A History of Hollywood's Representation of the LGBTQ+ Community in Films

Over the years, the film industry has made leaps and bounds in improving representation of the LGBTQ+ community, but there's still work to be done. See how queer stories are represented onscreen here.

By Cydney Contreras Jun 29, 2021 1:30 AMTags

Carol, Brokeback Mountain and Call Me By Your Name are just three of the blockbuster films that would've been impossible to make even less than a century ago.

From 1934 to 1968, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America implemented the Motion Picture Production Code, a.k.a. the Hays Code, which regulated what was considered morally appropriate to show moviegoers. This impacted whether women could be topless, the use of vulgar language and even the depiction of men and women sleeping in the same bed. 

But the most harmful policy was the outright refusal to depict same-sex relationships. So, until the early '70s, the LGBTQ+ community was largely unrepresented in films across America.

Some filmmakers, like Rebel Without a Cause director Nicholas Ray, who was rumored to be bisexual, skirted the Code by leaving subtle hints about the characters' sexual identities. 

It wasn't until movies like Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) came out that the LGBTQ+ community could finally see themselves represented on the big screen.

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Since then, Hollywood has made major improvements in its representation of marginalized groups, but there's still work to be done. To see how far we've come in telling queer stories and the changes that can be made for the better, check out our gallery below!

Rebel Without a Cause

When this James Dean film came out in 1955, Hollywood was not allowed to depict homosexuality in their movies because of the Motion Picture Production Code, aka the Hays Code. For this reason, filmmakers had to simply insinuate that a character was gay, as was the case with Rebel Without a Cause's Plato. As IndieWire writes, Sal Mineo's character is "obviously gay" and sought comfort in Dean and Natalie Woods' characters, who became his adopted family. Multiple themes familiar to the LGBTQ+ community also play out in this now-beloved movie.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Though the film was widely-panned upon its release in 1975, the LGBTQ+ community embraced the non-traditional story line, which followed a newly-engaged couple as they meet a wild cast of characters, including the transgender Dr. Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry). The couple explores their sexuality with the help of the crew and Rocky (Peter Hinwood), who was created in Dr. Frank N. Furter's lab. These characters are routinely brought to life by movie-goers who religiously attend midnight screenings to this day.

Dog Day Afternoon

In the 1975 film, Al Pacino portrays Sonny, a man who robs a bank to provide his partner Leon (Chris Sarandon) with the money needed to undergo gender confirmation surgery. It has aged quite poorly in the years since its premiere, with Leon going by their former name and being referred to with male pronouns. But at the time, it was considered groundbreaking for a film to center on a same-sex couple merely six years after the Stonewall Riots. Additionally, the film was based on the true story of John Wojtowicz and Elizabeth Eden.

Paris Is Burning

Documentarian Jennie Livingston exposed the masses to the ball culture of the '80s when she filmed the lives of drag queens, transgender persons and more individuals as they vogued and found their houses. It was one of the first documentaries to accurately and respectfully show the struggles of the communities, which were routinely discriminated against. 

It has since been added to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.

Philadelphia

In the 1993 film, Tom Hanks portrays lawyer Andrew Beckett, who hides his homosexuality and AIDS diagnosis from the members of his law firm. However, he is later fired with his bosses citing his incompetence. Beckett believes he lost his job because of discrimination and homophobia, which encourages him to sue his employers. The heartwarming movie starring Hanks and Denzel Washington is regarded as one of the first major films to highlight HIV/AIDS, homosexuality and homophobia.

To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar

Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze and John Leguizamo transformed into drag queens for the 1995 comedy, which follows the queens as they travel from the Big Apple to Los Angeles. Along the way they experience discrimination and harassment, but come out of the road trip triumphant. The film features prominent members of the drag community, including RuPaulLady Catiria and Miss Understood.

All About My Mother

The 1999 Spanish film portrays Manuela's (Cecilia Roth) journey to find her son's father after the teenager is killed in a car accident. As she tries to notify them of their son's death, she discovers they are now a trans woman named Lola. In addition to grief and homosexuality, the movie navigates issues like homophobia and the AIDS/HIV crisis, at a time when there was less acceptance. For his work, the openly gay director Pedro Almodóvar won Best Foreign Film at the 2000 Academy Awards.

