A history of LGBTQ+ representation in film
A history of LGBTQ+ representation in film
Depictions of queer and trans people have been present in the film medium since its inception more than 100 years ago. But due to censorship and varying degrees of prejudice against the LGBTQ+ community at different points in time, representation onscreen has a long, complicated, and often coded history. While gay characters were frequently 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 in the early 20th century allowed for LGBTQ+ classics like “Anders als die Anderen” and “Mädchen in Uniform.”
In Hollywood, the strict Hays Code 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 the Oscar for Best Picture. The film, which features an all-Black cast, was one big step toward making gay cinema that isn’t whitewashed, features a range of identities, and doesn't make its queer characters one-note or vehicles of suffering.
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. The history starts in 1894, with the very first gay film, and ends in 2021 with a mainstream children's movie featuring a main character who is queer.
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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 gay 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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1933: ‘Queen Christina’ includes hints of its subject’s lesbianism
MGM producer Irving Thalberg was reportedly a fan of "Mädchen in Uniform” and believed that a similar film about the life of real-life, 17th-century lesbian monarch Queen Christina of Sweden “could give us very interesting scenes.” MGM ended up giving Christina (who was played by queer actress Greta Garbo) a heterosexual love interest and erased explicit mention of her sexuality, but bits of historical truth remain. Christina kisses and flirts with her lady-in-waiting in the film and declares, “I shall die a bachelor!”
1934: Hollywood’s Hays Code is strictly enforced
Officially known as the “Motion Picture Production Code,” the Hays Code set stern guidelines for what types of content could be released by U.S. movie studios from 1934 to 1968. One taboo was homosexuality, meaning that any instances of queerness on film had to be carefully coded.
[Pictured: American Joseph Breen, Hollywood director, speaking with British director Michael Balcon and others. For many years Breen was an administrator of the Production Code, the American censorship body, governed by the “Hays Office.”]
1938: ‘Bringing Up Baby’ uses ‘gay’ in a queer context
In one scene from the 1938 screwball comedy “Bringing Up Baby,” the word “gay” was used in a queer context for likely the first time (possibly thanks to queer performers’ use of “gay” as a slang term). When a woman asks reputedly bisexual actor Cary Grant’s character why he’s wearing a feathery bathrobe, he responds, “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!”
1941: A newly queer-coded villain in ‘The Maltese Falcon’
“For all its efforts, the Production Code didn't erase homosexuals from the screen; it just made them harder to find,” “The Celluloid Closet” states. “And now they had a new identity—as cold-blooded villains.” Early examples of queer-coded villains include the titular antagonist of “Dracula’s Daughter” and Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca,” but an especially interesting case is Joel Cairo (played by Peter Lorre) in “The Maltese Falcon.” Although Joel’s queerness is explicitly stated in the film’s source material, it’s only hinted at in the movie through his effeminate behavior and love of perfume.
1948: Gayness and murder collide in Hitchock’s ‘Rope’
Loosely based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” tells the story of two heavily coded gay men who murder one of their classmates for the sheer thrill of it. Hitchcock had a habit of exploring the associations between sexual and gender “deviance” and crime during the Hays era, also including queer-coded characters in “Rebecca,” “Strangers on a Train,” and “Psycho.”
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1950s: ‘Pit of Loneliness’ broaches 1950s lesbianism
Jacqueline Audry’s French drama “Pit of Loneliness” (originally named “Olivia”) was one of the few 1950s films that explored and included lesbian themes. It takes place at an all-girls boarding school, where two female teachers compete with one another for their students’ affections. The movie was also notable as one of the few movies in decades that was written, directed, and performed entirely by women.
1955: ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ features the 'first onscreen gay teenager'
The well-known drama includes clear, coded gay subtext between troublemaking teen protagonist Jim Stark (supposedly queer actor James Dean) and his new classmate, Plato (Sal Mineo). Mineo was one of the first Hollywood actors to publicly come out as gay, and he later even referred to Plato as the first gay teenager on film.
1961: ‘Victim’ criticizes British homophobia
"Victim" opens in 1960s London, where a man’s death leads the film’s gay main character (played by prominent actor Dirk Bogarde) to discover a blackmail scheme against several gay men. Homosexual relations between consenting adults were illegal in England and Wales until 1967, making the film a radical cry against British homophobia.
1961: ‘The Children’s Hour’ portrays sympathetic yet tragic lesbianism
Well-known actresses Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine starred in this adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play, “The Children’s Hour.” In the film, a rebellious student accuses two teachers of being in a taboo lesbian relationship, and the teacher who actually is a lesbian eventually meets a tragic end. While “The Children’s Hour” is notable for presenting a sympathetic queer main character in a time when that was rare, it has also been criticized for reinforcing the “tragic gay ending” stereotype.
