Queer characters have existed on screen since the era of silent film. But do they have a starring role in your syllabus? Scholars Sharon Ullman and Nicholas Syrett offer concrete strategies for teaching LGBTQ history through films and documentaries.
Resources and Readings
- Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students, Appendix A: Books and Films
- Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students, Section III: Instruction
- History, Bryn Mawr College
- Author, Sex Seen: The Emergence of Modern Sexuality in America
- Co-editor with Kathleen Kennedy, Sexual Borderlands: Constructing an American Sexual Past
- Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, University of Kansas
- Author, The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities
- Author, American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States
- Co-editor with Corinne T. Field , Age in America: The Colonial Era to the Present
Leila Rupp: Do you remember the first time you encountered a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person somewhere in popular culture? I’ve been thinking about this lately. I finally came up with Mary McCarthy’s The Group, a novel about a group of friends who graduated from Vassar in 1933. It made the New York Times Best Seller list in 1963, and stayed there for two years. I read it in high school, sometime around 1966. One of the characters, Lakey, is a rich lesbian who returns from Europe on the eve of World War II with the Baroness as her lover. I remember thinking how exotic and exciting she was. She was the first lesbian I had encountered. Why do I bring this up?
Leila Rupp: One of the things that has changed dramatically over the last half-century is the representation of queer people in popular culture, especially in television and film. On the one hand, students today confront images of gay, lesbian, bisexual and even transgender people in a way that is unprecedented, even if the full range of racial, ethnic and class diversity is not generally on display. Pose is a pretty amazing recent addition. On the other hand, students still learn little in school about queer history and queer lives. They don’t often have the tools to evaluate the messages that popular culture imparts about people with non-normative sexual and gender identities in the past or in the present.
Leila Rupp: Take, for example, the mainstream film Stonewall, released in 2015 to a chorus of outrage from queer scholars, activists and participants in the uprising. While calling attention to the significance of the iconic 1969 event that has come to stand for the beginnings of a militant phase of queer activism, the film sought to appeal to a broad, read heterosexual, audience by inventing a central character, Danny. Danny is a white, straight-looking, gay kid from Indiana who runs away from home and ends up throwing the first brick when the police raid the Stonewall Inn.
Leila Rupp: By putting him front and center, the film sidelines the real street kids and trans people of color and lesbians who were in the bar and fought back. They were among those outraged about the film. We have to think about what audiences take away from a film like this. While it’s great that there is more exposure to queer history, it’s really important that the portrayals be accurate. Popular culture representations can leave a powerful impression of the past that lingers in people’s minds. Think about what it meant that The Group was my window into the lesbian world. It looked like a place where rich white women hung out with European aristocrats.
Leila Rupp: Of course, The Group is a novel and doesn’t pretend to capture a transformative historical event in the way Stonewall does. You get the point. Which is why it is so important to counteract a film like Stonewall with the available documentaries based on research, and oral histories, and archival sources. I’m Leila Rupp. This is Queer America, a special series from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. LGBTQ history has been largely neglected in the classroom, but it’s necessary to give students a fuller history of the United States and to help them understand how that history shaped the society they live in.
Leila Rupp: This podcast provides a detailed look at how to incorporate important cultural touchstones, notable figures and political debates into an inclusive U.S. history curriculum. In each episode, we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises. Talking with students about sexual and gender identity can be emotional and complex. This podcast is a resource for navigating those challenges so teachers and students can discover the history and comprehend the legacy of queer America.
Leila Rupp: In this episode, historians Sharon Ullman and Nicholas Syrett talk about a wide variety of feature films, television shows and documentaries that you can use to bring LGBTQ history alive in your classroom. They discuss strategies to help your students critically assess narrative devices and identify problematic inaccuracies. These resources bring history alive without leaving false but strong impressions of what actually happened. Here are Nicholas Syrett and Sharon Ullman.
Nicholas Syrett: Hi. My name is Nick Syrett. I am a Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Kansas.
Sharon Ullman: Hey, Nick. I’m Sharon Ullman and I’m a Professor of History at Bryn Mawr College.
Nicholas Syrett: Today, we are going to be talking about film, both feature and documentary, and the way that it represents LGBT history in the United States.
Sharon Ullman: We’re organizing our conversation into different eras and themes. I’m going to be talking about feature dramatic films and some television. Nick is going to cover documentaries.
Nicholas Syrett: There are so very many movies and television shows from which we could choose. This is particularly so for the last 20 years, when filmmakers have produced really a great wealth of explorations of the queer experience in U.S. history. What we’ve done is we each selected one or two films to talk about for each theme, ones that we think are representative of important subjects and that are particularly useful in the classroom.
Sharon Ullman: Before we get started, we want to briefly explore a few general overarching themes that we want to think about when it comes to films about queer history and the ways they could be used for teaching.
Nicholas Syrett: The first of these is about the differences in genre between documentary films, feature films and television shows, and then how those differences affect how we would teach them. Any of them, but particularly feature films and TV episodes, can be used as a primary source as a way to demonstrate attitudes toward homosexuality at the time the film or TV episode was itself made. By contrast, a documentary film can be used as a secondary source just like a book or an article by a historian to show what happened in the past. Like those written sources by historians, documentary films also have a point of view or an argument.
