Volume 91, Issue 30

Wednesday, October 22, 1997

Suzuki side kick


Everyone's coming out of the Celluloid Closet

By Ciara Rickard
Gazette Staff

Ellen DeGeneres is doing it. Tom Hanks did it. Kevin Kline is doing it. Even Tom Selleck is doing it – they're coming out on screen and introducing the world to a whole other culture.

The gay and lesbian community has, in the past, been shunned from the Hollywood mainstream or given token roles for the sake of political correctness or comic relief. But Hollywood has now expanded its offerings and gay and lesbian characters and actors are beginning to occupy more central roles.

"It seems to be a trend that has removed a certain amount of stigma surrounding the lives of gays, lesbians and bisexuals, Clarence Crossman of the London AIDS Committee, says. "It has helped normalize this lifestyle."

This general increase in the visibility of gays and lesbians in Hollywood, in such films as The Birdcage, In and Out and the TV show Ellen, has been long sought after, Crossman says. "It's a result of work that started in the '50s and has been happening for scores of years," he adds. "The film and TV industries have identified the gay and lesbian communities and done careful marketing. They've cashed in on it."

Gays and lesbians have generally had very little exposure in mainstream Hollywood in the past and what exposure they did have was tainted by negative undertones and exaggerated stereotypes. In dozens of earlier films with gay and lesbian characters, the gay characters were killed off or committed suicide – this, obviously, was not the kind of exposure desired by the gay and lesbian community.

"Hollywood has historically responded very negatively to gay characters – their response was to kill us off in the movies. It really took many decades for them to accept having a gay character who lived," says James Miller, a professor of English, Modern Languages and Literature at Western.

This increase in the amount of exposure for gays and lesbians has much to do with changes in legislation regarding gay and lesbian rights, says Richard Hudler, chair of the Homophile Association of London, Ontario Social Services Committee. It can also be partly attributed to the increase in the number of people 'coming out,' which helps the general public to be more accepting.

"There's more of a positive attitude towards gay characters in Hollywood," Hudler says. "The exposure gays and lesbians had before was very stereotypical; now they're being portrayed like everybody else."

Though many people certainly don't have a problem with the presence of gay and lesbian characters in TV and film, many disputes have erupted because of homosexual characters and plot lines. It seems people are still not willing to expose themselves to this culture.

"It's a very positive step but there comes a price with it – there's always the backlash from the community, like the Disney boycott or advertisers pulling their support from the Ellen show," says Liz Tracey, associate communications director for GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation).

So gay and lesbian representation in Hollywood has become more positive and more in the forefront – but is it really progress? Most agree that although the industry is maintaining old stereotypes about gay characters, it is, at least, a step in the right direction.

"I see this as progress," comments Tracey. "They are becoming more visible in the mainstream media. Having gays and lesbians on screen is a step in itself but the community is not accurately represented – there are still the stereotypes and negative representations. It is a measurable gain. However, it remains to be seen whether it will continue. We still have to battle many who disagree."

Not everyone, however, sees this as progress. Professor Miller points out that most mainstream films with gay and lesbian characters do not go on to seriously explore their lives and relationships. Often the gay characters are very stereotypical or simply a source of comic relief. There is also a subtle heterosexist undertone, the assumption that everyone else is straight.

"It strikes anyone who has been involved in the gay/lesbian movements as ludicrous... I don't find the recent media attention at all politically advancing for gays and lesbians. The homophobia industry is still rampant," says Miller. "The real cultural evolution has come with independent films."

Crossman notes gays and lesbians are not the only group to be marginalized and it is important to establish equality for all groups. However, the danger is groups can become 'blenderized' – what we need to do is maintain equal rights while recognizing diversity and ask deeper questions about why such inequality exists, he adds further.

"What's wrong with a society that would exclude so many different people? What are the values that our society is based on that makes exclusion happen so easily?" Crossman asks. "Yearning for a society that is colour-blind is a mistake. The answer is in celebrating our differences."

To Contact The Features Department: gazfeat@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1997