1967: ‘Portrait of Jason’ explores ’60s Black gay identity
“Portrait of Jason” was shot over 12 hours, as experimental filmmaker Shirley Clarke interviewed Jason Holliday—a Black gay sex worker and aspiring cabaret dancer. Although one could argue that such a grueling interview process was exploitative, Holliday’s musings about his life, dreams, and art in the face of societal anti-Blackness and homophobia provide the kind of intersectional look at LGBTQ+ identity that ’60s media sorely lacked.
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1968: ‘The Killing of Sister George’
Produced during the final months of the Hays Code, Robert Aldrich’s film about the breakdown of an aging lesbian TV actress included a lesbian sex scene that broke down a major taboo associated with the Code’s erasure of gay characters onscreen. The movie received an “X” rating under the new Hollywood rating system.
1968: The Hays Code is officially lifted
The code began to wane and loosen over the years. By the 1960s, society’s “sexual revolution” left audiences more open to supposedly “vulgar” topics. In 1968, the Hays Code was officially replaced by the new Motion Picture Association film rating system (MPAA).
[Pictured: President of the Motion Picture Association of America Jack Valenti, Dec. 17, 1968.]
1969: ‘Funeral Parade of Roses’ explores Tokyo’s gay scene
"Funeral Parade of Roses" retells the “Oedipus Rex” myth within Tokyo’s underground gay scene of the 1960s, following a young trans woman named Eddie. Writer-director Toshio Matsumoto’s Japanese drama combines experimental film techniques with several genres, such as sexploitation movies and melodramas.
1970: ‘The Boys in the Band’ centers on a gay friend group
Originally an Off-Broadway play by Mart Crowley, the film explores the underlying tensions that surface when a friend group of gay New Yorkers gather for a birthday party. The film’s intimate focus on the relationships between multiple gay characters was unprecedented at the time.
1972: ‘Pink Flamingos’ cements John Waters as the ‘Pope of Trash’
For decades, queer artists utilized “camp”—literally defined as a “deliberately exaggerated and theatrical behavior or style”—to rebel against the repressive, “ordinary” standards of society. However, Waters challenged the concept of camp by making deliberately filthy, transgressive films that let their queer, outcast characters gleefully behave badly. The most notorious example is 1972’s “Pink Flamingos,” in which famous drag queen Divine plays a woman who, along with her family, competes with a Baltimore couple to be named the “filthiest people alive.”
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1975: ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ brings a real-life gay crime to the Oscars
Sidney Lumet’s award-winning crime drama “Dog Day Afternoon” is based on a real bank robbery by a man attempting to pay for his partner’s gender affirmation surgery. Cisgender actor Chris Sarandon received an Oscar nomination for playing trans woman Leon, one of the few mainstream trans film characters of the time. In doing so, he became part of a larger, criticized trend of cis actors being recognized for playing trans roles.
1975: The pinnacle of queer camp
While queer camp had long been used as a form of self-expression by the LGBTQ+ community in response to a heteronormative, oppressive society, it arguably reached its peak with the 1975 musical “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” In the cult classic, two naive newlyweds seek help from the inhabitants of a creepy castle when their car breaks down nearby, and a romp of murder, cannibalism, and bisexuality ensue. Led by Tim Curry as the pansexual, trans scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter, “Rocky Horror” has become one of the most popular “midnight movies” of all time.
1978: ‘Word is Out’ highlights 26 queer documentary subjects
“Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives” comprised interviews with 26 lesbians and gay men who spoke about their lives and experiences as part of the LGBTQ+ community. At the time, the French documentary’s positive, nuanced depictions of queer people in their own words was rare in the film industry.
[Pictured: Director of "Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives," Lucy Massie Phenix.]
1980: 'Cruising' inspires backlash
Although the LGBTQ+ community slowly became more accepted in the 1960s and 1970s—albeit as tragic figures in media—a slew of new film releases at the dawn of the 1980s showed queer people in another negative light. The most notable was “Cruising,” a film in which an undercover cop searches for a serial killer who has been targeting members of the gay S&M leather community. William Friedkin’s “Cruising” was reviled by many gay viewers, with one pamphlet saying that in the film, “gay men are presented as one-dimensional sex-crazed lunatics [...] It is a film about why we should be killed.”