Nicholas Syrett: Those who make them are trying to educate about some aspect of the past. Then, finally, feature films and TV episodes about the past but shot sometime later like now or 10 years ago or whenever: they can be used to interrogate how people think about the past and how they have sought to represent it. That is useful for talking about how contemporary politics and concerns influence our feelings about the past. The point for us is that all of these lead to different teaching strategies because you’re basically asking different kinds of questions of each genre and relying upon the media for different kinds of information.
Sharon Ullman: Right. We’re going to do some of that back and forth, particularly I am on feature films, films made at the time, films made now about the time, and thinking about how to use these movies. Another thing to look at and think about is the differences between what kind of material gets covered by each of these media. Documentaries, as Nick alluded to, are often particularly interested in political activism whereas feature films are really more interested in propelling the narrative conventions of cinema, compelling plots, storylines with heroes, usually cis male. You got to have a romance. There’s always an action arc over the course of the film.
Sharon Ullman: Also, documentaries are in the business of recovery. They tend to focus on specific events, particular people or places. Whereas feature films are really good at showing everyday life and communities because those backdrops are really central to setting the scene in the movie. The films also tend to treat the past as basically a good place to tell a good story rather than address a particular history. Now, they’re made with really good intentions, but they got to make money. First and foremost, they need to spin a good yarn and grab the audience’s attention.
Sharon Ullman: Having said that though, I’m one of the people who believes it’d be a really serious mistake to dismiss films about LGBT history as untrue even if, on some factual level, they kind of often are. Feature films really have a capacity to animate deep emotions. They offer the opportunity to present a different kind of truth, one that unfurls from the heart of the audience who watches and responds on a personal level. This kind of emotional bond created between audience and film has, for movies about queer subjects, the capacity to propel a form of, I don’t know, what we might call “restorative justice” for a lost LGBT history.
Sharon Ullman: People watching emotionally rich films about the past, regardless of their own personal position and relationship to it, they feel a sense of connection. Scholar Alison Landsberg coined the term “prosthetic memory” for the ways in which audiences take in these narratives and make them part of their own personal past. I see this in my classroom enacted in the LGBT context when my students and my basic Modern U.S. History classes watched Harvey Milk die at the end of the movie Milk from 2008. All of them grieved for what they understand now to be a shared national loss.
Nicholas Syrett: We also want to admit at the outset that there are some limitations to this genre. By genre, we just mean film more broadly. The films and shows we’re going to be talking about tend to feature a lot of white people and white men especially. They have far less representation of bisexual and trans people, though things are changing in the realm of trans representation on film, especially so in the realm of features and definitely TV as well. The other thing to note here is that many of the documentaries are especially focused on San Francisco and New York, great places to be sure, but focused on way out of proportion to where gay and trans people have lived, which obviously has not just being in those two cities, great though they may be.
Sharon Ullman: Yes, we should add, it’s necessary to bring this up: that it’s also somewhat complicated to use these films in classroom settings. There is resistance at multiple levels to any kind of film content about queer subjects. This is an identity defined by who you love. Showing sex generally can make some stakeholders in this whole conversation very uncomfortable. Because of the intense history of homophobia, showing same-sex sexual activity, even something as simple as a kiss, often produces significant squeamishness in everyone from the students watching, the local school board who may disapprove and sometimes even the filmmakers them self. For example, one reason mainstream Hollywood films about LGBT subjects are often very chaste or funny is that the filmmaker is responding to a rating system that views sexual content as inherently a problem.
Sharon Ullman: Just showing two men kissing used to get you an R rating for your film, which limited your audience and your box office. How does a filmmaker signal queer subjects and leave out sex? Well, they often manage it. That’s one of the things that makes these movies somewhat suspect because one way they do manage it is by producing cultural stereotypes about LGBT subjects, revealing a character to be queer by how they walk, talk, dress, interact with others, which can be pretty homophobic, particularly in the earlier periods although it’s still often true today. While it can be incredibly affirming for students to see queer subjects in feature films, these images can also sometimes reinforce broader cultural constructions that really embed homophobia in everyday life.
Nicholas Syrett: In order to give you a demonstration of a variety of these different themes, different ways that characters are portrayed, we’re now going to start talking about the films themselves. We’re going to start by talking about the representation of queer history before the mid-20th century because the vast majority of representation has been after that period. In the pre-mid-20th century period, in the realm of documentaries, there’s very, very little, in part, of course, because of how documentary films work. They usually rely on film footage documenting earlier moments in time.
Nicholas Syrett: If you don’t have that film footage, it’s more difficult, though certainly not impossible, to make a documentary film. There is one really good example, however, and it’s a short film called They Drank, They Swore, They Courted Girls, They Even Chewed Tobacco [She Even Chewed Tobacco: Women in 19th Century America]. This film is based on what was originally a slideshow put together by the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco. It’s about what they call at the time—the time they made the film, “passing women” in the 19th-century United States. Of course, the women who lived as men in this documentary often didn’t leave behind letters or diaries explaining why they made the choices they did.
