Mark Segal

LGBT Images on the Screen and Beyond

Filed By Mark Segal | July 15, 2013 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: Boys in the Band, Celluloid Closet, cinema, films, movies, Stonewall, tragedy, Vito Russo

Boys In The Band coverartOver a recent breakfast with Jason, our conversation took an interesting turn. He and I were discussing a fiction article he was writing where the major gay character dies at the end. I know, it's a spoiler, but I'm giving away the end since it makes a great point that recently hasn't seen much discussion in our community.

To Jason it was just another story, but I took deep offense at the main romantic character dying, and I actually began to get angry. All of a sudden I heard myself say, "Why do all the gay characters have to die, end up in jail, or be pitiful?"

I went on to explain that up until almost the 1990s, gay characters -- when they saw the light of day -- were always people to be pitied, from The Chalk Garden, where the "lesbian" kills herself, and Boys in the Band, where we're all self-loathing or stoned all the time, to Dog Day Afternoon, where Al Pacino plays a gay bank robber to get the funds to have a sex-change operation for his boyfriend, or Pacino's other delight, Cruising, which makes it seem as though the entire LGBT community is into whips, chains, and leather. Ah, but this was the beginning of enlightenment and he was in reality saving the gay community from a gay S&M serial killer.

Vito Russo wrote volumes about this stereotyping of our community on the silver screen, most notably in his legendary book The Celluloid Closet.

So we decided to watch a documentary called Making the Boys about the aforementioned Boys in the Band, the first-ever play written about the "real lives" of gay men, which made it to the off-Broadway stage in 1968 and later to the silver screen.

If you have not heard of or seen it and want to know more about your community and our history, it's a must.

The play opened a year before Stonewall, and it was a huge success since it was a first. When it opened, gay men were just thrilled to finally not be invisible, so they welcomed it. It was well-written and directed, but a new LGBT America and the new gay rights movement was about to take the stage at Stonewall. And overnight, the show was relabeled as a collection of self-loathing gay stereotypes, and got lumped in with The Chalk Garden as another oppressive work.

Watching the film gave me a new appreciation for those who brought it to the stage, and as one of those who protested it in New York City, I now understand that it was a step in the right direction; at least we weren't invisible and the next play about LGBT people could be produced and possibly be a better example.

I now wonder if Boys in the Band actually led the way in bringing the community out of the closet. Watching the documentary shows the viewer how far we have come.

Things are changing, and the best examples are the various LGBT film festivals around the nation where you see LGBT people crafting films about their community and culture. The point is, my generation has seen negative characters and then a disease devastate our community, while younger generations are beginning to feel the freedoms of the long march from oppression. Their vision is different from those of us who have fought to change media and society. And that means our work has been a success.

Not sure how the character in Jason's article will end up, but we both learned a lesson.

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