Photo: LGBTQ+ Talent in Front of and Behind the Camera
Late Monday night last week, I decided to openly come out as queer. It’s something I sort of always knew, and perhaps took a bit for granted, but the decision was still monumental for me personally. I have always viewed sexuality and gender identity as somewhat of a spectrum, which is why I am resistant to the use of any real labels to define myself and my preferences (and thus use the term “queer” as a catch-all), but I do think that finally acknowledging that aspect of myself publicly and out loud was really helpful for me.
I grew up in a relatively repressive environment in Missouri, so there weren’t many openly gay role models around for me to look up to, with the exception of fellow St. Louisan and talk show host Andy Cohen, who I met at a football game once during my adolescence.
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LGBTQ+ Talent – Seeking Out Queer Films and Filmmakers
In coming to terms with this new reality, I wanted to seek out art that was made by creators of my sexual orientation, but I was, unfortunately, let down by a lack of options. I had already seen Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name,” which, while a great film in its own right, featured straight actors portraying gay characters (like Timothee Chalamet, who gave a powerhouse performance, but still felt as if he was stepping on toes by taking a role that should have been given to an openly queer actor). Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia” mainstreamed important discussions of homophobia as it pertained to the ongoing AIDS epidemic, but was directed by a straight man and featured straight actors Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in the lead roles.
The Matthew McConaughey-starring Oscar darling “Dallas Buyers Club” and Sidney Lumet’s Al Pacino vehicle “Dog Day Afternoon” were two other films I had seen and appreciated previously, (the latter in particular is one of my favorite films of all-time) but these films still featured cisgender male actors playing real-life transgender people. A-Listers Jared Leto, Eddie Redmayne (star of “The Danish Girl”), and Scarlett Johansson have all come under fire from various rights groups for taking away prominent transgender roles from trans people, with Leto and Redmayne both receiving Academy Award nominations (with Leto winning for “Dallas Buyers Club”) for their performances. Johansson even ultimately had to step down from her role in “Rub and Tug,” a biopic about a trans man from Pittsburgh named Dante “Tex” Gill, due to the overwhelmingly negative press she received from that casting, as well as her previous controversial role in 2017’s “Ghost in the Shell” remake, in which she played a whitewashed Asian character.
With the exception of “Moonlight,” the 2017 Best Picture winner that featured queer actors Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes as the lead character Chiron, almost all of the LGBTQ+ films I had seen up until this point had an uncomfortable element of performativity, where some of, if not all, the talent involved was not necessarily in-tune with the lived experiences of queer people. Even that film was directed by Barry Jenkins, who is in a heterosexual relationship with Lulu Wang, the director of the bilingual, Awkwafina-starring indie hit “The Farewell”. This conversation has extended on social media, with many accusing Hollywood of “gayface,” or portraying gay characters with straight actors, comparing it to acts of minstrelsy.
Of all the films I just named, the only one that wasn’t helmed by a straight director was “Call Me By Your Name,” as Luca Guadagnino is an open and proud gay man. But even with this film, there were uncomfortable elements present, as the age gap between the main characters seemed to reinforce negative connotations about the “healthiness” of gay relationships (not to mention that the film is borderline unwatchable now, given the recent sexual misconduct allegations against Chalamet’s co-star Armie Hammer). Even Ellen DeGeneres, the television star who more or less mainstreamed homosexuality for wide audiences in the ‘90s and ‘00s (a woman I greatly admired for much of my life), was accused of troubling abusive behavior on the set of her talk show in 2020, thus making her a more controversial figure in the LGBTQ+ community.
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It’s not as if there have been no films or television that have featured queer people before in positive contexts. Programs like “Will and Grace,” “Looking,” and more recently Dan Levy’s “Schitt’s Creek” and Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You,” have been incredibly successful and groundbreaking at discussing these kinds of issues with frankness and humor, giving mainstream audiences an opportunity to view queer people in a positive light, without ever divulging in stereotypes.
The queer characters in these shows feel just as real, flawed, and complicated as anyone else, and that’s why they’ve been received so well. The only major film I was able to find in my search that I hadn’t already seen, Celine Sciamma’s 2019 French-language lesbian romance film “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” was an absolute triumph, in my opinion, and showcased just how artistically beautiful and emotionally resonant a legitimate queer film could be (which is perhaps why it was so unceremoniously snubbed by Awards shows last year).
But these shows and films are in the minority. For so long, gay and queer-coded characters have been portrayed negatively by Hollywood, as was the case in the 1991 classic “Silence of the Lambs” (another Jonathan Demme film), which is now in the public consciousness again with the recent “Clarisse” sequel series on CBS.
That film is an undeniable masterpiece in terms of its script, direction, and performances (the film was famously the first horror film to win the “Big Five” at the Oscars, meaning it won awards for Best Picture, Best Director for Demme, Best Adapted Screenplay for Ted Tally, Best Actor for Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, and Best Actress for Jodie Foster as Clarisse Starling), but I’ve felt increasingly conflicted about some of its subtextual elements over the years, as the movie often uses antagonist Buffalo Bill’s gender dysphoria as an excuse or justification for his serial murders, rather than making the distinction clear between healthy and unhealthy gender expression. It was criticized by prominent LGBTQ+ rights groups back then for these reasons, and I think the film’s messaging might be even more problematic now.
I understand that mainstream acceptance of queer people is a relatively new phenomenon, and I’m not going to go out of my way to blame older works for attempting to engage with these narratives in nuanced ways. After all, gay people were not allowed to marry until this past decade and could be discriminated against openly at work and in housing until last week’s passage of The Equality Act. However, I do think that if these stories are going to be told accurately, then more work needs to be done with giving actual LGBTQ+ creators agency over these sorts of projects so that even unintentionally negative portrayals aren’t reinforced.
Obviously, any positive representation is great (Sam Levinson’sZendaya and Hunter Schafer-starring teen drama “Euphoria” and Olivia Wilde’s coming-of-age comedy “Booksmart” were both amazing examples of such, and both were made by straight directors), but with recent discussions around racial equality in Hollywood becoming more prominent (the Golden Globes’ recent Time’s Up-spearheaded controversy surrounding a lack of Black members comes to mind), it seems like now is as good a time as any to bring about more queer representation as well, both in front of and behind the camera. Those people are definitely out there (I, for one, have met plenty of amazing out talents through my work), Hollywood just has to look for them.
By Patrick Nash
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