1982: ‘Making Love’ sets out to produce gay role models
Gay screenwriter Barry Sandler decided to write a script about a married man who realizes he’s gay and falls in love with another man, in an effort to make up for the many negative gay film stereotypes from previous decades. The film became 1982’s “Making Love,” and according to Sandler, it was meant to be “the first mainstream Hollywood film to deal with the subject of homosexuality in a positive way, offering positive role models.”
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1983: ‘The Hunger’ becomes a queer cult classic
The horror film features an erotic love triangle between a doctor, played by Susan Sarandon, and a vampire couple played by Catherine Deneuve and queer actor David Bowie. “The Hunger” quickly grew a dedicated fan following, partly because of the lesbian sex scene between Deneuve’s and Sarandon’s characters.
1985: ‘Desert Hearts’ gives lesbians a happy ending
Donna Deitch’s "Desert Hearts" tracks the romance that develops between repressed English professor Vivian and free-spirited rancher’s daughter Kay. It’s regarded as the first mainstream lesbian film with a happy ending.
1986: ‘Parting Glances’ deals with the AIDS crisis
Gay first-time director Bill Sherwood’s “Parting Glances” is regarded as the first film to deal with the AIDS crisis, which had a devastating impact on gay and bisexual men in particular in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Sherwood died from the disease before he could make more films, but “Parting Glances” remains a historic work of LGBTQ+ cinema.
1990: ‘Paris Is Burning’ spotlights New York ballroom culture
Jennie Livingston’s acclaimed documentary chronicles New York City’s Black and Latinx Harlem drag-ball scene of the late 1980s, bringing the vital subculture into the public eye in a major way. Prolific drag queens, trans women, and voguers like Venus Xtravaganza, Pepper Labeija, and Willi Ninja were interviewed for “Paris Is Burning,” although the film faced controversy when its subjects initially received little compensation.
1992: B. Ruby Rich coins 'New Queer Cinema'
In the early 1990s, several openly gay directors became involved in independent cinema, creating a crop of queer movies that treated sexuality as fluid—examples include “Orlando,” “My Own Private Idaho,” “Poison,” and many more. Academic B. Ruby Rich coined the term “New Queer Cinema” in Sight & Sound Magazine to describe this burgeoning film movement.
1993: Tom Hanks and ‘Philadelphia’ break down barriers
A-list actor Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his portrayal of a lawyer who’s fired for having AIDS in Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia,” helping to dispel the myth that taking on LGBTQ+ roles would ruin straight actors’ careers. “Philadelphia” was also the first major Hollywood film to focus on the AIDS epidemic.
1995: ‘The Celluloid Closet’ chronicles LGBTQ film history
Based on Vito Russo’s 1981 book of the same name, “The Celluloid Closet” brought together queer film historians, creatives, and their peers to examine the history of LGBTQ+ visibility on the big screen, from the early days of film through coded characters and harmful queer stereotypes and up to the emerging New Queer Cinema movement.
1995: ‘To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar.’ makes drag mainstream
Starring major Hollywood actors like Patrick Swayze, John Leguizamo, and Wesley Snipes as drag queens, “To Wong Foo” was the rare explicitly gay studio film that rose to the top of the box office during its first two weeks in theaters. The film followed the success of the 1994 arthouse film “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” an Australian comedy about two drag queens and a trans woman.
1996: 'The Watermelon Woman' becomes first film by Black lesbian
Director Cheryl Dunye’s feature-length directorial debut follows Cheryl (Dunye, playing a fictionalized version of herself), a Black lesbian filmmaker working on a project about “The Watermelon Woman,” an obscure 1940s Black actress.
1999: Hilary Swank plays a trans teenager in ‘Boys Don’t Cry’
Hilary Swank, a cisgender actress, won an Oscar for her portrayal of real-life trans teenager Brandon Teena, who was murdered in 1993. “Boys Don’t Cry” is undoubtedly bleak, but Kimberly Peirce’s film made Teena’s story and modern trans American experiences more visible.
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1999: Pedro Almodóvar wins big for ‘All About My Mother’
Gay director Pedro Almodóvar is one of the most acclaimed and prolific Spanish filmmakers in history. After years of telling bold stories that featured gay and trans characters, his film “All About My Mother,” which follows a woman who reconnects with her ex-partner—a trans woman—won Best Foreign Language Film at the 2000 Academy Awards.
2005: Audiences can’t quit ‘Brokeback Mountain’
Ang Lee’s film about the long-term secret romance between two cowboys (played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger) made history as one of the first big, mainstream movies that centered on a gay love story. The film became a critical and box-office success and won three Oscars, proving to Hollywood that LGBTQ+ stories had a place outside of strictly independent filmmaking.
