A history of LGBTQ+ representation in film
While cinema has been around for 200 years and is one of the youngest artforms in the world, the LGBTQ+ community has always existed within societies around the world. Depictions of queer and trans people have also been present within the medium of film since its inception.
However, due to censorship and varying degrees of acceptance surrounding the LGBTQ+ community at different points in time, depictions of the community onscreen have a long, complicated, and often coded history. While gay characters were often used for laughs or not explicitly stated to be queer in most early mainstream Hollywood films, a brief relaxation in Germany’s film production code allowed for early LGBTQ+ classics like “Anders als die Anderen” and “Mädchen in Uniform.”
In Hollywood, the strict Hays Code unfortunately forbade explicit depictions of homosexuality on film for three decades, during which there were a slew of queer-coded villains. Afterwards, gay characters appeared more, but often in tragic stories like 1961’s “The Children’s Hour.”
Although LGBTQ+ representation remained sparse over the next few decades, queer camp in the 1970s saw a rise in popularity with the increased prominence of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and the films of John Waters. Later, the New Queer Cinema in the 1990s flourished, as many independent filmmakers (many of whom were gay) told fluid, empathetic stories about queer individuals.
“Moonlight” made history in 2017 as the first LGBTQ+ movie to win Best Picture. The film, which features an all-Black cast, is just one step toward making gay cinema that isn’t whitewashed and features a wide range of identities.
Stacker compiled a list of 50 significant moments in the history of LGBTQ+ representation on film, using information from cultural critiques, film reviews and retrospectives, film scholars, and historical records to understand how the community has been represented on the big screen over the decades.
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1894: 'The Dickson Experimental Sound Film' as first gay film
Also known as “The Gay Brothers,” this short film showed two men dancing together. Film critic Parker Tyler noted that the dance “shocked audiences with its subversion of conventional male behavior."
1915: Charlie Chaplin is ‘A Woman’
Prior to Hollywood’s Hays Code—which prohibited positive depictions of queerness, among other things, for decades—films often used gender-role-reversal scenarios for humor. An especially prominent example of this “crossdressing” comedy phenomenon is Charlie Chaplin’s 1915 two-reel “A Woman.” The story sees him transforming into a woman to toy with two men’s affections, and Chaplin’s character eventually tricks them into kissing each other.
1916: ‘Behind the Curtain’ employs the first gay gag
In the Charlie Chaplin comedy, a stagehand mocks the actor’s character for supposedly kissing another man. He suddenly acts twee and provocatively sticks his butt out in a parody of the stereotypical “sissy,” or effeminate queer man.
1919: 'Anders als die Anderen' advocates for LGBTQ acceptance
“Anders als die Anderen” (a German film whose title translates to “Different from the Others”) is one of the oldest surviving movies with a gay protagonist and was made during a rare period where German film censorship was relaxed after World War I. It centers on a violinist who commits suicide after getting blackmailed for his sexuality and ends with an appeal for gay tolerance by German LGBT rights activist Magnus Hirschfeld.
1922: ‘Manslaughter’ includes film’s first 'erotic' gay kiss
The moment occurs during an orgy scene in the silent Cecil B. DeMille film. “Manslaughter” is about Lydia (Leatrice Joy), a society-girl who is prosecuted by her fiancé after accidentally causing a policeman’s death.
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1922: Gay collaboration during the filming of ‘Salome’
Charles Bryant’s adaptation of gay writer Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name reportedly featured several queer collaborators—namely, bisexual lead actress, Alla Nazimova and set designer Natacha Rambova (her rumored lover). The movie drew controversy from New York censors for suggesting that two of its male characters were gay. Additionally, several female courtiers in the film were actually men in drag.
1927: Two soldiers kiss in the first Best Picture winner
The silent war film “Wings” was the first movie to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards and also depicted one of the earliest onscreen same-sex kisses. In one scene, a young soldier tenderly kisses his dying friend on the mouth—a common practice in the trenches of World War I.
1929: ‘Pandora’s Box’ features cinema’s first lesbian character
According to Vito Russo’s 1981 book “The Celluloid Closet,” the film contains “probably the first explicitly drawn lesbian character” in cinematic history. “Pandora’s Box” follows Lulu (Louise Brooks), a woman whose sexual appeal leads to lust and violence in the people around her. Actress Alice Roberts played her lesbian admirer, the Countess Geschwitz.
1930: In ‘Morocco,’ the leading lady kisses another woman
In “Morocco,” cabaret singer Amy Jolly (bisexual actress Marlene Dietrich) caused a stir when—after singing a number dressed in a full suit and top hat—she kissed a woman in the audience on the lips. The scene made her the first lead actress to kiss another woman on screen.
1931: 'Mädchen in Uniform' tells an explicitly lesbian story
Leontine Sagan’s groundbreaking German drama "Mädchen in Uniform," in which a young schoolgirl falls in love with one of her female teachers, has been heralded as the first explicitly lesbian movie. Nazis later tried to destroy every copy of the film because of its queer content and anti-authoritarian themes, but it ultimately survived.
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