Hollywood to solve. While TV is paving the way for positive LGBTQ representation, cinema is lagging painfully far behind. Last year, GLAAD revealed that only 12.8 percent of 109 studio films included a queer character—a significant downturn from the year before—and many of these roles were deemed “insufficient” at best.
Audiences might have better access to LGBTQ films than ever before, but we’re still not even close to entering the golden age of queer cinema. Until queer people from all different backgrounds can see their stories play out on screen without being sidelined, demonized, or ignored entirely, the battle is far from over. Unfortunately, not even the occasional Oscar win will be enough to change that.