LGBTQ+ Representation in Arts and Culture
The history of LGBTQ+ representation in arts and culture is a long and complex one. This article only gives a small overview of a huge history that dates back centuries and extends across the world on all continents. A lot can be said about the flexible identities in Indian classical dance, where performers tell stories by being malleable on stage, morphing into male and female deities as well as objects and animals. Even before homosexuality was legalised in most Western countries, queer culture was something that transpired from all corners of the music, film, and theatre industries. Cole Porter’s lyrics were filled with subversive references that made their way into heteronormative societies. Married to a wealthy woman to keep up appearances, Porter expressed desires for a hedonistic life in his music and lyrics, as we can notice in Let’s Not Talk About Love. His famous “list lyrics”, drawing from humorous and often absurd images, remind us of the quick-witted shade and popular culture references that drag queens stem from. Difficult to forget is also the groundbreaking character of Anybodys in the original West Side Story (1961), now reinvented as a trans man in the 2021 Steven Spielberg adaption. One of the most famous phrases from the character could be interpreted as a nod to the invisibility of trans and non-binary people at the time: “I’m very large with shadows, y’know… I can slip in an’ out of ’em like wind through a fence.”
The ’70s is a decade often characterised by one single distinctive word: disco. Disco was drenched in queer and black stories, expressing an unstoppable desire for liberation that was very much relevant to the time with the Civil Rights Movement in full blast. Disco celebrated femininity right at the heart of the mainstream, creating queer images that inspired a whole generation against hegemonic masculine values (widely expressed through the Vietnam War). The music dominated films like Saturday Night Fever (1977), where the main character, a heterosexual man, unashamedly acquired feminine dance moves. The AIDS crisis in the ’80s brought all of this progress to a halt. Disco being at the centre of queer culture, it was quickly associated with the disease, stigmatising the genre for decades to come. However, disco had left an everlasting mark on the world, influencing most dance music genres we know now like house, techno, and hip-hop. Listen to Donna Summer’s legendary track I Feel Love for reference. Fulfilling its own prophecy in the words of disco goddess Gloria Gaynor (I Will Survive), disco resurged again through the nu-disco genre, not to mention albums in the last few years by artists like Dua Lipa, Kylie Minogue, Jessie Ware, or Roisin Murphy, which were all disco inspired and by extension, queer inspired.
The ’90s brought us Will & Grace, which was one of the first prime-time television programs to star openly gay lead characters. Although the occasional transphobic comments are difficult to miss nowadays, Will & Grace was one of the first queer representations that I saw in mainstream culture, and many of us millennials would watch it in secret while our parents were not around. Another queer jewel from this decade has to be The Birdcage (1996), based on the French film La Cage aux Folles (1973). Robin Williams teaching Nathan Lane how to “butch it up” is an unforgettable scene that mocks gender values, unveiling their socially constructed nature. It was also during this decade that Matthew Bourne’s all-male production of Swan Lake was staged for the first time at Sadler’s Wells, subverting a traditional love story. Crossing over to the ’00s, Queer as Folk shows the brutal and beautiful nature of being gay, both in the British and US versions.
The world has changed now for LGBTQ+ people. Moonlight, a film about a black gay man, won the Academy Award for Best Film in 2016, and Fun Home, a broadway musical about a lesbian cartoonist, won the Tony Award for Best Musical also in 2016. Stories of trans people, which are often excluded, are starting to emerge in TV series like Ryan Murphy’s Pose, about the New York ballroom scene, and Veneno, about the Spanish trans icon La Veneno. Channel 4’s It’s a Sin reflects on the AIDS crisis and the long-lasting trauma it has caused in the UK. The Rupaul’s Drag Race franchise has extended to the rest of the world, making drag cool, modern, and aspirational. In Schitt’s Creek, David is not just the “gay character”, David just happens to be pansexual. His sexuality gives layers and dimensions to the character but it is not the point of the character. There is something very beautiful and progressive about the way the show deals with this. LGBTQ+ identities are not a token to be used as a commodity. We are human beings with complex, often contradictory, stories. As David says in an attempt to explain his sexuality: “I like the wine and not the label”. The essence of queerness has been present since the beginning. It is ingrained in Cole Porter’s lyrics and disco music and all narratives that dare to challenge a heteronormative conception of the world. The moment LGBTQ+ people can be represented in arts and culture simply because of the wine and not the label would be when real progress can be achieved. There is still a lot of progress to be made: if Eddie Redmayne can play a trans woman in The Danish Girl (2015), then a trans woman should be able to play Hamlet.
Article by Daniel Julian Gonzalez