Nicholas Syrett: The film is largely based on newspaper coverage of these women living as men, and much of it is from California. Many of these stories are published when a man was discovered to have been born female, and sometimes this happened only at death, which also then again limits what we know about these characters from their own perspective. It is, however, a great film. It’s particularly useful for showing when discussing women’s history as well because it does a great job of demonstrating all the good reasons that women might have chosen to live as men: for safety, to travel, for work opportunities and better pay, because they wanted to be with another woman sexually.
Nicholas Syrett: This was not possible if they were living openly as women. Or because they believe themselves to be men. The film was made some years before trans politics came into the public view in the way that they have now. It does very much leave open the possibility that female-bodied people who lived as men may have done so because they identified more as men than as women, a precursor to today’s trans identity. She Even Chewed Tobacco, the movie, is distributed by Women Make Movies. It’s available on their website. It’s also available, I found it at least, at many college and university libraries.
Nicholas Syrett: If you’re looking also for histories to teach alongside the film, there are a number of options. Particularly useful would be Clare Sears’ book, Arresting Dress, which is about cross-dressing laws in San Francisco or Emily Skidmore’s book, True Sex, which is about trans men at the turn of the 20th century and their representation in the press.
Sharon Ullman: It’s really funny and fun to hear you talk about They Even Chewed Tobacco, because I was a member of the historical society in its early years and was one of the people who helped put on that first slideshow at The Women’s Building in San Francisco with a packed room of people so excited to see that slideshow. It’s wonderful to look back on my own history in connection to the history we’re talking about.
Nicholas Syrett: That’s fantastic. I did not know that.
Sharon Ullman: Yeah! That slideshow, She Even Chewed Tobacco, was one of the first presentations we ever made to try to show LGBT history; I think at the time we said “lesbian and gay history” to the community. Estelle Freedman, who had been part of the gay and lesbian history project from which the LGBT society emerged through Bill Walker, who was also a member of that project, she did this. I remember this as being Estelle Freedman’s project. The room was in The Women’s Building in San Francisco, that was a site for enormous amount of community activism. There was a big room up on the second floor, was packed with people. There had to have been 100 people there.
Sharon Ullman: I remember how excited we were to show this, because there was so little public discussion of lesbian and gay history. Here we were offering this show, and people came. They came. It was advertised in all the queer papers. It was just a fabulous night. I remember my excitement. I remember seeing the room fill and just being so thrilled because we didn’t know. We thought, Well, is anyone going to show up? People did show up every time we did one of these events. We had quite a few. People were hungry for this knowledge.
Nicholas Syrett: That’s fantastic. I only vaguely knew the history of this and mostly from watching the film, which I’ve shown in classes and had shown to me in classes as well. It definitely credits this emerging out of, or in tandem with, the gay and lesbian historical society. Estelle Freedman is definitely still credited in the film, but I didn’t realize that it was she who actually delivered at least some of the time the filmstrip, as it was.
Sharon Ullman: Yeah. This is a slideshow, right? Actual slides. It’s a nice memory. I have a very clear picture in my head of that evening, yeah. From the infancy of narrative film through the “classical years of Hollywood” as it’s called through the 1930s, actually queer-coded characters do appear in films. I think we assume today that people didn’t get it or maybe there’s some secret code among those Hollywood types where they’re showing that but no one really knows―that’s not really true. These characters are absolutely understood by the audience to be queer by virtue of how they perform or misperform, to be honest, their gender.
Sharon Ullman: You see this via characters of effeminate men known as a “pansy” character in the history of film, often an artistic type or a butler. Frankly, even a British accent can sometimes do it for you. Sometimes this is an old bachelor best friend of the lead male character. For women, this shows up. I know this character will be familiar in what we might call the “masculinized female” character, usually presented as an old maid, wisecracking secretary, the personal servant to the central female character. You’ll recognize these from films you’ve seen from the ’20s and ’30s. They’re usually the object of satire, sometimes the source of pity in the film.
Sharon Ullman: Often, they carry the comic relief of the film. They’re rarely figures of malice or evil. We might know that the maid, Mrs. Danvers, in the 1940 Hitchcock film, Rebecca, is the clear exception to this. That character is also coded as lesbian, but with her frightening demeanor and obsessive fixation on the late first Mrs. de Winter as she terrifies everyone in the film and in the audience. One early silent film that I’ve worked with in classes that precedes these ’30s comedies and also reveals how significant gender nonconformity actually really maps well onto queer-codings both at the time and frankly later is a 1914 movie silent comedy, [A] Florida Enchantment.
Sharon Ullman: By ingesting magic seeds, a woman turns into a man. Later in the short film, a man becomes female when he does the same. The jokes are really based on the audience’s understanding of what it means to be female or male and what happens to you when you violate these codes. The male who becomes female is very much presented as the soon-to-be-classic “pansy” figure, very well known in popular culture in the period as gay. The film is profoundly racist as well, it needs to be said. There’s a female black servant character. There are no black actors here―these are all white actors made up in blackface―who also becomes masculine.
