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Fair representation? LGBTQ+ in 20th-century photography and film

The path toward fair representation of LGBTQ+ people has proven to be a long and daunting one. In this blog, we look at the representation of the LGBTQ+ community in photography and film throughout the 20th Century.

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Sofie Taes (új ablakban nyílik meg) (KU Leuven / Photoconsortium)

The path toward fair representation of LGBTQ+ people has proven to be a long and daunting one. In this blog, we look at the representation of the LGBTQ+ community in photography and film throughout the 20th Century.

Even though homosexuality gradually gained visibility in popular culture from the early 1900s onwards, early depictions mostly involved cross-dressing or gender-bending as an element of comedy.

This practice was halted by the Motion Picture Code, issued in 1930 and effective until 1968. This set of rules for what was permitted and excluded from the big screen included ‘general principles’ and ‘particular applications’ aiming at preventing films to ‘lower moral standards’.

Though not explicitly mentioned, homosexuality or any suggestion of same-sex relationships were forbidden under the denominator ‘sexual perversion’, as were interracial relationships and any positive portrayals of sexual relations outside of the marriage. Henceforth LGBTQ+ characters would continue to exist in metaphors, suggestions and implications, but not as a real and realistic reflection of societal diversity.

Queer characters and relationships were often associated with crime, illness or anti-social behaviour - rhetoric that only strengthened during World War II. In 1952 the film ban was followed by The Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters, used until 1983 to prevent depictions of homosexuality on tv.

The codes of the American film and television studios started to erode from the early 1960s onwards, heavily influenced by European movies questioning gender bias and discrimination. A Taste of Honey, a British film directed by Tony Richardson, was one of the motion pictures addressing the reality of homosexuals, single mothers and people in mixed-race relationships.

The end of the decade saw more complex and intricate LGBTQ+ depictions by independent cinema such as that of Andy Warhol. Furthermore, after the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, the LGBTQ+ community was discovered as a possible lucrative movie market (‘the pink pound’).

Even though stereotypical depictions didn’t cease to exist, the occurrence of gay protagonists increased and issues at the core of the community - such as AIDS, same-sex marriage and adoption - became cinematic themes.

In Gefahr für die Liebe a love triangle turns into a network of support when one of the protagonists has been diagnosed with AIDS.

Piotr Łazarkiewicz’ Pora na czarownice (‘Time for witches’) features a female prostitute and a homosexual boy, both HIV positive, who become a couple and try to deal with aggressive opposition of a local community.

As the late 1990s marked the beginning of meaningful LGBTQ+ representation, showing gay people in a positive, family-related context remained exceptional well into the 21st century: gay characters were often portrayed as threatening family life instead of instigating relationships.

Fair representation, just as legislation and societal acceptance, remain the topic of activism on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community. Between the rigid and dichotomous concepts of a nuclear family and a group of friends among which the main driver appears to be sexual innuendo, an unbiased depiction of ‘the queer family’ formed on the basis of mutual affection and appreciation has yet to become mainstream.

Sofie Taes, KU Leuven - Photoconsortium

This blog is part of the Europeana XX. A Century of Change project which focuses on the 20th century and its social, political and economic changes.

The images used in this blog that are In Copyright were used with permission of Filmoteka Narodowa, Deutsches Filminstitut DIF, and the European Film Gateway.