The Political Beginnings of Queer Cinema


Stranger by the Lake

BFI Flare Film Festival is running this week, showcasing some of the year’s best shorts and features from a global gang of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other queer (LGBTQ) filmmakers. And as Gorilla mentioned last week, The British Council has launched fiveFilms4freedom alongside Flare, making five shorts from the festival available online for free. Flare offers a chance for London’s LGBTQ community to get together to consider, debate and celebrate what it means be a part of the very unique world of Queer, while fiveFilms4freedom shares it with people in over 70 countries. But more importantly, the BFI and The British Council offer a chance for others to enjoy a rare taster of LGBT cinema, and show support for freedom and equality in the industry and beyond.

LGBT and LGBTQ are terms thrown about a lot. While the meaning and usage of LGBT is pretty self-explanatory, that of the Q might be less so. On hearing “queer” used in reference to LGBT cinema, those not in the know (straight people) might simply respond with “you can’t say that in public!” Or so we hope, anyway. It’s a fair response, but it’s also why learning about Queer is well worth it for avoiding a politically correct faux pas. Plus, Queer has a rich and exciting history, deeply rooted in the 80’s AIDS pandemic and ‘90s indie cinema.


Queer folk in Paris is Burning, 1990

At its surface Queer is used as an umbrella term for an alliance of marginalised sexual identities, encompassing lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people. Below the surface, Queer describes an opposition and resistance to widespread heteronormative understandings of the supposedly normal, and stable, categories of gender and sexuality. Michael Warner is credited for first using the term heteronormative in 1991, claiming that “so much privilege lies in heterosexual culture’s exclusive ability to interpret itself as society”. Heterosexual society, Warner said, regards itself as the “elemental form of human association, as the very model of intergender relations, as the indivisible basis of all community” For thousands of years, Western hetero societies have normalised and naturalised ideals of monogamous relationships, marriage and parenting, and strict gender binaries.

Queer theory and politics engages with that which is beyond these ideals, disrupting what is considered normal to explore possibilities outside the hetero, patriarchal world. In Jodie Taylor’s words, “in the history of all that is and has ever been queer, it would seem that queer is and has always been at odds with normal and supposedly ‘natural’ behaviour”. So at its core, Queer is a discursive tool, an analytical model and a political drive which has been used to locate and deconstruct heteronormative categories deemed natural, and offer categories and identities beyond them.

While Queer is mostly linked with sexuality, it has also grown to describe more explicit versions of living beyond hetero conventions, like the rejection of one’s birth sex demonstrated by transsexuals. In her seminal article Gender Trouble (1990), Judith Butler destabilises the idea that gender is a concrete category associated with one’s birth sex, arguing that gender is instead the performance of socially-defined norms. So queerness can describe any number of personal performances and gestures which undermine hetero gender binaries, from transvestitism to campness. Queer has grown over time to even include other marginalised identities, based on race, disability and class, all of which and more are now represented at film festivals like Flare.

The emergence of Queer Politics and New Queer Cinema

Queer Nation at Basict Instinct

Queer Nation at premiere of Basic Instinct, for ‘bisexual psycho’ related homophobia

The political stance of Queer emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a part of LGBT activism following the 1980s AIDS crisis. In a world dominated by the conservative parties of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, AIDS was met by a widespread social and political homophobic backlash. Hetero forces demonised the LGBT community as the cause of the disease, and marginalised them as the deserved victims of it. So international LGBT rights organisations like Queer Nation, ACT UP and Outrage reclaimed the derogatory word,  and adopted a new set of Queer politics. And the taking on of the entire institution called for a fierce kind of politics. They didn’t ask for the acceptance or approval of mainstream, hetero culture, and gave no explanation or justification for AIDS. They didn’t ask for a place within heteronormative society, but demanded a distinction from it.  As the famous street chant went, “We’re here, we’re here, get over it”. It was a completely new mood, an aggressive new sense of entitlement.

