Navigating queer history is akin to hiking up the face of a steep hill – difficult at the best of times. The subject is hugely complex, and impossible to distill into a single paragraph. Nevertheless, as briefly as we can, let’s try to unpack.
The noun ‘homosexuality’ was first used in the late-19th century, but the traits that we presently associate with that word have likely appeared for thousands of years. One way of telling queer history can be to try to dig up these markers of queerness in historical figures. Another can be to map out how these figures, once identified, have affected human history – for better or worse. As we come closer to the present, queer history becomes a record of proximate events (such as Stonewall, AIDS and the murder of Harvey Milk) more recognisable under the terms of today’s gay subjectivities. Entwined with all of this is the historical study of gender.
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Queer filmmakers have long worked to show how homosexuality is neither modern indulgence nor historical aberration. Derek Jarman’s historical dramas spring to mind, having queered a Christian saint, a great Italian artist and an English monarch. In Looking for Langston (1989), Isaac Julien dreams of a Black, gay utopia inspired by James Baldwin and the eponymous Langston Hughes. In The Watermelon Woman (1996), Cheryl Dunye’s invention of a fictional Black lesbian film star, Fae Richards, emphasises the shortcomings of the historical record.
Documentarians have also done vital business over the last 5 decades to ensure that a visual record of modern queer history has been kept. Rob Epstein’s first film, The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), is a generous educational resource; we owe a debt of gratitude to both Epstein and his filmmaking partner Jeffrey Friedman, as their joint filmography could fill this list alone. So many countries still offer an insubstantial provision for LGBTIQ+ inclusive education, which compounds the importance of documentary film as an engaging, accessible historical resource.
Below is a small sample of the great many features that explore queer history, and what the function of ‘queer history’ has the potential to be – whether in the imaginative reproduction of the distant past or the recording of contemporary events and figures. Each selection offers a different vision of how queer history has been seen on film.
Different from the Others (1919)
Director: Richard Oswald
Co-written by Austrian filmmaker Richard Oswald and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, modern father of the study of human sexuality, the German silent film Different from the Others excoriates societal homophobia in Weimar Berlin. With sights centred on Paragraph 175, the provision in the German penal code that criminalised homosexuality, it tells the tragic tale of Paul Körner (Conrad Veidt, later seen in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Casablanca), a talented gay violinist blackmailed after caught eloping with a male student. As Oswald and Hirschfeld reflect in the film’s intertitles, his story is part of a long and sad historical lineage, of gay men penalised for their very nature.
In the film’s most profound scene, a fictionalised version of Hirschfeld – named ‘the sexologist’, but played by the good doctor himself – stands in the centre of a broad debating chamber during an academic conference, flanked by his peers. He speaks as if delivering a fiery sermon, declaring that homophobia belongs to “the same sad chapter of human history as the Inquisition”. The whole package is a groundbreaking polemic, but this, seen with 101 years of pride and prejudice in the rear-view mirror, is a particularly stirring moment. The film was narrowly rescued from the Nazi bonfire, and a restored – if truncated – version exists today, owing to the great efforts of the UCLA Film and Television Archive.
Gay USA (1977)
Director: Arthur J. Bressan Jr.
A year after the 1969 Stonewall rebellion, the protest was marked with the first gay Pride marches in the US – in Chicago, San Francisco and New York. Although Pride has seen significant changes over the subsequent decades, with its political importance arguably diluted in concession to consumer capitalism, it remains a great queer cultural tradition.
Shot by 25 scattered camera crews in the summer of 1977, Gay USA captures the eighth Pride march, taking place simultaneously across a number of cities in the US. Through interviews with captivated street onlookers, it witnesses a nation in the throes of moral debate. It’s a fascinating social document: rarely are we afforded such a candid look at gay life in the decade post-Stonewall and, indeed, only 4 years after the American Psychiatric Association had formally depathologised homosexuality.
Director: Ron Peck
Nighthawks is a fascinating cultural artefact, capturing a very specific moment in British queer history: it’s 1978, 11 years after the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised homosexual acts, and just 3 years prior to the advent of HIV/AIDs. The film follows the day-to-day life of Jim (Ken Robertson), a closeted school teacher in London, who navigates the duelling worlds of heterosexual England and the city’s emergent queer nightlife.
Though narrative fiction, Ron Peck employs an aesthetic style evocative of documentary realism, evoking the realities of the closet for English gay men in the late 1970s. As a historical document, then, it serves as a transatlantic counterweight to William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980); though the latter has been criticised as an exploitative slasher, it also renders the very specific historical period nestled between the early throes of gay liberation and the onset of the AIDs epidemic.
Looking for Langston (1989)
Director: Isaac Julien
Looking for Langston is an ethereal patchwork of dream-like imagery: of smoke pouring from welcoming lips, of angels hoisting the portraits of James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, of Black men in cocktail attire dancing the waltz with one another in a glitzy gentleman’s bar. Set against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance, Isaac Julien’s film is as much a celebration of Black gay love as it is of prosperity, or a reclamation of the Black, gay literary tradition hitherto suppressed.
Shot in black and white, the film is abundant with gorgeous chiaroscuro, evoking comparisons to Jean Genet’s 1950 gay classic Un chant d’amour (quite explicitly with the smokey-mouth motif). We later morph into the present, the gentleman’s club becoming an 80s disco. Frothy-mouthed skinheads and police officers adorned in disposable gloves move to raid the ball, but when they arrive the club is empty. The angels laugh at them from above.
