L’hospitalet de Llobregat International Film Festival 2021
Essay

S.N.A.T.C.H.E.D: exploring The Importance of LGBTQ+ Characters in Film

Renowned New York Drag Queen and Best Selling author Jeza Belle was in Barcelona for the L’HIFF 2021 where she presented her Workshop: The Importance of LGBTQ+ Characters in Film. I can’t think of anyone better to inform about LGBTQ+ representation than a New York Drag Queen. Jeza Belle, wearing her trademark giant red wig, came to her Workshop with a purpose to inspire the audience, primarily filmmakers, about a topic that is becoming more salient within the industry, genuine LGBTQ+ representation in film.

But it’s 2021, why do we need a Workshop that is discussing the way LGBTQ+ characters are presented in film and why does it still matter? Through various mediums and periods in our history LGBTQ+ characters have changed from being secretive, tragic, or camp, or them being weak, lonely and miserable. They have now evolving to being seen as heroes, they are happy and have equally complicated lives as CIS characters. The normalisation of the LGBTQ+ characters in Film and TV has been a long and challenging road to traverse yet there are still great strides we still need to take. At the beginning of the Workshop Jeza Belle explained some startling facts about LGBTQ+ communities in certain parts of the world which does, later on in the Workshop, prove to be very significant. Through 24-hour news and Social Media we’ve heard about the Anti-Gay purges in Chechnya and the recent Anti-Gay laws being proposed in Ghana, not to mention the continued assault on Transpeople in the US. And in July 2021 Samuel Luiz was brutally beaten to death in A Coruña, Spain. Though the visibility of the community has never been greater news like this is always daunting and terrifying to read, it instils they type of fear those within the LGBTQ+ community thought had long passed.

One thing we can do to change how LGBTQ+ characters are shown and written about on the big screen is to draw a line under the conversation about non-LGBTQ+ actors playing LGBTQ+ characters. To achieve this we will need those from within the LGBTQ+ community to step up and challenges this longstanding appropriation of our culture. This will not only aid more authentic and realistic depictions and narratives but will become a more honest reflection of contemporary LGBTQ+ society.

To illustrate this Jeza Belle shared her an acronym S.N.A.T.C.H.E.D:

S - See Yourself
N - New Perspectives / Unique Voices
A - Advance Equality
T - Tell it to the Mountain
C - Change the World with Visibility & Normalisation

H - Humour
E - Educate Others
D - Demonstrates Our Strengths

Each letter of the an acronym was explored though a clip or trailer from a LGBTQ+ film such as TOURCH SONG TRILOGY (1988), PARIS IS BURNING (1990), IN & OUT (1997), BOYS IN THE BAND (1970), BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005), TRANSAMERICA (2005), MOONLIGHT (2016), PARIAH (2011) & TO WONG FOO, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING! JULIE NEWMAR (1995). The films brilliantly captured the theme of the Workshop and fantastically showcased the diverse range of LGBTQ+ themed films and how these films have changed over a 40-year period.

Gay cinema as a genre might only be a couple of decades old but Gay characters have been part of Film and TV productions a lot longer than we imagine. In WONDER BAR (1934) there is a homosexual reference and legendary director Ed Wood’s groundbreaking GLEN OR GLENDA (1953). Though these characters might have been fleeting what is important is that they existed, had stories to be told, and audiences saw them.

But one of the biggest issues that would hinder fairly and truthfully telling positive LGBTQ+ stories was The Motion Picture Production Code, or the Hays Code 1934 - 1968. This was used to influence Studios on what was and wasn’t acceptable for audiences in the US. Moreover the Hays Code banned ‘depictions of sexual perversion’. The Hays Code would greatly impact public perception and understanding about homosexuals as the Code branded the LGBTQ+ community for decades as ‘deviants’ and outside the norms of accepted society.

Long after the Hays Code was abandoned LGBTQ+ characters where still presented in a negative light, always sad, moody, lonely. There was a greater reluctance to show LGBTQ+ characters happy and in stable relationships, or with families. As Sophie Cleghorn pointed out ‘If a character was to be openly same-gender attracted or transgender, they would be gruesomely killed or presented as morally corrupted’.

There was only one instance that I recall growing up where I saw a positive description of a Gay couple on television and that was in X-Cops, X-FILES, 2000. The episode revolved around a strange ‘monster’ that’s been terrorising Downtown L.A playing on people’s fears yet the only two people to survive where Steve, J. W. Smith & Edy, Curtis Jackson. For me this was the first time I saw a Black Gay couple on TV being presented in a humorous, loving and touching way which was a revelation. A Gay Black couple living in Downtown L.A unafraid of anything is pretty inspiring. Just two years early THAT 70s SHOW (1998 - 2006) scrapped a LGBTQ+ story arch after introducing Buddy Morgan, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in “Eric’s Buddy”. In the same year DAWSON’S CREEK (1998 - 2003) launched on The WB network which featured a complex Gay character Jack McPhee, Kerr Smith.