As Western mass media fuelled widespread homophobia, new Queer activists created their own brand of oppositional, countercultural media to battle their socio-political exclusion. And so the first landmark era of Queer Cinema was announced in 1992 by renowned critic and queer hero B Ruby Rich, who simply pointed out a significant number of films across the international festival circuit which took up this new deviant energy. This wave of films was christened by Rich as New Queer Cinema. Politically-Queer filmmakers began making films with LGBT characters and themes, avoiding the need for mainstream funding by taking advantage of recently available cheap cameras. The most prominent of these, the pioneers, were Jennie Livingstone (Paris is Burning, 1990), Todd Haynes (Poison, 1991),  Derek Jarman (Edward II, 1991), Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, 1991), Tom Kalin (Swoon, 1992) and Greg Araki (The Living End, 1992).

Edward II Annie Lennox

Annie Lennox stumbles onto the set of Edward II to give us a number. Why? Fuck you, that’s why.

Their films were sexual, postmodern, controversial and wild, always refusing to cater to mainstream tastes. Films undermined the traditions of cinema, playing with the rules of structure and sense by blending styles, genres and historical periods, in extreme forms of postmodernism. Derek Jarman’s Edward II followed the plot of Christopher Marlowe’s play closely, but depicted the Sixteenth Century King’s followers as AIDS activists, and his enemies as modern riot police. Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, set among the hustler scene of a modern day Idaho, is interrupted here and there with bursts of dialogue from Shakespeare’s Henry IV.

While New Queer Cinema did respond to the underrepresentation and stereotyping of the LGBT community by the hetero, approval and acceptance wasn’t on their agenda. Instead of portraying sweet and inoffensive gays, pictures of health with a “we’re not so different, you and I” feel, the films took a more confrontational approach. As B Ruby Rich said, “Definitively breaking with older humanist approaches…these works are irreverent, energetic, alternately minimalist and excessive. Above all, they’re full of pleasure”.

The Living End

Greg Araki’s The Living End

New Queer characters were flamboyant, camp, edgy and controversial, showing a proud disregard for positive representation. Protagonists lived on the edge of society, and adopted radical lifestyles as they “exposed, challenged and railed against their social invisibility and status as victims” (Motyka). Often they were extreme versions of Queer identity and lifestyles. Greg Araki’s The Living End and Tom Kalin’s Swoon, for example, depicted murderous, AIDS-infected characters that refused to apologise for their crimes or appeal for empathy. They had sex with others, and didn’t think twice. In Rich’s words, characters challenged “the whole enterprise of ‘positive images’, definitively rejecting any such project and turning the thing on its head…Claim the heroes, claim the villains, and don’t mistake any of it for realness”.

New Queer Cinema of this kind was short lived, never quite developing into a movement but capturing a very specific moment in LGBT history. It did, however, establish the first mass audience for LGBT films. Over the next decade, the Queer film scene would expand to include a broad range of styles and genres, from Queer spoof comedies (Eating Out, Not Another Gay Movie) to art house hits (Weekend, Stranger by the Lake, Blue is the Warmest Colour). Some of the New Queer filmmakers like Greg Araki (Mysterious Skin) and Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Elephant) went on to find some mainstream success, while Hollywood offered some of its own groundbreakers (Boy’s Don’t Cry, Brokeback Mountain, Milk).

What we have today is a growing wealth of Queer filmmakers from all over the world making films of all kinds, partly due to the cheapness of filmmaking and the range of exhibition spaces, but also because cinema has become a core aspect of Queer culture. At this year’s Flare you’ll find films that are unashamedly erotic, some that are aggressively political and others that continue to undermine the cinematic tradition. You’ll also find mainstream stars Queering themselves, as James Franco continues to threaten his Disney career with his unwavering commitment to playing gay characters. As the boundaries between LGBT and hetero society continue to blur, Queer more than ever is for everyone.


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