LGBT History Month through film

Simeon Solomon’s Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) can be seen in Tate Britain as part of their Queer British Art exhibition from 5th April – Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND

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In the UK, we have the month of February to remember, remind, and educate ourselves on LGBT history – much akin to Black History Month. This year is particularly poignant as it marks the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales. 

I will running down a (very undefinitive, very abridged) list of obscure Queer films often forgotten.

But before I even begin, what defines a Queer film? Obviously the presence of an LGBT character. Although beyond that? There is no straight answer. 

The subversion of gender archetypes, perhaps. But I think the most important aspect is subtext – which I’d like to emphasise is a unifying aspect of all the films listed below. It underpins the very method of the queer experience. Through suggestion, and fear, and hiding, and longing, it indicates and explores themes of the closet; an enigmatic world that is unique to the queer imagination, a place where many themes gestate, ferment, and develop.

Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy (1930, 1950, 1960)
Credit: © DisCina 1950
Famous poet, playwright, artist and film-maker Jean Cocteau was known as ‘The Frivolous Prince’ in his socialite, and Bohemian artistic circles. He has become one of the most well-known gay artists and icons of the 20th century, with much of his work having underlying queer themes – particularly his thematic ‘Orphic’ Trilogy.

The first film The Blood of a Poet (1930) is a “Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou”-style experimental surreal short film, and is seen by many as an introduction to Queer cinema; “a realistic documentary of unreal events” similar to the very queer history from which the movement was first defined. The second film Orpheus (1950) he made with his life-long muse and lover Jean Marais, who stars as the titular role in this reimagined Greek myth. As such, the film is full homoerotically suggestive imagery, and surreal subtext concerning the closet and art. The third film Testament of Orpheus (1960) is about a poet, Jean Cocteau himself, travelling within and outside of time as he explores himself visiting old friends. The film was made soon before his death and is seen as a farewell to not only him, but the old French cinema and Bohemia he embodied.

A Song of Love (1954)
Credit: © Connoisseur Video
This short film voyeuristically depicts prisoners isolated from each other, performing explicit acts to escape their isolation. In a striking scene, an older man rubs himself against the wall and shares his cigarette smoke with a younger man through a hole in the wall. Because of its blatant (though artistically presented) homosexual content, the film was long banned. 

But it can now be watched for free here

Victim (1961)
Credit: © Allied Film Makers (AFM)
Featuring the first English language use the word "homosexual" in film, Victim portrays a prominent lawyer who goes after a blackmailer who threatens gay men with exposure (homosexual acts still being illegal), whilst he himself is gay. On its release in the United Kingdom, it proved highly controversial to the British Board of Film Censors, and in the U.S., it was refused a seal of approval from the American Motion Picture Production Code.

Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Credit: © Everett Collection / Jerome Hellman Productions
Whilst being rather well known (winning the Best Picture Oscar in 1970), many aren’t aware of the queer suggestions in the film. It is a tale of a twisted American dream, as a young Texan man, Joe, moves to New York City to become a hustler, only for the realities of the modern world to bring him and his dreams crashing down. Joe’s relationship with his mentor Enrico is certainly passionate enough to suggest a romantic connection between the two. The film also contains many allusions to Freudian psychology; with Joe’s unsettling relationship with his Grandmother, his traumatic childhood experience being raped by a group of men, and a scene where Joe brutally beats up a gay man – the queer subtext is obvious, although unfortunate.

The Conformist (1970)
Credit: © Mars Films
In 1940s Fascist Italy, a man finds himself working for the government as a spy whilst not actually agreeing with the government, although not overtly disagreeing either. His journey causes him to recall and question much of his past, question his morals and question himself. In the final scene, there is a divine revelation that ties many of the themes in the film together, as the man is revealed to be gay, making sense of an earlier flashback of a repressed homosexual experience. In the end, he has conformed in everyway possible, but with the fall of the government, and his emotional journey coming to terms with himself over, he may be free to finally be himself. The Conformist is certainly one of the most eloquent films in exploring the feelings of being gay and themes of the closet - the fact that it is also one of the best films ever is a bonus.

Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975)
Credit: © The Australian Film Commission / McElroy & McElroy
“Is All that we see or seem but a dream within a dream” - Edgar Allan Poe.

That is the quote seen on the cover of the DVD for Picnic at Hanging Rock, and it could not be more appropriate. The film depicts the urban legend of a group of girls from a traditional boarding school, who in 1900 go to picnic at a local geological landmark, and mysteriously all go missing. 

When one of the girls is discovered, she remembers nothing about what happened to her companions, nor herself. It is noted that she is not wearing her corset, but the news goes unreported on purpose. A woman not wearing one in those days was said to be advertising her sexual availability. In fact, the whole film highlights the battle in Australian society on whether to resist or embrace the Victorian ideas of sexuality imposed upon them. There are multiple aspects of the film that are full of lesbian subtext; though never stated directly, one of the girls, Sarah, is shown to have strong same-sex feelings - her desire for a fellow student, Miranda, is particularly emphasized.

Yentl (1983)
Credit: © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.
In this musical adaptation of the short story "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy", a Jewish girl disguises herself as a boy to be granted religious training. The cultural gender asymmetry depicted has been referenced in the medical community with the coining of the phrase ‘Yentl Syndrome’ - the need for a woman to prove she is equal to a man before she will receive equal treatment, particularly in cardiology. 

Although now seen as a hetrosexual piece, the film certainly explores many homosexual themes, with Barbara Streisand’s character marrying a woman to completely fulfill her hetrosexual male identity.

Paris is Burning (1990)
Credit: © Academy Entertainment / Off White Productions
Likely one of the more well known films on my list, this documentary showcases the ball culture of the African-American, Latino, gay, and transgender communities in New York in the 1980s. Watching the film, I was struck by how vivid and fully realised the sub-culture was, and yet also how isolated it was from the mainstream.

Of course now, many of the customs and much of the lexicon of this incredibly niche community have become mainstream – this itself highlights the power and importance of commonality in persecuted minorities, and hence so does the film.

Laurence Anyways (2012)
Credit: © Breaking Glass Pictures 2013
This almost 3 hour long drama charts 10 years of the romance between a woman named Fred (Frédérique) and a transgender woman named Laurence (then living as a man) who reveals her inner desire to become her true self: a woman. The film chronicles the love of Fred and Laurence, as well as the trials and tribulations that they face, from family, from work, from society, and from each other. 

The film is a glorious, sprawling, effortlessly stylish and wonderfully patient love story, but most importantly it is realistic, and not tragic for the sake of it. Too often queer love and relationships are depicted wrongly in film and television, and that’s what makes Laurence anyways so great - we deserve untragic romances in film!

See Tate Britain’s exhibition of Queer British Art from 5th April – 1st October

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