1998 seemed to be a year of contradictions as on one hand Film & TV productions seemed to be willing to try and explore the possibilities of including LGBTQ+ stories and characters in Film and TV. But then there was the way Ellen DeGeneres was treated. ELLEN (1994 - 1998) was cancelled when the main character came out as Gay. This wasn’t a moment that was celebrated by the Network or by the majority of the audience, all for coming Out and being her true self Ellen received death and bomb threats. We should stop here and think about that for a moment and imagine what this said to teenage and pre-teen kids watching this “outcry” happen, they themselves curious about their sexuality. Imagine how much damage, hurt and confusion this caused but also imagine what this said to those already Out in the LGBTQ+ community.

It sounds like a lifetime away 23-years ago but it really isn’t. For me this was one of the stories and incidents I recall, also unsure about my sexuality and with very few places to turn for help or guidance. Actors may have feared being typecast in the past and studios might have felt trepidation about casting an Out LGBTQ+ actor but not anymore.

Gay-themed films are a goldmine for Film and TV productions. This is the reason why there are so many Gay-themed films and TV Series that have prominent LGBTQ+ characters or storylines, usually with hot-of-the-moment actors that almost always cater to a CIS audience. BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2018), DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013), THE DANISH GIRL(2015), CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME (2018), CAROL (2015), THE FAVOURITE (2018), all had CIS actors playing LGBTQ+ characters based on real people. Three films won their actors Oscars whilst the others all gained wide critical acclaim and several Oscar nominations. As Billy Porter said “Straight men playing Gay - everybody wants to give them an award.” We have to move away this notion that a CIS actor still needs to be there to hold open the door for LGBTQ+ narratives.

"Since we can only live in a hypothetical world one has to ask how inspiring and encouraging it would have been to have seen young LGBTQ+ actors in these roles."

LGBTQ+ filmmakers like Francis Lee (GODS OWN COUNTRY, 2017, AMMONITE, 2020), Luca Guadagnino (CALL ME BUY YOUR NAME, 2017), Greg Beranti (LOVE, SIMON, 2017), Tom Ford (A SINGLE MAN, 2009), Gus Van Sant (MILK, 2008) are equally to blame when it comes to CIS actors in LGBTQ+ films. As they come from the community they should, more than anyone else, know and understand why casting CIS actors hurts the overall representation of LGBTQ+ lives and narratives.

Take as an example two of the biggest LGBTQ+ themed films of the past few years CALL ME BY YOUR NAME & LOVE, SIMON both films based on books written by CIS authors. The filmmakers behind both films are Gay and in regards to LOVE, SIMON it was touted as the first time a Gay character was leading a studio film which gaining the film a great deal of press. Since we can only live in a hypothetical world one has to ask how inspiring and encouraging it would have been to have seen young LGBTQ+ actors in these roles. With the best of intentions these films and the LGBTQ+ characters tends to play more towards a stereotype of someone from the LGBTQ+ community.

We have to be more vocal about our opposition to LGBTQ+ characters being played by CIS actors and we need actors from the LGBTQ+ community to also be brave enough to leverage whatever power they have to say ‘No, this isn’t right.’ And for some reason Gay characters by CIS actors gets more of a pass than any others within the LGBTQ+ community. This faux-rage that comes up lasts a few moments but then the press and audiences end up forgetting, or simply ignoring the reasons why they where unhappy in the first place. As they discovered with BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) when it was announced that Josh Gad would be playing LeFou in what Disney billed as their first-ever Gay Character there was outcry and Gad’s response to the negative reaction his casting got was less than gracious. For me if a studio is going to make a big deal about having a Gay character in a film then we have a duty to make sure we ask questions about their CIS casting choices.

Looking at S.N.A.T.C.H.E.D again particularly: A. Advance Equality, C. Change the world through Visibility and Normalisation & E. Educate Others you can see how Disney failed to respect the LGBTQ+ community and the backlash that this character got tainted the film. The refusal from some LGBTQ+ filmmakers to insist on LGBTQ+ actor does not advance our visibility it does, however seem to suggest that there is something the LGBTQ+ acting community needs to continue to worry about. Mainstream filmmakers make certain demands all the time when it comes to Disney, seemingly oblivious to the backlash they got in 2017, doubled-down in 2021 when they released JUNGLE CRUISE which featured MacGregor Houghton, Jack Whitehall, described as ‘hugely effete, very camp and very funny...’.

