Not Just the Gay Best Friend: Major LGBT Characters Shine on the Big Screen This Fall

Too often under- or misrepresented in film, gay and trans stories are prominently featured in several major movies this season.

Elle Fanning in 'About Ray,' Eddie Redmayne in 'The Danish Girl,' Julianne Moore in 'Freeheld,' and Cate Blanchett in 'Carol.' (Images: YouTube)

Sep 8, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca Raber is a regular contributor to TakePart. She has written for Pitchfork, MTV Hive, The Village Voice, Spin, CMJ, and other publications.

As in years past, when the explosion-and-car-chase-fueled summer movie season winds down, audiences can look ahead to a fall full of dignified awards fare and intimate relationship dramas. The only difference is that this autumn the romances unfolding across the big screen will be between actors Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, and Tunde Adebimpe and Sebastian Silva, to name a few. That’s right, it’s going to be a gay old fall at the movies, and it’s about time.

Cinema—at least mainstream cinema—has lagged behind its small-screen sibling in telling LGBT stories and featuring LGBT characters. Every year GLAAD releases its Studio Responsibility Index, mapping the quality, quantity, and diversity of LGBT people in films released by the seven major studios. The 2015 report, which surveyed the 2014 landscape, found that only 17.5 percent of 114 major studio films released that year contained an LGBT character, and most of those were gay white men. Films from smaller, so-called art-house studios (Focus, Fox Searchlight, Roadside Attractions, Sony Pictures Classics) were found to be lacking: Only about 10 percent of their films featured any LGBT characters, according to the report.

GLAAD also pointed out that despite growth in transgender representation on the small screen—in shows such as Orange Is the New Black and Transparent—not a single character in any film released by Fox, Disney, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Lionsgate, Sony Columbia, or Warner Bros. was recognizably transgender. But as a measure of how much more progressive the upcoming season is shaping up to be, this fall there are two.

In September, About Ray will open; it stars Elle Fanning as a teen who was born as Ramona and is now pursuing his true male identity. The film also stars Naomi Watts as his mother and Susan Sarandon as his lesbian grandmother, who are both working to accept Ray’s transformation. Then, in November, The Danish Girl opens; it stars 2014 best actor Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe, the real-life first recipient of male-to-female sex reassignment surgery in 1930.

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These two films have little in common—one is a family story about a teenager grappling with identity issues, and the other is a historical romance about changes in a marriage—save their transgender lead characters. But both are carving out an important space at the multiplex for stories about gender-nonconforming people.

The welcome bundle of upcoming LGBT-themed movies also prominently features the stories of gay women, who have long been overshadowed by their male counterparts. In Carol, Todd Haynes’ new film based on Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, Rooney Mara falls in love with an older married woman played by Cate Blanchett. Freeheld, which is based on a 2007 documentary of the same name, tells the true story of a terminally ill New Jersey police officer (played by recent best actress Oscar winner Julianne Moore) fighting to ensure her pension can be passed on to her domestic partner (played by Ellen Page, who came out last year).

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Not all of the forthcoming films will be greeted with open arms, though. Stonewall, which on its face should be a long-overdue history of the landmark 1969 clash at the titular bar in New York City that kicked off the modern gay civil rights movement, is being met with a boycott from the very community it should be seeking to reflect and uplift.

With blockbuster director Roland Emmerich—he helmed Independence Day, the 1998 Godzilla, and the disaster porn flick 2012—behind the camera and a narrative focused on a fictional, white, good-looking Midwestern transplant, some LGBT advocates think the film whitewashes their history. The real Stonewall riots were led by people of color, drag queens, lesbians, and transgender men and women, so fears that the story will focus on a white cisgender man (based on the trailer and photos from the set) have led to an online petition—signed by more than 24,000 people—that calls for audiences to “not throw money at the capitalistic industry that fails to recognize true s/heros.”

We will have to wait until the Sept. 25 opening day to see if people stay away from Stonewall or if Emmerich is correct when he said, “Audiences will see that it deeply honors the real-life activists who were there—including Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Ray Castro—and all the brave people who sparked the civil rights movement which continues to this day.”

Sure, films that focus not just on LGBT issues but on LGBT people, who have for too long been marginalized as a main character’s fierce best friend or swishy comic relief, can enable studios to earn good marks on GLAAD’s report card. But media representation may also help make the unfamiliar familiar and change the public’s mind. For example, according to Gallup polls, in 1996 only 27 percent of people thought gay marriages should be valid, compared with 60 percent today.

Not to diminish the good work of activists, lawyers, and educational campaigns, but it’s possible that some of that shift can be attributed to entertainment—The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Will & Grace, Glee, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Six Feet Under (not to mention specifically LGBT-themed shows such as The L Word and Queer as Folk)—normalizing gay relationships and people. As Vice President Joe Biden said in his 2012 public endorsement of gay marriage, “When things really began to change is when the social culture changes. I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anybody’s ever done so far. People fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand.”

Although LGBT visibility in film this fall is unprecedented, perhaps true progress will be when a gay or a trans character doesn’t have to be defined by sexuality or gender expression in a piece of entertainment—or better yet, when it doesn’t even warrant mention at all.