‘Hollywood Pride’ chronicles the growth of LGBTQ+ stories in film

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Sarah Sweeney

“Right now, what's happening is a really fascinating trans New Queer Cinema. In the last year, we've had ‘The People's Joker’ … ‘I Saw the TV Glow.’ We're about to get ‘National Anthem.’ I think there are a lot of really exciting new voices in that arena, who are getting their stories made and put in front of a wide audience,” says Alonso Duralde. Photo by Shutterstock.

Hollywood has embraced more LGBTQ+ stories over recent years, with big-screen productions such as Challengers, I Saw The TV Glow, Rustin, Cassandro, and others. Rewind to 1894, the first work to represent the queer community was arguably The Dickson Experimental Sound Film — which showed two men dancing as a third man played the violin. That’s according to podcaster and film critic Alonso Duralde. His new book, Hollywood Pride: A Celebration of LGBTQ+ Representation and Perseverance in Film, is an encyclopedia of queer artists on-screen and behind the camera. 

Reflecting on the 1894 film, Duralde tells KCRW that the image of two men dancing together — hands around each other’s waists — palpably creates a moment of affection. 

“I find it really interesting that that's what's kicking off … not just queer cinema, but all cinema. Because right around that time in 1895, you have the Oscar Wilde verdict, where he is found guilty of gross indecency,” he points out. “And so I think those things kind of go together, where from the birth of the cinema, movies have existed in a society where queer people were treated with suspicion, with hostility, with legal systems set against them, church system set against them. And that is reflected in the long history of queer visibility on the screen and for all the queer artists who made the movies happen.”


Poet and playwright Oscar Wilde happened to have a cameo in the first-known feature film about LGBTQ+ people – Different From the Others, a 1919 German production. The story centered on the romance between a famous concert pianist and his student, who ultimately take their own lives after facing blackmail, ostracization, and jail time. The Weimar Republic government banned this movie in 1920. Then the Nazis attempted to destroy every copy of it, like they did the entire work of the film’s co-writer, physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. 

Duralde says of the time, “It was the Weimar period in Germany, and we're seeing these huge strides being made in the study of not just gay/lesbian lives, but trans lives, really looking at this through a scientific prism in a way that hadn't been done before. And tragically, almost all of that research was destroyed once the Nazis came in.” 

Many of those German artists — queer and straight — fled the Nazis and came to Hollywood. That included Marlena Dietrich, who played with gender stereotypes. 

“Back in Berlin, [Dietrich] was [exercising in] boxing gyms, which was very unusual for women to do. She frequented bars, where there were drag shows. And [she was] famously, wildly bisexual, and … this is historical fact. But [she] very famously turned down Hitler's offer to be the Reich's reigning movie queen, and came to America, became a U.S. citizen … went above and beyond to really support the American war effort.”


In this era, the Red Scare was happening, and queer people were considered as threatening as communists (though communist regimes were not welcoming to LGBTQ+ people, Duralde points out).

“Also, there's this real policing of gender roles going on because World War II happens, the men all go overseas, and suddenly women are often finding themselves working outside of the home for the first time. And then the men come back home, and they are not going to give their jobs up to any ladies. And women were very much being told by the culture over and over again, ‘[Go] back in the kitchen … have some kids, let's do a baby boom,’” says Duralde.

He continues, “And so then that brings us to a movie like Caged, which is on its face a social dilemma movie, like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, about how terrible prisons are, and how we're throwing in these first-time offenders with these hardened criminals, and look what happens. But it's also a warning about: Ladies, do not step out of line, or else this could be your future.”

He notes that Caged was a little more open about lesbianism existing, but filmmakers had to portray it as a terrible thing. 

One of the film industry’s most influential directors was Alfred Hitchcock, who had been talking about gay characters for decades. “He had a thing where he would delight in [an] implication that the villains were queer, also in casting closeted gay men to play those roles. … Then he had some positive queer characters too,” says Duralde.

Did making the villains gay do more damage to the LGBTQ+ community, or was that simple visibility worthwhile? 

“I'm of the school of: Anything is better than nothing. And if the code existed to just erase us completely from existence, and the only way to sneak LGBTQ+ content in was by a villain, or by a goosey, sissy character with a few zippy one-liners, I'll take it. That feels like you're actively subverting the system.” 

He continues, “Once the code ends, however, I think you get a cavalcade of really terrible queer representation in movies … because certainly in the case of studio movies, they're almost all being made by straight cis white men. And so it's not until, I think, more queer filmmakers are in the driver's seat that you start seeing more balanced and richer interpretations.”


A big step forward comes with Making Love, written by Barry Sandler, who was gay. 

“For a major studio to make a movie in 1982, in which a man realizes that he has feelings for other men and leaves his wife — and is still portrayed sympathetically, and she is portrayed sympathetically, and even the guy that he has a dalliance with is portrayed sympathetically — and the two men are allowed to kiss, and have a love scene, and they are played by actors you know from TV, that was a huge, huge step for 1982.”

He continues, “For a lot of mainstream America, I'm sure that movie felt like a next step in understanding who these folks were, how they lived, why they do what they do. And it was a pioneering film for its moment, and I think it still holds up.”

Other movies in the 1980s contributed to a breakthrough for queer stories, Duralde notes: Desert Hearts, a lesbian love story directed by Donna Deitch, and Parting Glances from director Bill Sherwood.   

“Both of those films … [the] budgets were cobbled together from wealthy friends and made very much outside the system. But [they found] an audience theatrically and in the nascent home video cassette market.”


Duralde says the “onslaught” of LGBTQ+ productions came during the 1990s, when the first-ever Sundance Film Festival gave its Grand Jury Prize to Poison and Paris is Burning. 

Then works like My Own Private Idaho, Go Fish, and The Watermelon Woman all found an audience by being direct and honest about queer lives, Duralde points out. It signaled to producers: “Okay, there is a starving LGBTQ audience who will come see these movies. … And there's also maybe enough of a segment of hip, urban, straight arthouse people who will also support these movies.” 


Duralde says television and the internet are allowed to be narrow-focused and thus have churned out fascinating shows — while film studios have grown safer and more conservative. 

He says of studios, “We don't want to have a gay superhero because what if we get banned in Malaysia or whatever? And so they're very much thinking about a global market, and they don't want to make waves. So they'll, for the most part, farm that stuff out to their classics division, their arthouse division.” 

He also points out, “Right now, what's happening is a really fascinating trans New Queer Cinema. In the last year, we've had The People's JokerI Saw the TV Glow. We're about to get National Anthem. I think there are a lot of really exciting new voices in that arena, who are getting their stories made and put in front of a wide audience. And so I'm really thrilled to see where that's gonna take us, and how that is going to change the narrative about how we tell these stories.”



  • Alonso Duralde - film critic, co-host of the movie podcast “Linoleum Knife,” author of “Hollywood Pride: A Celebration of LGBTQ+ Representation and Perseverance in Film” - @ADuralde