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Que(e)ries: Was 2012 a Good Year For LGBT Representation in American Film?

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire December 17, 2012 at 1:29PM

Of the top 25 grossing films at the U.S. box office in 2012 (so far, at least), there are actually three more films that feature Channing Tatum as a lead actor than feature anyone as an openly LGBT character with more than a couple lines. And there's three Channing Tatum films in that top 25.
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Of the top 25 grossing films at the U.S. box office in 2012 (so far, at least), there are actually three more films that feature Channing Tatum as a lead actor than feature anyone as an openly LGBT character with more than a couple lines. And there's three Tatum films in that top 25 (including "Magic Mike," which is notably the closest thing to gay porn to ever gross over $100 million -- though it does not actually feature an openly gay character).

Now, if we're a bit more flexible with the definition, one can certainly make queer readings of a few major characters in those 25 films. And in a grand Hollywood tradition, they are all effeminate villains. There's Giovanni Ribisi's Donny in "Ted," Sam Spruell's Finn in "Snow White and the Huntsman," Alan Tudyk's King Candy in "Wreck-It-Ralph" and, of course, Javier Bardem's Silva in "Skyfall," who is certainly the most explicit (and most interesting -- especially since you could also queer James Bond himself in the process) example. While this entire column could be devoted to critically delving further into those characters (as this excellent piece over at The Playlist already did), I will instead focus on more unequivocal, seemingly well-intentioned examples and see how they fit into what has truly been a landmark year for LGBT representation in the overall mainstream culture of the United States. 

But first let's consider why and how 2012 was such a big year for American queers overall.

In politics, Barack Obama became the first sitting President to come out in support of same-sex marriage, and he was re-elected after the fact; Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin became the first openly gay U.S. senator; Kyrsten Sinema became the first openly bisexual U.S. Congresswoman; and all four states -- Minnesota, Maine, Washington and Maryland -- with measures regarding same-sex marriage on the ballot voted in favor.

In sports, former NFL player Wade Davis became one of only a handful of football players to come out, becoming an LGBT surrogate for Obama and a member of the GLSEN sport advisory board in the process; Puerto Rican boxer Orlando Cruz -- currently ranked at No. 4 among featherweights by the World Boxing Organization (whatever that means) -- became the first openly gay professional boxer; and Kevin McClatchy -- former owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates -- came out after 30 years in the closet.

In music, Frank Ocean came out via Tumblr, and not only did the hip hop community (mostly) embrace him, he went on to find huge critical and commercial success with the album he released shortly after; another hip hop artist, Azealia Banks, came out as bisexual and no one seemed to even flinch (though female bisexuality is definitely much less taboo in hip hop than its male equivalent); and various other people associated with hip hop -- including Russell Simons, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, T.I. and Ice Cube -- publicly declared their support of same-sex marriage, basically unheard of just a year ago.

Ben Whishaw played an openly gay character in "Cloud Atlas."

All these examples fall into realms where homophobia has historically been rampant. That's what makes them so transgressive, despite feeling so obvious to anyone lucky enough to live in a bubble where homophobia, is rare.

Movies, on the other hand, represent an area of American culture that has been pioneering by comparison. The examples given above with respect to politics, sports and hip hop are all generally first steps in one form or another -- coming out stories or examples of straight people openly supporting the basic rights and/or professional capabilities of LGBT people. It's been a good decade or two since the equivalent of these sorts of narratives felt even mildly revolutionary inside a film.

So then what are 2012's cinematic contributions to LGBT representation? Well, there's certainly no 2012 cinematic equivalent of Frank Ocean. No film that focused primarily on LGBT characters or issues was part of any big pop cultural conversation. When the Oscar nominations come out next month, the closest thing we could possibly have to an actor portraying a queer character is, oddly enough, if Javier Bardem ends up making the cut for "Skyfall" (though we will very likely have as consolation an openly gay adapted screenplay Oscar winner in "Lincoln"'s Tony Kushner). There was no "Brokeback Mountain," no "The Kids Are All Right," no "Milk."