Boys Don't Cry

In the semi-biographical film, Hilary Swank portrays transgender man Brandon Teena, who was brutally assaulted and later murdered by two of his associates after they discover he was assigned female at birth. In 2019, the United States National Film Registry of the Library of Congress added the female-directed movie to their catalogue in recognition of its contributions to society.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

This musical turned movie, directed by and starring John Cameron Mitchell, follows transgender rock artist Hedwig Robinson as she tours with the rock band Angry Inch across middle America. The movie is funny, tragic and, at times, problematic just like its main character. But as Mitchell told Vanity Fair, "The character is a survivor, and picks up the pieces and makes something beautiful out of them."

Brokeback Mountain

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger's portrayal of cowboy lovers Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist in the 2005 movie marked signaled a new era of representation and acceptance of LGBTQ+ love stories. The United States National Film Registry of the Library of Congress recognized the cultural significance of the movie in 2018 by adding it to their registry.

Milk

Sean Penn starred as American politician Harvey Milk in this 2008 film, which chronicled Milk's historic 1977 race to become the first openly gay man to hold a major public office in California and the third openly homosexual politician in the United States. A year after his election, Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by an outspoken opponent of homosexuality.

The film served as a reminder of the discrimination the LGBTQ+ community faced less than 50 years ago, and the obstacles that remain to this day. 

A Single Man

Colin Firth took on the character of a gay British professor named George Falconer, who loses his partner, Jim, of 16 years, in this 2009 film. The movie follows George as he contemplates killing himself, believing that he has no reason to live without Jim, before ultimately realizing he can still fall in love. A Single Man is less about sexuality, and more about what it means to lose a loved one. 

Beginners

Christopher Plummer was applauded for his role as Hal, an older man who comes out as gay following his wife's death. Hal's coming out journey then inspires his son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), to take more chances in life and be more honest with himself.

The Kids Are Alright

In 2010, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore starred as a same-sex couple, whose two children desire to meet their biological father. However, after meeting their dad, played by Mark Ruffalo, the wives are faced with infidelity and question their future together.

Though the film was well-received, critics from the LGBTQ+ community questioned if it was right to have two straight women portray a same-sex couple, sparking greater discussions about onscreen representation. Moore told Variety, "I look back and go, 'Ouch. Wow.' I don't know that we would do that today, I don't know that we would be comfortable. We need to give real representation to people."

Tangerine

The 2015 dramedy showcased the talents of openly transgender actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. The film went on to receive critical acclaim, and Mya made history at the 2016 Film Independent Spirit Awards when she took home the award for Best Supporting Actress, making her the first transgender person to win any major acting film award, according to GLAAD.

Carol

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara starred opposite each other in this 2015 period drama from Todd Haynes. They portrayed Carol Aird and Therese Belivet respectively, showing how the older divorcée falls in love with an aspiring photographer during a time when same-sex romances were looked down upon.

Following its release at the Cannes Film Festival, the British Film Academy called Carol the best LGBTQ film of all time.

Moonlight

Barry Jenkins wrote and directed the 2016 Best Picture winner which tells the story of Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), who struggles with his sexuality and finding his place in the world. According to The Guardian, the movie made history in numerous ways, including being the first Best Picture winner to have a gay Black character. Though Brokeback Mountain and Boys Don't Cry came close with their nominations, Moonlight was the first to take home the award. 

Call Me By Your Name

Based on the novel by André AcimanCall Me By Your Name follows Elio as he falls in love with his father's intern Oliver over the course of a hot Italian summer. 

Though the subject itself wasn't necessarily groundbreaking for the time, Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer's onscreen love story marked a time of widespread acceptance and the destigmatization of LGBTQ+ love stories. For such reasons, the film won the GLAAD media award for Outstanding Film in 2018.

Love, Simon

In the teen drama, Nick Robinson portrays Simon Spier, a high schooler who is just starting to come to terms with his sexuality when a classmate threatens to out him to the entire school as well as his family. As all that is going on, Simon falls in love with a classmate, although he's not quite sure who it is.

Described by Variety as the first "mainstream studio romantic comedy told from the perspective of a gay teen," the movie was a major step for the LGBTQ+ community. And it even inspired the Hulu series Love, Victor

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

The French period drama tells the tale of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), an aristocrat who falls in love with the woman hired to paint her portrait. As Marianne (Noémie Merlant) paints the portrait, which will eventually be sent to Héloïse's future husband, their feelings grow stronger. Its tragic ending and portrayal of their romance was applauded at the Cannes Film Festival, where director and screenwriter Céline Sciamma was presented with the Queer Palm.