The Evolution of LGBT Films: The Awareness Films

Now that there’s a general understanding of the Stonewall Riot, and knowing it is the basis of the Gay Liberation Movement, this LGBT series can continue onwards by showcasing the resulting film canon post-Stonewall. Yet before this feature continues, it is important to reiterate the importance of LGBT films that portray the landscape of a pre-Stonewall environment. Such films are not made for the sake of entertaining audiences, but are made with the intention of conveying to audiences the need to never regress to such an era. Films that occur within the pre-Stonewall era strive to portray the desperation, fear, discretion, and repression many LGBT individuals felt in the United States during that time. Their voices were not heard then and such contemporary films seek to have those very voices heard now, even if their stories are being told decades later. The purpose of such LGBT films is to emphasize that these unheard voices have not been forgotten and their struggle is part of the overall LGBT movement. Such films aren’t supposed to be feel-good, nor are they supposed to be films you want to watch. Yet despite the films’ intentions, audiences still find themselves captivated with the content such films have to offer.

Brokeback Mountain

In the context of Brokeback Mountain, viewers continued to watch the narrative and fell in love with the characters because the film portrayed its male leads breaking past their environment’s version of “normative.” However, what holds viewers back from cheering for these two characters is the forceful insertion of reality into their circumstance. Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist’s understanding of life contrasts sharply against each other, but reality strikes them both in their own way. Ennis Del Mar is aware of the prospect of discrimination, as indicated from a childhood memory of his father showing him the mutilated body of a known homosexual. This is why he rejects the idea of an open relationship with Jack. Deep down he wants the life Jack is proposing to him, but he knows such a life choice will only end in tragedy. Added to that, Ennis, unlike Jack, is able to deny to himself who he is. Yet internally he resents himself for being able to. Evidence of this occurs after their first sexual encounter to which Ennis tells Jack, “I’m not queer,” showing a blatant denial of himself. This denial-of-self also links to why Ennis repeatedly engages in brawls or threatens violence, because it is him overcompensating his masculinity. Yet Ennis’ fears of being open are not unjustified as indicated by the film’s conclusion: Jack dies. It’s revealed Jack had engaged in another relationship with a male, which reinforces to Ennis the thought that his former lover had died violently because he was open about his sexuality. The viewer can believe the story of Jack dying due to a tire exploding and striking him in the face, but viewers are well aware of what Ennis believes. Jack choosing to be open is what caused his premature death. Therefore whether taking a chance or choosing to be safe, both Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist exit Brokeback Mountain with unhappy conclusions.

Brokeback Mountain 02

The success of Brokeback Mountain brought about a new appreciation for LGBT cinema and a new evolution of film biopics began to surface regarding LGBT individuals as a result. Many individuals were like Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain, who felt it to be safer to be discreet about their sexuality. This mentality had no boundaries, extending even to Hollywood with celebrities such as Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift, and Raymond Burr famously hiding their sexuality from the public. Therefore with contemporary audiences having a newfound interest in the LGBT community and their history, studios began to place more focus on celebrities who lived lives of secrecy. Many times such films conveyed the celebrity’s public image versus his private. The biopic would portray the actor’s private life as being disastrous while the public persona was represented as flawless. This showcased the mental anguish of such celebrities who had to continue acting even when the cameras were turned off. One recent example of this was HBO’s 2013 film Behind the Candelabra, which focused on the life of Liberace (played magnificently by Michael Douglas) through the eyes of his lover (Matt Damon). To his fans, Liberace was the charismatic piano player and performer. Behind closed doors, his insecurities led his life and actions. Behind the Candelabra portrays Liberace’s insecurities which stem from his shame of himself. He longed for his public persona to be genuine and would distance himself from anyone who reminded him of the reality of who he was. Liberace’s life of cocaine, plastic surgery and alcoholism was destructive, yet publicly his fans merely saw him as the eccentric Radio City Hall performer. They weren’t aware of Liberace’s passive-aggressive demands to his boyfriend, with Liberace even suggesting at one point that his boyfriend get plastic surgery to look more like him. Of course, this was done in the effort that Liberace could claim his boyfriend was actually his son if he were to be asked who his boyfriend was. Liberace’s denial-of-self was so deeply rooted in shame that there was an attempt to cover-up his having AIDS by announcing to the public that his death was due to “complications due to a watermelon diet.” The tragedy of Behind the Candelabra is showing how Liberace’s shame of himself contributed to his internalized mental anguish.