Edward II (1991)
Director: Derek Jarman
Adapted from Christopher Marlowe’s history play, with its original language kept, Derek Jarman’s Edward II exists on the fault lines of queer history, much like his Sebastiane (1976). Already rich with homoerotic subtext, the play dramatises the relationship between the English monarch Edward II (Steven Waddington) and his favourite, the commoner Piers Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan). Ascending to the throne on the death of his father, the king recalls Gaveston from exile to the great chagrin of the noble class, lavishing him with gifts of titles, territory and opulence. Civil unrest follows.
Here the inferred queerness of the real-life monarch coalesces with the deep homoeroticism of Marlowe’s play, the characters’ homosexuality rendered explicitly by Jarman. We might first assume that this is a conventional medieval adaptation, but the film increasingly betrays its period trappings with anachronistic costumes. By the film’s climax, the prejudice of the present congeals with that of the past. Edward’s loyal army is made up of activists from OutRage!, a British gay rights group, facing off against the villainous Mortimer’s macho bobbies.
Zero Patience (1993)
Director: John Greyson
Randy Shilts’ monolithic journalistic work And the Band Played On was a pivotal text on the AIDS crisis in the US up to 1987, the year of the book’s publication. It’s a sweeping chronicle, a day-by-day record of how the virus came to dominate the American gay consciousness, and how it destroyed individual lives, throughout the decade. Its reputation has been marred, alas, by its perpetuation of one of the crisis’s worst myths, that the virus was brought to the US by a single ‘patient zero’, the French-Canadian airline host Gaëtan Dugas.
Zero Patience is a tongue-in-ass comedy-musical, complete with singing HIV molecules and rectums, that wages war on that myth. We follow the ghost of Dugas, soon after his death from complications of AIDS, as he tries to reveal the truth of the virus’s origin. He’s aided by a queered imitation of Sir Richard Francis Burton, whose colonial conquests are made to seem like symptoms of hyper-macho insecurity. Greyson’s film, like The Watermelon Woman, presents questions around historiography as much as it does history: who gets to write the history books, and what of the agency of the figures we record?
The Watermelon Woman (1996)
Director: Cheryl Dunye
The Watermelon Woman is less about what can be found on the historical record so much as what has been deliberately omitted from it. Director Cheryl Dunye plays a fictionalised version of herself. By day she works at a video rental store, a keen film buff, and on the weekends she works on an extensive archival project, to exhume the lost history and works of the ‘watermelon woman’, a Black Hollywood actress from the 1920s.
At the beginning of the film, Dunye questions what her project might ultimately be. “I know it has to be about Black women because our stories have never been told,” she tells us, her initial impetus being to unearth her racial ancestry. She delights at the later discovery that the watermelon woman, Fae Richards, was also a “sapphic sister”. Richards is fictional, of course, an amalgamation of figures ignored by the history books, but that’s the point. As the film’s epilogue suggests: “Sometimes you have to create your own history.”
No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin & Phyllis Lyon (2003)
Director: Joan E. Biren
Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon are 2 of the most important figures of modern queer activism. Yet few, particularly of the present generation, know their names. They played pivotal roles in not only the foundation of the first lesbian rights group in the US, the Daughters of Bilitis, but myriad other pro-queer groups that would emerge in the subsequent decades. Together they wrote Lesbian/Woman, considered a foundational text in lesbian activist literature.
The filmmaker JEB – Joan E. Biren – set out to correct the record in 2003 with No Secret Anymore. It can be a clunky affair. Its soundtrack sometimes evokes a karaoke tune; it takes a while, too, to settle into a cohesive chronology. But even with these formal shortcomings, it remains a vital record of the lives, and indeed love, of 2 of America’s most important queer figures, boasting superb archival footage and inspiring conversations with Martin and Lyon themselves.
Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (2005)
Directors: Victor Silverman and Susan Stryker
The 1966 riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, one of a chain of cheap diners in San Francisco frequented by transgender patrons, was “the first known instance of collective, militant, queer resistance to police harassment in [US history],” narrator Susan Stryker relates towards the end of Screaming Queens. But the brilliance of Silverman and Stryker’s film isn’t just in how it captures a forgotten event; the riot acts, here, as a central episode within a political chronicle of the early US trans rights movement.
“I am so proud of those women who fought at Compton’s on that hot August night, back in 1966,” continues Stryker, sifting through the archives at the GLBT Historical Society, also in San Francisco. “Learning about their lives taught me lessons I never learned in graduate school about how powerful history can be.” Not only is Screaming Queens an excellent record of early trans activism, then, but it’s also a testament to the great strength queer people can derive from the annals of history. It simply needs to be exhumed.
Director: Daisy Asquith
Daisy Asquith’s archival film essay tracks a great, century-long lineage of how gay behaviours, relationships, identities, politics and desires have been captured across the British media landscape. The best-known films are all here – Merchant Ivory’s Maurice (1987), Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986) and The Angelic Conversation (1985), Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels (1991), the Terence Davies Trilogy (1983) – cemented together by visions of queerness that have echoed through broader visual medias, from advertisements to film reels.
As with every queer historical survey, Queerama is abundant with tragedy, ostracism and social prejudice. Indeed, many of the films included here rely on them as dramatic devices – the clandestine rendezvous of Maurice, for example, provide ample suspense. But it’s also a celebration of perseverance in the face of terrible odds. Queer history has the equal propensity to inspire, and it’s in this respect that Queerama most excels.