The Evolution of LGBT Films: The Pre-Stonewall Era Films

As we enter the month of June, the pride festivities celebrating the LGBT community will start to commence in major cities to which the very definition of “pride” will stand as both a representation for their history and also have varying forms of expressionism with individuals regarding their sexuality. Contrary to many who believe the date of the festivities to be random, the pride ceremonies actually commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Riot. This riot occurred in Greenwich Village, more specifically the Stonewall Inn, a location that was then-known as an establishment homosexuals frequented. The police typically raided the establishment, arresting and beating homosexuals while additionally labeling them as “deviants.” This finally culminated into the June 28, 1969 riot when protests began with gays saying ‘no more,’ which evolved into the Gay Liberation Movement that fought against their discrimination. This is what the pride celebrations seek to remind both the straight community and future generations who identify as LGBT of. Like any group, an acknowledgement of their history is integral with both recognizing how far the LGBT community has come since then, but it also functions as a basis to never allow a group to regress to a time when they were oppressed.

Stonewall Riot 02

The Stonewall Riot is the foundation of LGBT awareness and rights. It currently functions as the difference in eras between being “open” opposed to being “closeted.” The term “closeted” refers to those who represent themselves as part of the straight community and hide their sexuality. Many times this is due to the fear of discrimination. Other times it is due to the fear of not being accepted. Before the Stonewall Riot, being “closeted” was not uncommon, to which many individuals denied themselves the happiness they deserved or were forced to live discreet lives. That doesn’t go to say post-Stonewall is an indicator of a simpler existence. Stonewall merely succeeded in forcing the public to acknowledge the existence of the LGBT community. The LGBT community still had to endure the political campaigns of the 1970s that aimed to limit the openness of their sexuality, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, and the repeated instances of violence and discrimination that continue onto today. Yet these battles wouldn’t be occurring if it weren’t for the first step Stonewall provided to the LGBT community.

In the context of film, the Stonewall Riot actually has relevancy. Before Stonewall, there was a filmmakers code that emphasized open homosexuality in film was both “indecent” and “immoral.” This didn’t halt films from incorporating homosexual characters into film, yet this was typically done discreetly with the most notable trait for such characters being males who were flamboyant or highly animated. Naturally, identifying such characters comes with close analysis of the performances and a certain level of deduction. On the surface it would seem that discreetly incorporating LGBT characters within films prior to 1969 ought to be commended, but they aren’t without their flaws.


Such roles were usually relegated to two forms. The first is the best friend who ultimately dies violently. This is the scenario with Sal Mineo’s performance as Plato in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause. Plato is undoubtedly a homosexual in the film, even hinting at it when he states society “doesn’t understand” him. Even the symbolism of the name ‘Plato’ refers to the real-life Greek philosopher who was known to engage in homosexual activity. Mineo’s homosexuality encourages contemporary audiences to view Plato as gay, especially knowing Mineo refused to keep his sexuality silent from others, making him one of the first celebrities to be openly gay in Hollywood. However, Plato is a foil character in Rebel Without a Cause to contrast with James Dean, therefore he dies violently by the film’s conclusion. Yet this type of foil character has dramatically evolved in the decades since. Greg Kinnear’s performance in 1997’s As Good as it Gets is a prime example of the character being a contrasting character, yet not being reduced to the mere ‘best friend.’ Instead, his character is offered sympathy and compassion that asks for the audience to love him as equally as they would love the protagonist. This sympathy stems from the character’s internalized hurt for having been rejected by his parents due to his sexuality, which provided a level of awareness to audiences that LGBT individuals are deserving of the same acceptance as others. Unlike Mineo’s demise in Rebel Without a Cause, Kinnear’s character exits As Good as it Gets with a happy ending, a smile, and actually assisting the protagonist without it being at his expense.

As Good as it Gets

The second categorization of LGBT characters in classic Hollywood film was as the role of the villain. This stock character-type fit perfectly within Hollywood’s depiction of homosexuals being “immoral.” Having them placed in the role of the villain only reinforced the bigotry and loathing homosexuals received by society prior to the Stonewall riot. This is especially the case with Robert Walker’s performance as Bruno in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Bruno’s obsession and interactions with the film’s protagonist (ironically played by the closeted gay Farley Granger) seemingly has a homoerotic demeanor to it by how he rolls his eyes and smiles at the film’s hero. Walker’s Bruno is animated and expressive in his body language, additionally having a level of euphoria for having committed the murder of a woman. The fact Bruno murders a woman for a man suggests a detachment from women and an affinity towards men. The character is played with the cliche that he is close with his mother and despises his father, whom he wants the film’s protagonist to kill for him. Even Bruno’s introduction in the film suggests his homosexuality by having his foot “accidentally” tapping the protagonist’s own foot on the train to get his attention. Contemporary audiences now know this is a discreet code with closeted LGBT individuals, as opposed to the film which attempted to frame it as a chance encounter. It can be easily deduced Bruno’s obsessive motivation to aid the film’s protagonist stems from an awkward attraction towards him, to which he was willing to do anything to accommodate him and was infuriated when the same wasn’t offered back. While audiences may not have been directly aware of Bruno’s homosexuality, it is no coincidence that a discreetly gay character was also the villain. It further encouraged the perception of gays being “deviants.”

