Hollywood Has a Long History of Stereotyping Gays, Lesbians

Knight Ridder Newspapers via FS View
Florida State University

From the "sissy" to the killer to the wisecracking sidekick, gay and lesbian characters have long been featured on the silver screen. Here is a sampling of mainstream movies released over the last several decades with these themes: Note how the roles have changed over the years.

“Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959)

Hollywood often resorted to a game of hide and seek when it came to the sexual identity of Tennessee Williams' characters (see the 1958 Elizabeth Taylor-Paul Newman version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). Here, an immoral gay man, whose face is never shown, is killed in front of his cousin (Taylor) during a European vacation.

“The Children's Hour” (1961)

Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn star in this film version of the Lillian Hellman play, a depressing and tragic drama about the fallout from a child's rumor that two teachers are lesbian lovers.

“The Detective” (1968)

Frank Sinatra steps into the shoes of a detective investigating the murder of a gay man in New York. Considered sensational and daring at the time, the film took audiences into gay bars and lingered at seedy cruising spots.

“The Boys in the Band” (1970)

This cinematic version of the off-Broadway play written by Mart Crowley was considered a landmark. Some have taken offense at what they consider broad stereotypes and now view the film as dated, while others still appreciate it. The plot revolves around gay friends in Manhattan, gathering for an eventful birthday party. William Friedkin directs.

“Sunday, Bloody Sunday” (1971)

The late openly gay director John Schlesinger took a matter-of-fact (some say too matter-of-fact) approach to this romantic triangle revolving around a man (Peter Finch) and a woman (Glenda Jackson) in love with the same younger man (Murray Head). One of the first heavily Oscar-nominated movies to feature a kiss between two men. Incidentally, the gay subtext contained in Schlesinger's Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy is still discussed today.

“Cruising” (1980)

A killer carves up gay men who frequent New York leather bars in this lurid thriller that prompted protests within the gay community. Al Pacino dons a leather jacket and black tank tops to play a cop who goes undercover to investigate the murders. Violent and explicit, the film, directed by William Friedkin (The Boys in the Band, The French Connection) received savage reviews.

“Making Love” (1982)

A critical and box-office failure about a married doctor (Michael Ontkean) who falls in love with a gay writer (Harry Hamlin). Kate Jackson of Charlie's Angels' fame co-stars as the doctor's wife. Directed by Arthur Hiller (Love Story), it was marketed with two posters, a provocative one to appeal to gay audiences, and another aimed at straight audiences. Many who saw it in theaters reportedly got up and walked out when Ontkean and Hamlin kissed.

“Basic Instinct” (1991)

Gay and lesbian activists immediately protested the filming of this slick thriller. The script, about an ice-pick-wielding murderer, was written by “Showgirls” scribe Joe Eszterhas and was blasted by some in the gay community for portraying bisexuals and lesbians in two ways: as nut jobs or homicidal maniacs. Instinct became a big hit, and went on to launch Sharon Stone's career.

“Philadelphia” (1993)

Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his portrayal of a gay lawyer fired from his firm when it's learned he has AIDS. Jonathan Demme (“The Silence of the Lambs”) directed the $78 million hit, which many consider groundbreaking. Antonio Banderas, no stranger to portraying gay men (see Pedro Almodovar's Law of Desire), appears as his lover. Considered one of the first films to feature a lead gay character in a sympathetic role.

“The Birdcage” (1996)

This American version of La Cage aux Folles scored big at the box office, taking in more than $124 million. Robin Williams and Nathan Lane star as gay dads about to meet the parents. One dad (Lane) dresses up like a woman for the occasion. Directed by Mike Nichols, who went on to make the lauded, gay-themed Angels in America.

“Boys Don't Cry” (1999)

Hilary Swank took home her first Oscar for portraying the real-life Brandon Teena, a cross-dressing teen who was raped and murdered. The stark, brutal film received good reviews and kudos from the transgender community. (William Hurt also won a best actor trophy for playing a transgender character, in 1985's “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”)