2010: ‘The Kids Are All Right,’ and they got a Best Picture nomination
Through “The Kids Are All Right,” director Lisa Cholodenko made history as an openly lesbian director whose film received a Best Picture nomination. The dramedy revolves around a lesbian couple whose life with their two teenage children is disrupted when the kids meet their moms’ sperm donor.
2011: ‘Pariah’ announces an exciting new lesbian filmmaker
Lesbian filmmaker Dee Rees arrived on the scene with her 2011 debut narrative feature film, “Pariah.” The semiautobiographical film centers on a Black Brooklyn lesbian’s experiences coming out and reckoning with her identity. It went on to be recognized at the Gotham Independent Film Awards, the Independent Spirit Awards, and the GLAAD Media Awards, cementing Rees as an exciting voice in queer filmmaking.
2013: ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ wins the Palme d’Or
Abdellatif Kechiche’s coming-of-age drama about a young woman who finds herself through a lesbian romance took home the prestigious Cannes Film Festival’s top prize and went on to receive Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations. However, the film has faced long-running controversy—particularly from lesbians and other queer women viewers—for its voyeruistic male gaze and the lead actresses’ descriptions of Kechiche’s “horrible” shooting conditions.
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2015: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor star in ‘Tangerine’
Sean Baker’s 2015 dramedy “Tangerine” follows Sin-Dee (Rodriguez), a sex worker who, with the help of her best friend, Alexandra (Taylor), sets out to get revenge on her cheating boyfriend on Christmas Day. “Tangerine” is the rare film that stars multiple trans women of color played by trans actors of color. Distributor Magnolia Pictures’ Academy Award campaigns for Rodriguez and Taylor marked the first time that a film producer openly supported the nomination of trans actresses.
2017: ‘Moonlight’ wins Best Picture
Although “La La Land” was accidentally announced as the 2017 Best Picture winner, the prize actually went to Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight.” The film tells the story of a young Black gay man named Chiron as he grows up and comes to terms with his identity. It made history as the first LGBTQ+ movie and the first movie with an all-Black cast to take home Hollywood’s top prize.
2018: ‘A Fantastic Woman’ wins Best Foreign Language Film
The Chilean drama “A Fantastic Woman” centers on Marina (Daniela Vega), a trans singer who fights to work through her grief after her boyfriend suddenly dies. When Vega appeared onstage at the 2018 Oscars, she made history as the first openly trans person to present at the awards ceremony. “A Fantastic Woman” went on to become the first Chilean movie to win an Academy Award.
2018: ‘Love, Simon’ tells a gay high school love story
Based on Becky Albertalli’s book “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,” the film follows a closeted high schooler who falls for an anonymous gay classmate with whom he’s been speaking online. “Love, Simon” is regarded as the first movie by a major Hollywood studio to feature a gay lead character.
2018: ‘Rafiki’ becomes the first Kenyan film at Cannes
Director Wanuri Kahiu’s “afro bubblegum” film “Rafiki,” which tells a love story between two teenage girls, became the first Kenyan film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival. The movie was banned in its home country, where homosexuality is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Kahiu sued the Kenya Film Classification as a result, and the ban was temporarily lifted so that “Rafiki” could screen for seven days in its home country and qualify for Oscar consideration.
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2019: A record year for representation, with notable asterisks
GLAAD, the LGBTQ+ media advocacy organization, puts out a yearly report on queer representation in media, and its report on 2019 showed hopeful signs that media is becoming more inclusive, with a record number of gay characters on-screen. Yet the overall trend is dampened when broken down by race: It was only a record year for white queer people. Queer characters of color actually decreased, and there were virtually no transgender characters. Still, anyone who watched a lot of films in 2019 saw an encouraging breadth of queer characters and storylines, including “Booksmart,” “Rocketman,” “Blockers,” “Love, Simon,” “Pain and Glory,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “Pain and Glory,” “And Then We Danced,” “End of the Century,” “Wild Nights With Emily,” and more.
2021: ‘The Mitchells vs. the Machines’ brings LGBTQ character into mainstream children’s entertainment
In children's movie “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” main character Katie, on the cusp of leaving home for college, feels misunderstood and at odds with her parents. It's mostly because they don't understand her surreal YouTube videos and desire to go to film school, but there's a subtler indication that her queerness contributes to the tension between her and her parents. The end confirms her queer identity when, finally at college, Katie's new girlfriend is casually mentioned over a video call with her parents. The character is voiced by Abbi Jacobson, who is bisexual, making Katie a rare queer character also played by a queer actor. It's a small but notable shift that mainstream children's media—once off-limits for discussion of anything risk-adverse studios fear could jeopardize profits—is slowly becoming more inclusive of LGBTQ+ characters.