There was "Pitch Perfect," an incredibly entertaining minor box office hit directed by openly gay Jason Moore and featuring Ester Dean as an openly lesbian (supporting) character. There was "ParaNorman," which -- even if it was a very minor plot point -- offered the first explicitly gay character in a mainstream animated film in a very positive way. And there was "Cloud Atlas," which is definitely and admirably the first $100 million budgeted sci-fi epic to feature the romantic relationship between two men as one of its central love stories (even if -- spoiler alert -- their relationship is tragic and ill-fated while their heterosexual cinematic counterparts live much more happily ever after). But these aren't primarily "LGBT films," not that there's anything wrong with that.

On a notable aside, "Atlas" directly related to what was perhaps the closest thing the film world had to a Frank Ocean. The film's co-director, Lana Wachowski, decided to speak publicly about being transgendered for the first time leading up to the film's release. The incredibly powerful, well-articulated and widely distributed video of the speech she delivered at an Human Rights Campaign event was a milestone for the visibility of transgendered people (watch it here). But that wasn't in movie theaters.

In movie theaters, the vast majority of respectable, prominent representations of LGBT people came from filmmakers working largely independently and thus creating films that did not -- to varying degrees, at least -- make it into the mainstream conversation. Certainly there has always been much more quality LGBT-themed film coming from outside the studio system, but the gap has widened in the past decade or so. 

Since 2000, forty-one films with perhaps arguably central LGBT-themes have grossed over $1 million at the domestic box office, only three of which came out since 2010. Very significant is that fact that, in the 1990s, fifty LGBT-related films grossed over $1,000,000, including five films ("The Birdcage," "In & Out," "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Philadelphia" and "The Crying Game") which grossed over $50 million (and that number jumps to seven if you adjust for inflation). Only two did in the 12 years to follow -- "Brokeback Mountain" and "Bruno" (the latter of which some considered to actually be downright homophobic).

"Bruno"

This is not to say all of these films are great examples of LGBT films (some of them have quite questionable representations, see "Bruno"), but the point is that no matter the quality, the quantity of LGBT films in mainstream American cinema has declined despite the fact that "general acceptance" of LGBT people has significantly increased in society as a whole.

This is a drastically different situation than television, where comparatively remarkable inroads have occurred with respect to LGBT inclusivity in popular media that far exceeds film. This past fall's new television season saw a record number of LGBT characters. Between the five broadcast networks, a truly impressive 4.4 percent of regular TV characters identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (up from 2.9 percent last season, as per this GLAAD study). Add this to a sizeable presence on cable (regular LGBT characters on scripted cable television rose this year from 29 to from 35), and these numbers are pretty impressive (now, this too begs a quality vs. quantity discuss, but considering that a) I'm no television connoisseur and b) the primary topic of this column has derailed itself enough already, I'll direct you to this imperative read about one extraordinarily problematic issue regarding some of the noted TV examples and move on).

So why has mainstream film lagged behind not just television but its former self? Perhaps the 1990s simply represented a time when it was new and trendy (and, optimistically, "important") to release "gay films." Now, as LGBT people come more of an established minority within both culture and media, films focusing on LGBT people have simply become as disproportionate in the studio system as films focusing on women or racial minorities. Which one could peg as a consequence of the greater economics involved in making studio films (compared to TV or indie films) and that its "safer" to make films built to attract vast audiences, particularly young, white, straight males (though as far as I'm concerned that's a bullshit excuse disproven time and time again with regard to women, racial minorities and LGBT folks).

But whatever the case, we thankfully still have independent film, which has always been far better at telling queer stories anyway (namely because the stories are often unapologetically told both by and for LGBT people). And 2012 was no exception. Building off a year that saw extraordinary voices in queer cinema emerge with Andrew Haigh's "Weekend" (which is admittedly British, but premiered at SXSW and is just too good -- and likely influential -- not to mention), Rashaad Ernesto Green's "Gun Hill Road" and Dee Rees' "Pariah," the past twelve months continued a burgeoning new wave.

Last week's inaugural edition of this column already mentioned three documentaries -- each dealing with the AIDS crisis from a historical perspective -- in Jeffrey Schwarz's "Vito," David France's "How To Survive a Plague" and Jim Hubbard's "United in Anger: A History of ACT UP." That column already spent a good thousand words explaining their importance, but they definitely warrant this brief re-mention given their considerable contribution to queer indie cinema in 2012. And three exceptional biographical docs (each in part about LGBT people breaking into mainstream media) should be noted alongside them: Kieran Turner's "Jobriath A.D," which details the life of the first openly gay rock star, Jobriath; Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf's "Wish Me Away," which looks at how Chely Wright became the first commercial country music singer to come out; Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch's "Me @ the Zoo," which chronicles several years in the self-recorded life of unabashedly gay viral video star Chris Crocker.

Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and Rosemarie DeWitt in "Your Sister's Sister"

Their narrative counterparts also offer many worthy exemplifications of thoughtful LGBT representations. Though not really "LGBT films" -- Lynn Shelton's "Your Sister's Sister" and Stephen Chbosky's "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" each present a queer person as part of a trio of wonderfully well-realized characters dealing with a critical moment in life together. Both funny, intelligent and at least seemingly confident in their respective sexualities, Rosemarie DeWitt's Hannah (in "Sister") and Ezra Miller's Patrick (in "Perks") are never played as gay second bananas to the heterosexual coupling that makes up the rest of the trios. With Patrick, this goes so far as him truly being the life of the film's party, and despite his struggles (he's sleeping with one of the school's star football players, who refuses to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality), he is never really portrayed as a victim (Hannah's situation is a bit trickier to discuss without spoiler alerts, so just see "Your Sister's Sister" if you haven't already).

More exclusively queer examples include Jonathan Lisecki's hilarious gay dude-straight girl romantic comedy "Gayby," Travis Fine's affecting 1970s-set gay adoption drama "Any Day Now" (featuring one of Alan Cumming's best performances), and Aurora Guerrero's heartfelt Chicana girl love story "Mosquita Y Mari" (which may never mention the word "lesbian" or "queer" but that's simply true to its context) all very much deserve to seen. These very different films each premiered at a major US festival (SXSW, Tribeca and Sundance, respectively) before deservedly dominating the LGBT film festival circuit (and all getting theatrical releases, "Any Day Now" just this past weekend).

But the two best American queer films of the year -- in my mind at least -- are Patrick Wang's "In The Family" and Ira Sachs' "Keep The Lights On." The former is technically a 2011 release (it had a tiny limited release in New York last November), but made its way to most markets (and this writer) in 2012 and was remarkably underappreciated either way.

"Keep the Lights On."

From first-time filmmaker Wang, the small town Tennessee-set "Family" relays the heartbreaking story of Joey (Wang himself), a man struggling to maintain custody of the six-year old son (remarkably authentic child actor Trevor St. John) he was raising with his boyfriend after his boyfriend is tragically killed in a car accident. The boyfriend's will (written before they had gotten together) states that custody of kin is to go to his sister, who passionlessly tears the child away from Joey as a result. Despite its whopping 169-minute running time, the film is restrained and subtle in ways that typically bog down "issue movies" (see the aformentioned -- and similarly themed -- "Any Day Now," which was certainly admirable but occasionally too melodramatic) and culminates in one of the most emotionally raw cinematic experiences of this year or last.

Similarly devastating, "Lights" -- openly gay Sachs' first film with queer content since his 1997 debut "The Delta" -- paints a painfully realistic portrait of an epic relationship. Set in 1990s New York, the loosely autobiographical film follows a Danish documentarian (Thure Lindhardt) who falls for Paul (Zachary Booth), a closeted lawyer. Sachs charts what follows over a volatile ten year time frame, with each man struggling with their own private compulsions and addictions – often at the expense of their relationship. With strong performances and a screenplay that defies convention, “Keep The Lights On” captures a poignant love story that could work as a stunning double feature with last year's "Weekend."

Notably, other than "Perks of Being a Wallflower" and "Your Sister's Sister," none of these films grossed even $500,000 at the U.S. box office (the combined gross of "Lights" and "Family" is less than $300,000 -- which is probably how much money "The Hobbit" made while you read this article). While certainly some audiences saw the films in ways that wouldn't count toward these grosses (film festivals, VOD), it's a shame that this fantastic new era of LGBT filmmaking is not finding its way to even a fraction of the audience that meets "Modern Family" and "Glee" week after week.

So to answer this que(e)ry, yes, it was indeed a good year for LGBT representation in American cinema. But how much does it matter if nobody seemed to notice?

"Que(e)ries" is a new biweekly column by Indiewire Senior Editor Peter Knegt. Email him for suggestions for future columns at peter@indiewire.com. He'd love for it to a be a collaborative effort.

This article is related to: Queer Cinema, Queer Issues