Strangers on a Train

When contrasting this with contemporary film, it is important to note that LGBT villains are now no longer used to encourage others to diminish the community. For example, The James Bond franchise, known for its versatility with villains, never before had an openly gay (arguably bisexual) villain in its series until Javier Bardem’s performance in 2012’s Skyfall. Bardem is flamboyant, bordering on stereotypes, yet he weaves the character’s sexuality with his diabolical nature. He provides a level of enjoyment in his mania, almost being giddy with the successful chaos he has incited upon others. While Bardem’s Raoul Silva may be gay, his sexuality never once leads the performance with the exception of his introductory scene. Yet even within this scene, Silva’s homosexuality itself is not being defamed, but is used to the villain’s advantage to attempt a form of superiority over the film’s hero. Silva is not defined by his homosexuality, but rather his character is led by insanity and hatred. That is the basis of the performance. Silva just happens to be gay.


Adding onto contemporary films, there is currently a type of filmmaking that can be described as “Post-Stonewall” that aims to show the treatment of LGBT characters living within the Pre-Stonewall era. These films function as a sort of expose, a snapshot of the former treatment of gays by society and also emphasizes to viewers that a regression to the past is unacceptable. This is precisely why Brokeback Mountain cultivated the response it got when it was first released in theaters in 2005. The mere fact Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist do not get a happy ending due to the environment of the era left viewers with dissatisfaction that such an existence could be inflicted upon a person. Brokeback Mountain’s narrative functioned off of realism, therefore a happy ending would have been farcical in rural Wyoming in the years before the Stonewall riot. Ennis’ infamous line to Jack, “If you can’t fix, you gotta stand it,” compelled viewers to be activists because Ennis represented those too scared to speak out, thinking it would do nothing other than put their own lives in danger. Therefore in the regard of a film truly rejecting the concept of a pre-Stonewall era, Brokeback Mountain was the most effective with a mainstream audience.

Brokeback Mountain

However, the rejection of the pre-Stonewall era in film isn’t a new premise and nor have such films ceased to be produced post-Brokeback Mountain. HBO’s 2000 film If These Walls Could Talk 2 (a film broken into 3 separate vignettes) featured a pre-Stonewall era storyline (1961) starring Vanessa Redgrave as Edith Tree, an open lesbian whose partner of nearly forty years passes away suddenly. Despite them having lived together most of their lives, the house and all of Edith’s possessions were under her partner’s name, thereby she has no legal claim to any of them. The pre-Stonewall era doesn’t recognize her marriage to her partner and views her merely as a “friend.” This is precisely how she is viewed by her partner’s family who arrives to essentially kick Edith out of the house she had long established as a home with her partner. Yet any time Edith discreetly refers to her relationship with her partner, she is seen as immoral by these very same people who refuse to view her as a human being capable of feeling. This vignette provided a snapshot to the film viewer of a time when love was vilified by those who ironically were the very representation of the “immorality” they feared.

If These Walls Could Talk 2

A more recent example of a pre-Stonewall film was 2009’s A Single Man starring Colin Firth as George Falconer, a British college professor who is in the midst of grieving when his partner of 18 years dies suddenly in a car crash. The film centers around a day-in-the-life with George, who has planned to kill himself by the day’s conclusion. His decision for such an action extends beyond that he has lost the love of his life, but in that he cannot openly grieve for his loss. Instead he feels compelled to maintain the role society has demanded of him; that he is seen as a single man. However, the beauty of A Single Man is how the everyday occurrences George experiences remind him that beauty is eternal and will never cease. This theme is largely effective in the film’s representation of a pre-Stonewall environment in that there is beauty in the world, yet it is blocked by those who demand a “normative” environment. Or, this beauty is ignored by those who refuse to understand, such as George’s friend Charley (Julianne Moore) who was well-aware of her friend’s relationship but never saw it as something serious. She refers to George’s relationship as “…a replacement for something real,” thereby suggesting she never viewed their love as “normative.” The irony of this quotation is that Charley believes she has an opportunity of having a life together with George now that his partner is deceased, which would never be real if she were to actually achieve this goal. This lack of understanding is precisely why ignorance continues to exist even in today’s society. Simply put, love cannot be relegated to a perception of “normative.” It just is.

A Single Man

Whether it is identifying the discreet LGBT characters in classic films or analyzing contemporary films that seek to expose an intolerant society, the acknowledgement of the 1969 Stonewall riot is integral if one wants to understand the LGBT community. There is a history with the LGBT community within the United States and it is clearly broken into two halves with Stonewall being exactly at the center of the two.

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  1. Great, mindful post.

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