The sounds and silence of queer cinema

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Since 2005, the UK has celebrated February as LGBTQ+ History Month, a time to learn about the rich and often difficult history of the queer community. And though queer and trans characters may appear to be a feature of modern film & TV, there is a whole world of LGBTQ+ cinema which has often gone unnoticed, unembraced, or misinterpreted.

Throughout history, queer relationships have been periodically outlawed or otherwise persecuted, and as Western society began to explore the emerging fields of cinematic storytelling, this persecution continued, on and off the screen. However, that doesn’t mean queerness was totally absent from the medium.

The first same-gender kiss in an American film is typically believed to be from Manslaughter in 1922, however the actual title belongs to a film which was, until 2011, lost to time. The Kiss depicted two naked women standing together, before embracing one another in a kiss. It was produced in the mid-1880s by photographer Eadweard Muybridge, and now holds not only the title of first queer kiss captured, but it is actually the first ever kiss filmed, predating Thomas Edison’s 1896 project which captured the first heterosexual kiss. To say that the first kiss caught on film was between two women seems strange, considering how the industry treated queer relationships in the 20th Century. It also makes clear the significant role that queerness has played in the developing cinema, holding such a culturally significant – if under-recognised – place in film history.

The Motion Picture Code came into being, and a once innovative and arguably honest Hollywood was totally changed

The now infamous ‘Hays Code’ was a set of censorship guidelines for motion picture studios in the US from 1934 through to 1968. Following the onscreen scandals of the provocative 1920s and the even more outrageous scandals surrounding the lives of Hollywood starlets, the industry’s increasingly tarnished image was beginning to anger the public. In 1921, dozens of film censorship bills were introduced, and major studios were faced with the choice of adhering to state-imposed laws or choosing self-regulation. The Motion Picture Code, developed in part by its nickname’s namesake Will H. Hays, came into being, and a once innovative and arguably honest Hollywood was totally changed. Sexual relationships or even acts which could suggest sexuality, were under heavy fire, and alongside the restrictions on interracial relations onscreen, open homosexuality was effectively wiped from film.

Not only did these restrictions push queer representation out the window, but also influenced the development of queer subtext which persists even today. A caveat of the code was that behaviour considered morally or legally dubious could be depicted, but only in a negative light. Queer and transgender people were, however, real parts of life and communities, and in depicting the real world in film it would have been difficult to erase their cultural significance entirely. Instead, gay characters began to be showcased through ‘queercoding’: filmmakers developed language and stereotypes which indicated a character’s queer identity, such as the male “interior decorators” in The Seven Year Itch (1955) or the fantastically flamboyant characters of Roger de Bris (Christopher Hewett) and Carmen Ghia (Andreas Voutsinas) in The Producers (1967).

We are now, 140 years later, seeing a more casual representation of queer identities

Queer characters were not, however, entirely erased or used as a punchline. The nearly 4-hour-long epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962), often hailed as one of the greatest films of all times, showcased a heavily implied romantic relationship between Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) and his companion Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), going so far as to include an outright confession of love. At no point in the film is their relationship treated as promiscuous, or immoral, but rather the development of their friendship is the beautiful centrepiece of the film, fleshing out Lawrence’s character and his deeper connections to the cultures and people around him. Though this was a fictional storyline in the historical biopic, it is significant that the creative liberties taken to flesh out the characters were so overtly queer.

There was not an explosion of representation after the code, but there was an improvement, and what’s more is there was a new freedom to tell true queer stories which would remain in the culture for years. From films like Dog Day Afternoon (1975), depicting the true story of a bisexual man committing a bank heist to pay for his transgender partner’s gender reassignment surgery, all the way to Pride (2014), which told the story of queer allyship in Britain during the 1980’s miners’ strike.

We have come a long way – for a long time, queer relationships in film and TV have been relegated to tragic tales, comedic relief, or more recently to depict historical events. But from the humble beginnings of The Kiss in the 1880s, we are now, 140 years later, seeing a more casual representation of queer identities. The incredible thing about LGBTQ+ history in film is how its significance exists in the medium – both being used to tell important stories of often silenced communities, and serving as historical in itself for breaking boundaries of storytelling.

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