Classic Movies Remembered: A quick history of gays in the movies


In 1961, Victim portrayed the blackmailing rackets compromising gay men in London.

The first ‘gay movie’ was an 1894 two minute silent reel of two men dancing together, harmlessly known as The Two Brothers. In 1915 Charlie Chaplin appeared in a two-reeler where he becomes a woman to vie for the attention of two men, although it hardly qualifies as a gay movie. In the 1930 film Morocco, Marlene Dietrich kissed a woman for the first time on the silver screen.

Because of censorship by bodies such as the Hays Code in the USA and the film classification censors in UK, early talkies had few overtly gay references. In the 1941 production Casablanca, Peter Lorre plays an effeminate villain with a penchant for perfume. This was deemed OK, particularly as he ends up getting shot. Alfred Hitchcock loved to toy with the fine line between sexuality and villainy with gay characters appearing in Rope and Strangers on a Train. Many argue that Psycho in 1960 has gay clues, especially the swishy walk of Anthony Perkins which is deliberately exaggerated on at least two occasions.

James Dean played the first openly gay teen in the 1955 Rebel Without A Cause whilst Victim in 1961 made the case for legalization. The first lesbian sex scene popped up in The Killing of Sister George in 1968, which also saw Boys in the Band demonstrating gay life at a birthday party. But many film historians think the media breakthrough arrived in 1975 with the arrival of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the first sympathetic treatment of transvestites. It also introduced to the world a new term: pansexual.

In 1975, pansexuality was prominent in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

In 1993 the first serious treatment of the aids epidemic got an airing in Philadelphia when Tom Hanks is sacked for his sexual orientation and fights back in various ways. By 2005 we had Brokeback Mountain which tracked the secret love affair between two cowboys. In 2017 a gay movie, where all the characters are black, chalked up a best Oscar win with Moonlight. In 2021 LBTQ+ issues finally made it into children’s literature with the arrival of the cartoon-orientated The Mitchells versus The Machines.

Many thousands of gay-themed movies have been made in the past 100 years, with Indian, Japanese and independent film makers joining the melee from the 1990s. The silent era, pre-code movies were surprisingly bold in their approach until censorship raised its disapproving head in the 1930s. Whether gay movies were partly responsible for changing public attitudes to homosexuality in the last 50 years, or merely reflected them, is a matter for ongoing public debate. But progress can be slow. As recently as 2005, gayness was regarded as a psychiatric disorder in Thailand’s legal code. And gay marriage is still uncommon outside of western Europe.

In 2005, Brokeback Mountain broke new ground with the secret love affair of two cowboys.