Sharon Ullman: Her masculinity is acted out as she attempts to force herself on women in the film. Any time you work with early film in the classroom, because of the intense racism of the period which is so openly and directly expressed in cinema and expressed in ways that quite properly shock our students when they see it, you need to thoughtfully frame the context. This film does provide an important window in a couple of significant themes. It reveals early 20th-century gender cinematic stereotypes that cued audiences how they should see and understand queer characters, cues that would occur repeatedly from then until now.
Sharon Ullman: It also shows the important linkage between stereotypes of race and gender that are actually being built into the newly emerging national popular culture at the moment and which many historians have noted were completely intertwined in late 19th-century and early 20th-century era.
Nicholas Syrett: Many of the films that Sharon mentioned and a whole lot more besides that are actually included in another film called The Celluloid Closet, which is based on the book of the same name by Vito Russo. Russo in the book and then later the filmmakers include clips and analysis of all kinds of early films that depict characters that are clearly meant to be understood as gay or lesbian, even if it’s not named explicitly. It’s basically a movie about how queer people are depicted in movies. It’s pretty fantastic.
Nicholas Syrett: At this point, we have talked a little bit about how LGBT people are represented in film, both documentary and feature in the years before World War II. There’s not a whole lot, at least not in the documentary realm and in the world of features, much of it as Sharon explained is coded. A lot of this changed after World War II, which was a major watershed in the history of queer life in the United States. Millions of Americans served in the war or in its related industries. This is men as well as women. Some of them, of course, were queer and they met one another as a result of their service. When the war ended, many of them stayed on the two coasts and in other major cities in between, opting to live among other queer people instead of returning home. The result of that was the growth both of vibrant queer communities and more visibility. With that visibility also came backlash. We’ll see both of those elements, the visibility and the backlash, in the films that document the postwar period.
Leila Rupp: This is Queer America. I’m your host, Leila Rupp. You can learn even more about how to use documentaries and popular media to explore LGBT history in a valuable collection of essays called Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History. This podcast is produced in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Press, publishers of this anthology, which I edited with Susan K. Freeman. It is the first book designed for high school and university teachers who want to integrate queer history into their standard curriculum. You’ll find a link to purchase the book at tolerance.org/podcasts. Again, here are Nicholas Syrett and Sharon Ullman.
Sharon Ullman: As we know, the postwar period is known broadly as the Cold War era. After World War II and up until the mid to the late 1960s is the period we want to talk about right now. As Nick notes, this is a really tough time. There’s a serious recognition of homosexuality by the public at large. One key trumpet for this information was actually Alfred Kinsey’s explosive 1948 book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which was a massive bestseller, discussed nationwide and which proclaimed homosexuality to be widely practiced. An open discussion of psychology in human behavior more broadly also followed World War II as well and brought that conversation further into the public.
Sharon Ullman: As Nick noted, the queer subcultures in major military areas that had arisen during and because of World War II really maintained a visible presence after the war. So there comes the intense backlash. Joe McCarthy, famed communist hunter, had homosexual men in his sights right away. One of the first orders that President Eisenhower signed after his inauguration in 1953 was Executive Order 10450, which demanded that government employees be ferreted out for potential security risks and then be fired. One main category for security risk was sexual perversion.
Sharon Ullman: That executive order was squarely aimed at those working for the government who were homosexual. This was an era of real persecution for those brave enough to be out or open enough to be found out. Thinking about how to teach this hard period via feature film, there are a couple of ways to look at it. There are recent films that have been made about this homophobia and the closet in this era. There are several good ones. 2005’s Brokeback Mountain comes immediately to mind. It was set initially in 1962. This tragic love story traces the difficult relationship two young men who work ranches in the West struggle with after they fall in love one summer. Thwarted by homophobia in the closet, their lives are ultimately destroyed.
Sharon Ullman: Director Todd Haynes has two movies on this topic. One is Far from Heaven from 2002. The other is the more recent, Carol, from 2015. These two films both show the closet and the cost of it in the 1950s on white, upper-class and, otherwise, privileged characters. Let me talk for a second about Far From Heaven. Far From Heaven is a take on the classic 1955 Douglas Sirk melodrama, All That Heaven Allows, where an upper-class widow falls in love with her gardener. This is Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson.
Sharon Ullman: Haynes revises the story to address a host of forbidden sexualities that are actually subtextual to that film and to the 1950s more broadly. In his 2002 version, Dennis Quaid is a closeted gay man. His long-suffering wife, a straight, white, upper-middle-class woman played by Julianne Moore, falls in love with her African-American gardener, Dennis Haysbert, in the Rock Hudson role. Here, homosexuality and interracial romance are both forbidden, where Haynes reveals the intersectional nature of social policing on sexual practice in the period, which is really important for students to understand.
