LGBT History on Film: It’s Time to Re-Write the Narrative

Queer cinema is at the forefront of popular culture more so than ever. Last February, Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar and became the first LGBTQ+ film to do so. In just a weeks’ time, Call Me by Your Name might just repeat this triumph. With Timothée Chalamet gracing fashion magazines across the globe, queer characters are – quite literally – in Vogue.

But these successes only seem to arrive when our stories are fictionalised. If we look at some of the most commercially successful LGBTQ+ films to date (Brokeback Mountain, The Imitation Game, The Kids Are All Right), few concern themselves directly with queer history. As we exit LGBT History Month, it is important to reflect on how our history is reflected in the media. When we look back at the films that depict the biggest obstacles that the queer community have faced, they often paint a view of our past that is reductive, exclusionary, and incredibly problematic.

The Stonewall riots in 1969 saw violent protests from LGBTQ+ community in New York, in response to discriminatory police raids on a Manhattan gay bar. Stonewall is cited as the catalyst for the gay liberation movement, which rose to prominence in the 80s and can still be felt in the work of LGBTQ+ organisations today.

However, the films depicting this monumental event have failed to do it justice. Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall was criticised for shoving an unrelated love story to the fore – with as much subtlety as he treated previous blockbusters 2012 and Independence Day – overlooking the political significance of the events themselves. What’s worse, the film ignores the transgender people of colour that threw the first bricks and sparked the riots. Emmerich whitewashed the cast and ignored the lesbians, bisexuals, and drag queens that fought so valiantly for our rights.

Last October, Netflix released The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson. Ostensibly, the documentary finally did Stonewall justice, dispelling the myth that white cisgendered gay men were the sole leaders of the movement. However, transgender activist and filmmaker Reina Gossett accused director David France of stealing her work. Her research, archiving, and interviews were an integral part of the film – yet she wasn’t credited or paid for the footage. “This kind of extraction/excavation of black life, disabled life, poor life, trans life, is so old and deeply connected to the violence that Marsha had to deal with throughout her life,” she said in the Instagram post revealing the injustice.

It’s also hard to ignore that films dealing with LGBTQ+ history often ignore working-class people. In the 90s, New Queer Cinema championed the stories of lower-class LGBTQ+ citizens living on the margins of society, but these features were often self-funded, restricting them to gay and lesbian film festivals. At the same time, high-budget pictures about middle-class lives, such as Philadelphia, were commercially successful and won Oscars for the straight actors that portrayed them. And this sentiment still persists today. Whilst Milk, The Imitation Game, and The Danish Girl are all excellent films that deal intelligently with our history, they almost exclusively explore middle-class individuals ( with perhaps, the exception of Pride – the gloriously funny story of the Gays and Lesbians Support the Miners movement)

Still, lesbians and bisexual women are ignored in the narratives of LGBTQ+ history. Whilst The State of Marriage follows two lesbian attorneys in their fight for marriage equality, it is a rare example, as the majority of films concerning Stonewall, the AIDS epidemic, and ACT UP fail to give equal time to the women that protested against injustice.

That is not to say that there are no good representations of LGBTQ+ history out there: Paris is Burning, How to Survive a Plague, and Pride are all wonderful examples. 2018 is also looking hopeful, with 120 Beats per Minute and Vita and Virginia scheduled for release soon. But we cannot settle for the bare minimum.

‘LGBT History’ is a term that clumsily groups disparate groups together and, as a result, the story of the white cisgendered gay man has become an acceptable measure of LGBTQ+ inclusivity. Lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender people, and every group from the LGBTQ+ spectrum all have their own distinct queer histories to tell. Failing to recognise these histories in film denies their role in gay liberation and erases them from our past.

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