Behind the Candelabra 02

However it is important to note that not all LGBT biopics are films that expose a time when individuals were ashamed of themselves. 2008’s Milk is the opposite of Behind the Candelabra by portraying those within the LGBT community who were not only open to the public about their sexuality, but were willing to be vocal advocates about their equality. Milk focuses on the true-story of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), who became the first openly gay politician to be elected into a government office in 1978. The film conveyed the true importance of Harvey Milk’s brief career by how he sought to fight the Anita Bryant/John Briggs Prop-6 initiative that aimed to have those who were openly gay be fired from their jobs. If it weren’t for the political genius of Harvey Milk, who was successful in organizing alliances between the gay and straight community, the rights of LGBT individuals throughout the country may have been gravely impacted. San Francisco was already considered a safe haven for LGBT individuals in the 1970s, but Harvey Milk ensured it would be the birthplace of their liberation. However, like any true leader who sought to make a difference and achieve equality, Milk’s life ended in tragedy when he was brutally assassinated. The film frames Milk as a martyr for LGBT rights and it is an appropriate analysis. In the context of people genuinely trying to make a difference in the world, such leaders typically are murdered in cold blood.

Milk 02

Unfortunately the history of the LGBT community is marred with violence and many post-Stonewall films seek to spotlight such instances of ruthless violence. To reiterate, the purpose of such films is not to “entertain” but to provide a voice to someone who was once unheard. The effect, if the film is made correctly, is to have the viewers realize the hypocrisy of those who felt their cruelty was justified. Such films bring about tremendous awareness for both the LGBT community and put the viewer within the crowds of protesters saying ‘no more’ without the viewer ever having to get up from his seat. The films provide an understanding that cruelty towards those who simply wanted to be themselves is unacceptable and shouldn’t ever be tolerated. This was precisely the effect 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry achieved. The film told the true-story of Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank), who was a transgendered male who was brutally murdered in Nebraska in 1993. The film strives to show the happiness Brandon experienced by starting a relationship with a female he loved and fitting in with the rural culture of Nebraska. Yet he underestimated the intolerance of the area and the consequences of living within an environment that refused to accept him. What Boys Don’t Cry especially conveys to viewers beyond the horrific imagery of rape and violence, is how the authorities had no qualms about the violence he endured and instead spoke to him as if he were deserving of such treatment. This lack-of-interest allowed for Brandon Teena to ultimately be murdered by those who raped him. What viewers take away from Boys Don’t Cry is a level of awareness about the transgendered community and also see Brandon Teena’s treatment and death as repugnant and unacceptable. Viewers are left with the reality that this story is based off fact and if there isn’t any outcry about it, it will happen again.

Boys Don't Cry

While many of these LGBT biopics end in tragedy, films had gradually began to evolve away from this by showing instances of empowerment when its characters easily could have despaired given their circumstances. The sentiment of such films can be summarized in the words of Harvey Milk in Milk, “Without hope, the us’s give up – I know you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. So you, and you, and you… You gotta give em’ hope… you gotta give em’ hope.” Much of this hope comes with the desire to see complete unification within the LGBT community, but also with them having a strong alliance with the straight community. 2013’s Dallas Buyer’s Club represented one such alliance within the LGBT’s history. The film’s appeal stemmed from representing a circumstance in which the LGBT community was not helpless and left with apathy over their situation. Instead, Dallas Buyers Club portrayed the impact of a gay-straight alliance and how such allegiances can benefit both communities. The film’s overall storyline is the true-story of those afflicted by the HIV/AIDS virus seeking better treatment, yet the subtext of the film is about the sense of empowerment both communities gain when they see themselves as equal and work together for a common cause. This suggests a hope that those within the LGBT community someday won’t be deemed as “different” and instead seen the same as anyone else. Often it takes a catastrophic circumstance to bring people together, as portrayed in Dallas Buyers Club, but regardless of the ‘how,’ any group that wants to build themselves up ought to do it with the assistance of another group. Whether it is called ‘teamwork’ or an ‘alliance,’ it is effective in protesting against those seeking to minimize others. It is when people unite that bigoted views are revealed to be misguided or contradictory to what they claim to believe. Dallas Buyers Club shows the impact of such an alliance.