Sharon Ullman: In some ways, this film teaches really well because it reveals very directly the significance of racism and homophobia in policing and containing notions of the family in the period. It reveals that they’re linked, not dissimilar to the way that racism and homophobia recur and appear initially in [A] Florida Enchantment from 1914. You can ask students to watch this film and ask questions of what are the characters struggling with. Dennis Quaid is the closeted gay man who desperately wants to please his family initially but ultimately comes out because he can’t face the kind of suffering that he’s going through.
Sharon Ullman: You can ask students to look at him and engage that with the 1950s moment of closet. Julianne Moore is having her entire vision of family reconsidered by Quaid’s actions and also by her own growing attachment to an African American. You can ask the entire vision of the 1950s as a white, middle-class rising society which is often what’s taught for the ’50s and how that’s undermined by a recognition of what shutting down so many different emotional spaces produces in society. It challenges the 1950s overall. You could ask your students to do that work with their basic history knowledge.
Nicholas Syrett: The other thing I think works with this film and plays into a way that I teach about the 1950s more generally is that I start out by talking about idealized images of the 1950s, things like Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best. We talk about the way that the 1950s are remembered more generally. Then, I turn to what we actually know about the 1950s, which is rates of alcoholism were going up for housewives, they were dependent upon tranquilizers, many of the marriages that were contracted in the ’40s and ’50s ended in divorce, all of the things that we learn from Stephanie Coontz’s book, The Way We Never Were, in which she’s deliberately making a comment on the idealization of the 1950s.
Nicholas Syrett: Then to show this film and the underside of the 1950s, all that is not revealed or kept in our memories about the 1950s demonstrates just how complicated the ’50s were in the way that, of course, all eras are complicated and cannot simply be represented through one glowing, rosy image of a decade.
Sharon Ullman: You can also use the movies that came out in this period to chart the social changers brought about by the sexual revolutions and the LGBT movement eventually, because the movies that are emerging also change. During the ’50s, homosexuality is no longer coded through funny sidekicks. Now, in the ’50s, it’s directly confronted. You have famous movies like Suddenly, Last Summer from 1959, The Children’s Hour from 1961, Advise & Consent in 1962, The Sergeant, Killing of Sister George, both in 1968. All of these movies incorporate queer characters openly, if primarily, to kill them off or have them otherwise severely punished in the film’s narrative.
Sharon Ullman: A sense of sexual freedom begins to arrive with the 1960s. That famous Age of Aquarius, it turns out was not just for heterosexuals. As it took hold particularly in the early ’70s, not coincidentally shortly after the 1969 Stonewall riot, feature films begin to be more sympathetic. Openly gay authors propel films like Myra Breckinridge and Boys in the Band, both from 1970, or Sunday Bloody Sunday from ’71, Cabaret from ’72. Combined with what’s happening in the street and in the wider community at large, these representations create a dramatic impact. Their visual presence matters even if the context surrounding is sometimes homophobic.
Sharon Ullman: The place to look more interestingly at this, actually in this moment, late ’60s/ early ’70s, is television. For TV, you have widely praised movies like That Certain Summer, which came out in 1972, and starred a young Martin Sheen and Hal Holbrook. Now, Holbrook is interesting. Holbrook played a middle-aged man finally coming out in this film. Holbrook was already a nationally famous figure for playing Mark Twain in a traveling one-man show. Now, this is the essence of Americana. He received a Tony for playing Twain in ’66, just a few years earlier. For Hal Holbrook to play a gay man sympathetically was symbolically resonant in a way that we, today, may not fully be able to access but one which we can frame for our students and make them understand.
Sharon Ullman: That Certain Summer is a landmark film and one that is from television, so it’s easy to use in the classroom. It’s quite melodramatic. Our students may not be able to respond to that kind of early ’70s TV. We can frame for them an understanding of how that kind of television had such power in the moment and we can see the sympathetic framing of the characters. We can look at the way this is part of everybody’s home life. We can ask our students to say if they had been in 1972 watching this, what would have been their reaction? Have them try to reach into that moment and recognize the real change occurring at that time.
Sharon Ullman: A Question of Love in 1978 had Gena Rowlands as a lesbian divorcee fighting for custody of her children when she moves in with the character played by Jane Alexander. Now, Rowlands had been nominated for an Oscar only four years earlier for A Woman Under the Influence. These are seriously important actors playing these roles on television. Television had multiple TV episodes, Marcus Welby, M.D., Police Woman, Mary Tyler Moore, that included gay characters. Famously, you probably remember this: Billy Crystal played an out gay man in the comedy series Soap, which was groundbreaking at the time.
Sharon Ullman: All this programming attempted to present a more nuanced, more sympathetic, imaginary of LGBT life in reaction to the emerging queer civil rights movement. TV offered an intimacy. It reached into the home, where these personal struggles were playing out in many living rooms across the country. Today, we can see that what seemed to us as minor TV dramas actually carry a pretty serious punch. They presented sympathetic queer characters played by major Hollywood actors. They speak also, sadly, to the way that mainstream film really ducked that moment, and TV filled in the gap. As you can see, there’s a lot in that period.
