Back in the early 1990s, when I was a budding pre-teen lesbian, I used to dig through barrels of VHS tapes at the video store to find a movie that might have a hint of homosexuality in it. I would search for crumbs of gayness, watching entire movies just to catch a look between characters — or maybe even a same-sex kiss — that might allow me to translate the story into a gay one.
In movies where characters could be queer, they were often victims (“Rebel Without a Cause”), villians (“Basic Instinct”), vampires (“The Hunger”), or they ended up dying tragically. I grew up with “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Thelma and Louise,” movies that showed indirect love between two women who weren’t gay. If I looked hard enough, I could find some of the old lezzie classics, like “Personal Best” or “Desert Hearts,” with characters full of angst over their sexual tension and who don’t end up together. While mainstream audiences were being taught that “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back,” I was being taught “girl is terrified of girl, girl nervously sleeps with girl in cheesy love scene, girl loses girl,” or simply “girl is a vampire.”
I just couldn’t relate to movies the way mainstream audiences could because I was always left with the burning question: “Where the real homos at?” It wasn’t until “Philadelphia” came out in 1993 that I saw a popular movie with central gay characters — played by Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas — who lived real lives and chose to be together. The movie earned Hanks a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Actor, and mainstream audiences got to see some truth in homosexuality onscreen. We can be nice, normal people in committed relationships. The Hollywood tradition of tragic gay endings continues (as in “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Brokeback Mountain”), but now it is most often within the context of a courageous, real-life story.
Over the years, gay characters have grown more accessible to audiences, not just through the indie queer movie scene, which is at best questionable in terms of quality, but especially through popular, award-winning films. In 2003, Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” starred Dennis Quaid as Julianne Moore’s gay husband and earned four Academy Award nominations. In 2006, “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Running with Scissors” both featured gay characters who were the most well-adjusted members of their dysfunctional families, winning two Oscars and a Golden Globe nomination respectively. And last year, I watched an openly gay person — screenwriter Dustin Lance Black — accept an Oscar for his work on “Milk,” the story of California’s first openly gay elected official Harvey Milk, a role that also earned Sean Penn a Best Actor Oscar.
This year, two heart-breaking and gritty movies show gay characters in progressive, human roles and are not only directed by openly gay men, but have also been nominated for Golden Globes. Colin Firth is up for Best Actor for his portrayal of a gay professor mourning the death of his partner in Tom Ford’s “A Single Man.” In the highly acclaimed “Precious,” nominated for Best Picture, Paula Patton plays Ms. Rain, a hopeful lesbian teacher who helps the young main character overcome oppressive abuse. “Precious” isn’t about homosexuality, but if director Lee Daniels wins an Academy Award (he was snubbed by the Golden Globes, just as Sean Penn was last year), he would be the first openly gay African-American to win the honor.
What is most important about these movies is that their gay characters are real. I know these people. I have friends who are mourning the deaths of their same-sex partners. I know lesbians who dedicate their time to teaching struggling youth. I don’t need to translate the characters to fit into my world. They aren’t gay in code. They aren’t jokes or stereotypes. They are out of the closet, dealing with real-life issues, and they should be taken seriously. And homos in Hollywood are helping to make that happen.
It is this phenomenon of real queer life in today’s cinema, and the support of a gay and straight audience, that will help LGBT stories proliferate. So, the little gay kiddos of today won’t have to search as hard as I did and will simply log on to their Netflix accounts or go to Wild and Woolly to find hundreds of movies that offer more than just a little honest gayness.