And yet Gay actors and characters are nothing new to audiences or to family films. One of he biggest family films in the 1990s was MRS. DOUBTFIRE (1993) featured two Gay actors Harvey Fierstein & Scott Capurro as Frank & Aunt Jackie. Nothing about the way these two characters are introduced or spoken about by Daniel, Robin Williams, is ever in a negative sense, in fact its overly normalised. Though we only see them briefly they are a happy Gay couple, one that has a good relationship with their family and has a close relationship with their nieces and nephew. This was powerful representation and on reflections when you realise that MRS. DOUBTFIRE made nearly $500 million at the box office 15 one cannot help but feel joyful that these two Gay characters got seen by so many families.

There is a really heartbreaking beauty when audiences are able to see a film that has a Gay character played by a Gay actor. There are subtleties, there are ‘isms’ that are unique to real experience that no amount of training can create. When we saw Sir Ian McKellen as James Whale in GODS AND MONSTERS (1998), also directed by Bill Condon, you sit up and you soak in a wonderfully crafted, honest and relatable performance. Few people would know who James Whale was or what his contribution to Hollywood was and his story was one that needed to be old and casting McKellen allowed for a delicate and touching story to come out, he made you understand the character and you lost yourself in him even.

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This is unlike HALSTON (2021) where the creative team decided to cast Ewan McGregor who recently won an Emmy for his portrayal. Choosing McGregor, an actor who has twice before played Gay characters in VELVET GOLDMINE (1998) and I LOVE YOU PHILIP MORRIS (2009), seems to cater to an audience who, in today’s television climate, couldn’t care if the actor was Gay. It seems as though some creatives want kudos working with A-listers and so are all too willing to have a CIS actor play a role they know all too well should be played by a Gay actor. Both director Daniel Minahan and creator Sharr White are Queer and the series was produced by Ryan Murphy thus as creatives in the visual media they owe it to the legacy of such a trailblazing Gay Icon like Halston to honour his whole identity and history.

Even his response to being cast as Halston McGregor seemed to be unable to understand why there is an issue saying, “If it had been a story about Halston’s sexuality more, then maybe it’s right that Gay actors should play that role. But in this case — and I don’t want to sound like I’m worming out of this, because it’s something I did think a lot about — I suppose, ultimately, I felt like it was just one part of who he was.”16

The LGBTQ+ community is a unique culture onto itself that sprung up out of a need to survive. Through language, music, literature, film, theatre, fashion and art LGBTQ+ identity is connected to a powerfully resilient history and culture. We are calling out cultural appropriation all the time yet when some aspects of LGBTQ+ culture is usurped by the mainstream political establishment, corporations or Film & TV our silence is complacency. In other creative industries there are ongoing debates about how culture is being appropriated: 

 

Fashion: Belenciaga 2017 & 2021Stella McCartney in 2020, Kim Kardashian West in 2018 & 2019.

Music: Lana Del Rey in 2021, Madonna in 2020.

Film: Will Smith being cast as Richard Williams (this was a colourism debate as Richard is darker skinned than Smith) & Scarlett Johansson about playing a Trans Man.

 

Johansson responded to Bustle in regards to the backlash saying: “Tell them they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.” Her comment is a reflection of what a lot of CIS actors who are called out for playing LGBTQ+ characters leading to a reluctance for them to see why this is an issue. Tambor said when he accepted his award at the 2016 Emmys:

 

I’m not going to say this beautifully: to you people out there ... please give transgender talent a chance. Give them auditions. Give them their story...I would be happy if I were the last cisgender male to play a transgender female.

Films like HAIRSPRAY (1988) offered a mainstream platform for the late Divine’s unique talent, PHILADELPHIA (1993) opened up the world to the growing urgency of the AIDS epidemic and also inspired the Oscar Nominated film IN & OUT (1997). And then there are films like TO WONG FOO, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING! JULIE NEWMAR (1995), the film that closed Jeza Belle’s Workshop. This film is S.N.A.T.C.H.E.D and the clip that was shown truly summed up the beauty of LGBTQ+ characters by showing the diversity, stories and lives in such a heartwarming and genuine way. All three leads Patrick Swayze, Vida, Wesley Snipes, Noxeema Jackson, and John Leguizamo, Chi-Chi, brought truth to their characters that was, both for them and the audience, unprecedented. We saw three very different and complex characters who where unapologetically happy in themselves and their lives. This was an important time, it was the time of THE ADVENTURES OF PRICILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT (1994) and CIS actors greatly aided the normalisation, education and acceptance of LGBTQ+ characters but, though it might sound cold, LGBTQ+ character's don't need their hands held by CIS actors anymore...We're here! We're Queer! Get used to it! 

Perhaps moving forward we need to use S.N.A.T.C.H.E.D to rate LGBTQ+ films similar to that of the F-Rating system on IMDB. This simple but powerful an acronym should be used to help audiences to better understand LGBTQ+ stories and characters in Film and TV. This could move audiences away from generic, false narratives that pick at our stories but not willing to let those within the community tell them.