Sharon Ullman: By the way, this is a final note before I turn this back over to Nick to talk about great documentaries in this time. We would be remiss if, in talking about queer cinema in the ’70s, we left off 1975’s Rocky Horror Picture Show, easily, the queerest movie of the 1970s and which, of course, went on to a very long, somewhat surprising afterlife as one of the most enduring and beloved cult films of all time.
Nicholas Syrett: Indeed, shown annually in cities across the country at this point. This period that Sharon’s talking about, the 1950s through the 1970s, is really well represented in documentary films because these decades include the birth of gay and lesbian activism in the United States. Documentary filmmakers have been particularly interested in telling the history of that activism for the reasons that we’ve already discussed. Not only is it a good story, it’s also a triumphalist story. We go from bad, not necessarily to good, but at least to somewhat better.
Nicholas Syrett: There are three great films among a number of others that all start with exploring the repression of queer people in the 1950s and 1960s as Sharon just talked about, and then ultimately document how they resisted. All three of them are also either made by historians or based on relatively recent books by historians of the queer past, which is to say that they do a really good job of dealing with the evidence in pretty nuanced ways. These three films are called The Lavender Scare, Stonewall Uprising and Screaming Queens. The Lavender Scare documents the firing of federal employees and then eventually workers across the country, especially teachers, in the Red Scare’s cousin―that is the persecution of homosexuals for the supposed security risk they posed.
Nicholas Syrett: This is the moment that Sharon was just talking about earlier. It then documents the resistance in the 1950s and 1960s by gay men and women to this persecution, highlighting especially the work of Frank Kameny, who led the charge and then was honored much later by President Obama for that work before Kameny’s death. That is included in the film. It’s a particularly poignant moment as Obama is recounting why Kameny is being honored in the Oval Office. The second film, Stonewall Uprising, is the story of the iconic Stonewall riot in 1969 when drag queens and queer youth and trans people fought back against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn, a bar in New York’s Greenwich Village.
Nicholas Syrett: If your students, like mine or really like Americans more generally, know anything about queer history, it is probably Stonewall that they know about. In part, this is because the year after Stonewall, queer people held the first Gay Pride parade in New York City, a tradition that continues on across the country usually in June to commemorate Stonewall. Stonewall is thus usually also credited with kicking off gay liberation, a more militant and open style of gay politics from the homophile organizations that predate 1969 and that you get to see some of in The Lavender Scare.
Nicholas Syrett: Precisely because most Americans already know about Stonewall and because the queer activist past is actually more complicated than most Americans understand, I am more in favor of showing other documentaries that de-center Stonewall from its supposed centrality in the fight for queer rights. This film does do a great job of showing exactly what happened those nights in June. If you’re interested in getting your students to understand Stonewall and its significance, this is the film. I particularly like about this film, not only that it gives you a moment-by-moment work through of what occurred, but there are these great little maps that show exactly what occurred, both in the bar itself and then in the blocks in the village around where the bar actually is located, where police were, where rioters were, what happened on those days.
Nicholas Syrett: If, however, I were to choose one film about gay activism at mid-century, I would pick Screaming Queens, whose subtitle is The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria. This is the story of a San Francisco riot in 1966, so three years before Stonewall, where drag queens and trans sex workers fought back against police harassment at a 24-hour restaurant called Compton’s Cafeteria, which is located in the Tenderloin. The film is by historian Susan Stryker. If you’re looking for something to read or to teach alongside the film, her book, Transgender History, is a short and accessible volume that students find really easy to read.
Nicholas Syrett: I have taught it myself and then shown the film to students so the students see, acted out on screen what they have already read about in the book. That riot at Compton’s Cafeteria is the centerpiece of the film. Stryker includes some incredible interviews with trans people who were either there that night, or with those who remember it, or were involved in the movement for trans rights in San Francisco in the ’60s. These include a minister and a police officer who came to be allies of the trans community. The film does a really great job of documenting the convergence of a number of forces that pushed these trans women over the edge.
Nicholas Syrett: There are many great questions one can pose to classes in the wake of the film. For instance, where did a sense of trans identity come from? How did these women understand themselves as “transsexual,” in the parlance of the day? What does medicine have to do with this? What was going on in San Francisco at this time that might have embolden these women? What made them break, basically? The film documents a moment that predates Stonewall, which is great, and it is also better at featuring a wide array of queer people of color, trans people and working-class people than most documentaries or indeed, any of the films we’re talking about today. In short, the film is as much about the development of trans identity and trans activism as it is about one night in August of 1966.
Sharon Ullman: Yeah, it’s a great film. I’ve done the same thing. I’ve shown the film and had students read the book. I’ve done it multiple times. They loved the movie. They really respond positively to it. That’s a great one to work with. I wish I could tell you about all the great feature films that document this changing moment and the civil rights activism in the streets. Unfortunately, there actually are not a whole lot of narrative films that tell the story of this activism per se. You have Milk from 2008, which I mentioned in passing at the beginning. There was a little-seen ABC docudrama, from 2017 called When We Rise. It’s an eight-hour miniseries.