Dallas Buyers Club

Such themes are not a new phenomenon within film, but rather have been embellished upon since their first conception. The birth of such gay-straight themes in film can be arguably credited to 1993’s Philadelphia, which was the first mainstream film to discuss AIDS and homosexuality directly. It should be noted that Philadelphia wasn’t the first AIDS film, with 1990’s Longtime Companion or 1986’s Parting Glances preceding it. However, the effectiveness of Philadelphia came with the big names of Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington willing to openly discuss the topic with their performances. They also brought about the first respectful film representation of gays that was devoid of the stereotypes the film community had long perpetuated upon the LGBT community. Instead, Tom Hanks’ performance represented the obvious; he was a normal guy who only differed due to his sexuality. His having AIDS exposed his sexuality, thus allowing him to be discreetly discriminated by his employers who fire him from his job. Extending beyond the topic of AIDS, Philadelphia still has tremendous relevancy with contemporary society in the topic of LGBT workplace discrimination. As of 2015, there are 32 states that offer “limited” to no protection towards LGBT individuals being fired due to their sexuality. An attempt to combat this was the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that was introduced to Congress in 2014, which passed the Senate but failed to pass through the House due to arguments that it infringed upon religious rights. Nonetheless, the issue of workplace discrimination is just as relevant now as it was in 1993 when Philadelphia was introduced to film viewers.


Shifting back to the topic of AIDS in LGBT films, there is the unfortunate reality that the LGBT community faced tremendous divide and fear in the 1980s due to the epidemic. AIDS is just as important of an acknowledgement with the LGBT community as the 1969 Stonewall Riot. When contrasting the two, the main difference between Stonewall and the AIDS epidemic was there being no unity or agreement with any group or establishment on how to combat the virus and stop its spread throughout the community. The true tragedy of the AIDS epidemic falls in that nearly 20 thousand individuals were infected with the virus before the first celebrity, Rock Hudson, announced he had AIDS. It was when a celebrity contracted the disease that the media and government genuinely started combating the disease, bringing about public awareness of the epidemic and providing proper financing towards its treatment. Contemporary films seek to remind viewers of this era in LGBT history. AIDS eventually went onto affecting all facets of society, but the LGBT community experienced horrific losses in the first five years of the epidemic when the Centers for Disease Control and many other health organizations refused to acknowledge the existence of a virus. Films such as Longtime Companion sought to show film viewers of the innocence lost as a result of the virus, to which large circles of friends were reduced to none and relationships were torn apart. Such films haven’t changed over time with the same sentiments being conveyed to contemporary audiences. The more recent example of this was HBO’s The Normal Heart, which was based off of Larry Kramer’s 1985 play. Themes of loss and tragedy with the LGBT community are now synonymous with the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and such films function as a reminder to viewers of this.

Longtime Companion

While LGBT awareness films aren’t necessarily films that aim to entertain audiences, their goal is tremendous with having those outside the LGBT community being educated to the many plights and issues the community has dealt with and continues to encounter. Whether it is AIDS, violence, or discrimination, film viewers find themselves more associated with the LGBT community as a result of these films. Society functions primarily off of visual mediums, especially when it comes to inciting activism. Therefore, LGBT awareness films provide the necessary push for society to acknowledge these injustices and seek to correct them from happening again. Awareness films are not propaganda since they are told matter-of-factly and are based off of fact and realism. The reason why such films get strong emotional responses and declarations for change is because the realism such films convey are considered unacceptable, which compels others to demand a society that is acceptant of all individuals and devoid of discrimination.

Join The Movement

Enter your email address below to subscribe to Seroword and support independent arts journalism.

Twitter Stream


  1. Great post, very comprehensive.

  2. Wow, this is an amazing article, showed me a lot of things I had never thought of. Such a shame so many people had to or have to hide who they really are, I’m glad it is better than it used to be but it should be much better, there is no difference in love, we are all the same. Let’s all hope that someday this will be accepted by EVERYONE!! Thanks for this post, I learned a lot. Michelle

Leave a Reply