7 Films That Helped Pave the Way for LGBTQ+ Rights
Vogue, March 2020
This article, originally written for Vogue Global Network, has since been published on British Vogue, Vogue Australia, Vogue Italy, Vogue Spain, Vogue Russia, Vogue Japan and Vogue Taiwan.
From closeted cowboys and transgender trailblazers to the laying bare of unethical practices, Vogue looks back on the queer-themed films that have shaken up the status quo, propelling queer cinema and gay rights in a new direction
Over the last decade, LGBTQ+ rights have witnessed a significant jump, thanks in large part to the way gay, lesbian, bi, transgender and non-binary individuals have been represented on screen. While this dramatic shift is undoubtedly cause for celebration, it also makes it easy to forget the vast struggle of previous generations.
From Basil Dearden’s Victim to Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased, each of these films has achieved something novel, from helping push for law reforms across the world to shining a light on world’s often-unseen gay cinema. Here are seven of the most seminal LGBTQ+ films that have had a significant social impact.
1. Victim (1961)
One of the most groundbreaking gay-themed films of all time — and one of the most provocative and courageous — british director Basil Dearden’s thriller is the story of Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde), a closeted, gay lawyer who is blackmailed by sinister forces threatening to expose his secret. Not only was Victim the first English-language film to use the word “homosexual”, but it is also often credited with helping to trigger the Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised sex between men in the UK in 1967. Unsurprisingly, at the time, the film’s release was seen as highly controversial, prompting both concern and censorship among various review boards. Bogarde, a big star at the time of release, was told the film would ruin his career, but Victim went on to prove that cinema has the power to facilitate long-term social change.
2. Beautiful Thing (1996)
Originally slated to be broadcast on television, the British film Beautiful Thing, based on Jonathan Harvey’s play of the same name, was so well-received that it was eventually released in cinemas. This tender coming-of-age tale centring on two teenagers on a London council estate struck a chord with audiences everywhere. The charming way in which the film treats its central love story was compounded by the timing of its release. In the aftermath of the Thatcher years, with its unfliching focus on “traditional values” and attacks on gay rights, Beautiful Thing was indeed the beautiful thing many struggling LGBTQ+ teenagers needed. Beyond its historical significance, the film still holds up to today, thanks to its remarkably diverse cast. Unsurprisingly, the British Film Institute included it on its list of the 30 best LGBT films of all time.
3. Boys Don't Cry (1999)
While not a money-spinner, Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry was the first mainstream film to focus on the experience of a transgender man. A then-virtually-unknown Hilary Swank played the fictionalised version of real-life Brandon Teena, a young, transgender Nebraskan who was brutally raped and murdered in 1993. Swank’s fearless performance earned her the Best Actress accolade at the 2000 Academy Awards. The fact that the story was told largely from Teena’s perspective invited audiences unaware of the transgender experience to empathise. Up until that point, transgender characters lived mostly in the margins of the big screen, typically portrayed as flamboyant cross-dressers or vagabonds. While the film has since drawn criticism — representing a marginalised group is a huge burden to bear, after all — it symbolised an important milestone, helping shift the transgender experience into the mainstream.
4. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
A renowned director (Ang Lee), four Hollywood megastars (Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams), a wide release and a worldwide gross of $178m made Brokeback Mountain one of the biggest queer-themed box office hits of all time. Based on Annie Proulx’s much-hailed short story published in The New Yorker in 1997, the big-screen adaptation was met with just as much praise, garnering eight Oscar nominations and three wins (Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director and Best Original Score). While the film about the love story between two cowboys wasn’t without controversy, it was one of the best-reviewed pictures of the year and, unlike many smaller-scale queer-themed films which preceded it, it catapulted the hardship of being gay men in an intolerant society into the limelight.
5. Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)
Many LGBTQ+ films looking to score a wide release tend to, for sadly obvious reasons, shy away from exploring love scenes in what might be considered an ‘explicit’ way, instead presenting a more sanitised version of same-sex relationships. Not so Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or-winning, French romance Blue is the Warmest Colour. The film follows introvert Adèle, who begins to question her sexuality after she one day passes blue-haired Emma (played by Léa Seydoux) in the street, and instantly falls for her. While the narrative is relatively straightforward, it is the voracious, unflinching way in which the more carnal aspects of the relationship are explored — with close-ups, hard cuts and voyeuristic, lingering shots. While Blue has since been critiqued for falling prey to a gratuitous ‘male gaze’, it also pushed queer cinema into the here-and-now, doing away with the notion that gay characters on screen have to be desexualised to be marketable.
6. Out in the Dark (2013)
Israeli filmmaker Michael Mayer’s directorial debut tackles forbidden love across political, ideological and geographic frontiers. Rejected by his devoutly religious family in the West Bank, Palestinian university student Nimer seeks refuge in the comparatively liberal Tel Aviv, where he falls in love with privileged Jewish lawyer Roy. Set against the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, and playing out like a modern version of Romeo and Juliet, Nimer and Roy are divided by forces larger than themselves. While Mayer takes great care in painting neither side as the villain, the pain experienced by gay Muslims rejected by their families undoubtedly takes centre stage. Out in the Dark emphasises the harmful impact of zealotry and tribalism on the marginalised, ultimately making a plea for more acceptance within religious communities.
7. Boy Erased (2018)
As of today, consensual same-sex relationships are considered unlawful in 73 jurisdictions across the world, with 12 of them imposing the death penalty for gay or lesbian sex. These shocking statistics help explain why conversion therapy, a pseudoscientific practice promising to change sexual orientation through a variety of techniques (ranging from hormonal treatments and drugs to electroshock therapy), is still seen as a way out for many individuals struggling with their sexuality. Currently, this unethical and often extremely dangerous practice is legal in most countries, including large chunks of the US and much of Europe. Shining a light on such practices is Boy Erased, a biographical film based on Garrard Conley’s memoir. Thanks to its all-star cast and critical success, Boy Erased educated moviegoers worldwide about the devastating effects of conversion therapy, ending with some sobering statistics as the credits roll.