Sharon Ullman: It was written by Dustin Lance Black, who won the Oscar for writing Milk. It’s pretty good. Both can be used in the classroom with individual episodes of When We Rise, really helpful. To be fair and talk about all of them, there is a 2015 feature film called Stonewall, about the riots, made by Roland Emmerich. It was pretty controversial when it came out a couple years ago because it recast the story of the riots to actually make a white, gay, cis, pretty boy from the Midwest the central hero of the Stonewall riots. Well, that might work for traditional, old-fashioned Hollywood conventions, but it was both untrue, as Nick just mentioned, trans youth and queers of color are central to the Stonewall riot story; it’s also really out of touch with how current audiences demand to see this history more properly represented.
Sharon Ullman: Thinking about it though, there is one exercise I do with my classes with the film Milk that might be useful here. I pair the Hollywood movie, starring Sean Penn from 2008, with the independently produced Oscar-winning Best Documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, which came out in 1984. That was only a few years after Milk’s murder. Then I have students compare the stories told in each visual form, the feature versus the documentary.
Sharon Ullman: I asked them to think about how the history is presented in each. What are the strengths? What are the weaknesses of each type of filmmaking in terms of history storytelling? I asked them to explore what have they learned from each film and specifically why and how each film teaches them that information. It really forces them to think through the histories being presented by both films in complex ways. They get a lot of information about this LGBT rights history moment in the late 1970s. The two films, both of which are excellent in their own ways, really grabbed their attention. They learned a lot and they really enjoyed the assignment.
Sharon Ullman: Another way to talk to students about this change over time using film is as before to discuss the kind of movies you begin to see in the aftermath of Stonewall, say, within 10 years. “Gay rights,” “Gay is good,” these became rallying cries in the streets. You begin to see movies heading into what we today might call “queer-positive space.” Any lesbian of a certain age of which, to be honest I am, recalls with excitement such films as Personal Best from 1982, Lianna from 1983, Desert Hearts from 1985. Suddenly, lesbians were sympathetic, cool and interesting. For gay men on the other hand, it’s slightly different.
Sharon Ullman: The decade of the ‘80s begins with the 1980 noxious film Cruising, starring Al Pacino. Now, no one is recommending you use this film in the classroom. It is an interesting film to talk about because what makes it fascinating for this discussion is the degree of protest and backlash that Cruising, the film, created. The plot of Cruising attacks gay male subculture and calls it inherently pathological and murderous. The production was picketed. The film became the subject of a national boycott. It’s an early moment where the impact of that emerging LGBT rights movement showed its growing muscle.
Sharon Ullman: There was really clear public support from the public at large at this point of view that the films like this were offensive and more than that, that they were dangerous to LGBT citizens really took hold. It has a fascinating afterlife. The reality is, that when you get to the 1980s, the impact of AIDS is gonna alter all films that emerge about gay men and about LGBT life.
Leila Rupp: You’re listening to Queer America. I’m your host, Leila Rupp. Teaching Tolerance has learned a lot about what LGBTQ students need to thrive, how even small policy adjustments and curriculum changes can make a big difference in the lives of queer and non-binary students. We also know that LGBTQ-inclusive schools benefit all students. Our new LGBTQ Best Practices Guide can help educators and school leaders ensure that all students feel safe, seen and capable of success. By creating a curriculum as complete and representative as possible and cultivating a school climate that fosters open and respectful dialog among all students and staff, you’re preparing your students to engage and thrive within our diverse democracy. You can find it at tolerance.org/podcasts. Again, Sharon Ullman and Nicholas Syrett.
Nicholas Syrett: Let me situate our discussion of AIDS in film going forward. As Sharon noted, the decade of the 1970s was really important for queer culture in the United States. There was lots of activism of gay people, lots of queers moving to new places, founding new organizations, publishing magazines and newsletters, people coming out and founding cultural institutions. It was vibrant. Then, much of it ground to a devastating halt in the early 1980s when some gay men started to get sick. In the beginning, of course, no one knew what was causing men to die of infections that an uncompromised immune system would normally be able to combat pretty easily, or why so many of them had developed Kaposi’s sarcoma, an otherwise rare form of cancer that doctors did not see much at all.
Nicholas Syrett: Eventually, of course, scientists and doctors would name the virus HIV or human immunodeficiency virus and then the disease AIDS or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. As more and more gay men and then increasingly other populations like IV drug users and hemophiliacs, as they became sick, the federal government did very little to help them. This led to an enormous amount of organizing by queers to aid the dying in really practical ways, to learn about and to practice medicine, to encourage safe sex and prevent more infections once it was ascertained that sex was one of the primary ways that HIV could be transmitted, and to protest the inaction of various forms of government.
Nicholas Syrett: There are now many great documentaries recounting AIDS in the United States; three in particular stand out to me. There are certainly more. Two of them, called How to Survive a Plague and United in Anger, are largely about ACT UP, which is the acronym for the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, which was the most important AIDS political action group. One of these films emphasizes medical treatment in ways that are at times a bit complicated for lower-level undergrad or high school audience. The other one is more about politics. They’re both great and they’re really wrenching. If you’re interested in showing something that focuses on the politics of AIDS, either of these would be wonderful. Both of them are also unabashed in their condemnation of President Reagan and the federal government for their lack of action.
Sharon Ullman: If I could interject for a moment, having taught these films several times, I also have an assignment connected to them which I find particularly interesting and productive. I actually have students watch both of those in tandem and pair them. Then, I asked them to analyze the argument. They are telling roughly a comparable story about the same time period, some of the same people appear in both documentaries as interlocutors. The style of the film is different and the argument each film offers is different. I have my students try to crack through and figure out how documentary can function to tell one story that looks singular but actually can be broken apart and seen from multiple points of view. It’s a pretty fascinating use if you pair them.
Nicholas Syrett: That sounds great. There’s another film, the third film that I mentioned, is a more holistic portrait of one community, in this case, San Francisco, ravaged by AIDS. It’s called We Were Here. It also, like the ones I was just mentioning and that Sharon was talking about, it includes discussion of activism, to be sure, but I find it a little more relatable and it’s less complicated than the other two films for either a high school or a lower-level college audience. This film, We Were Here, starts by situating San Francisco as one town that had seen an influx of gay men during the 1970s.
Nicholas Syrett: Then, it follows those men through the beginnings of the 1980s as men started to grow ill and die. No one again yet knowing what was causing this mysterious illness that at first they were simply calling “the gay cancer.” It includes many interviews with men who survived the crisis as well as particularly poignant segments, I found at least, with a nurse named Eileen Glutzer, who nursed dying men in one of the country’s first AIDS wards. Because it also documents the unprecedented response to AIDS, not just the arrival of AIDS but queer people’s response to it, both medical and political, by gay men and lesbians, it provokes a couple interesting questions for classroom discussion.
Nicholas Syrett: What was it about the gay community in San Francisco that made it so amenable to so much concerted action in response to this disease? How are gay people and San Francisco’s gay community transformed as a result of AIDS? Perhaps, most importantly, it does what Sharon talked about at the beginning of the podcast: it serves as a kind of “prosthetic memory.” It humanizes those men who died of AIDS and the overwhelming tragedy of the disease. It makes our students try to feel and understand a little bit what it might have been like to be living at that time.
Sharon Ullman: Yeah. It’s impossible to talk about the history of LGBT Americans, history of LGBT life in America using film and otherwise, without addressing how AIDS alters both the history entirely as well as obviously the kinds of films that were made. The entire trajectory of LGBT history was redirected by the AIDS epidemic, so much so that it really overwhelms the cinematic representations of this history that follows. We really need to be especially careful when we discuss AIDS. It is crucial. It is a story that needs to be told properly, and yet it is also not the only story to tell in the LGBT history. Your students will be interested in learning more about it.
Sharon Ullman: They know very little about AIDS. They very much want to know more. Film is an important way to help them get there. I certainly, as I noted, have had my students watch the films Nick discussed. Given how so much of the artistic community was devastated by AIDS, it’s really important to note that there were, in fact, only a handful of films either on the big screen or on TV at the height of the epidemic. These early cinematic conversations, though, can be useful in the classroom. On TV, for example, in 1985, very early in open discussion of the epidemic, you had An Early Frost. In 1993, a little bit later, HBO serialized the book And the Band Played On.
Sharon Ullman: Let me talk for a second about An Early Frost. An Early Frost gives you a sense of the landscape of the emerging mainstream conversation about AIDS in 1985. This was on national television. The film starred Gena Rowlands, again, and Ben Gazzara as white, middle-class parents of a gay man who was played by a young Aidan Quinn. The movie is about their response when he reveals his diagnosis to them. As the star power of Rowlands and Gazzara versus the then very unknown Quinn made clear, the film is about the reaction of the heterosexual parents and his family.
Sharon Ullman: While it’s a sensitive and supportive portrayal, the gay man with AIDS, while the object of the film’s attention, is not the focus of the film itself. Still, this movie helped pave the way for sympathetic portrayals of individuals and families who were beginning to address the growing epidemic. As we get toward and into the 1990s after ACT UP has been operating, after you have really had a massive explosion of deaths, you begin to see such films as 1989’s Longtime Companion and Philadelphia from . Both movies received a lot of acclaim and both have strengths and weaknesses as conveyors of this history.
Sharon Ullman: Yet, they can provide thoughtful provocation in the classroom. Let me talk a little bit about each for a minute. The title “Longtime Companion” referred to the euphemism that newspaper obituaries used at the time when talking about the life partner of the deceased individual being eulogized. The film focuses on a group of white, gay friends who spend each summer on Fire Island. It tracks the early years of the epidemic as it sweeps away one member of their community after another. The survivors in the group move from grief to political action as the epidemic becomes the very center of their lives. I often show Longtime Companion to my classes.
Sharon Ullman: Students, to be honest, are very mixed in their responses. While they react to the sense of tragedy provoked by the conventions of Hollywood melodrama, they also raise red flags that all the characters are white and upper class. The film doesn’t seem very interested in the fact that AIDS became a leading cause of death for African Americans, a direction that was well understood when the film was made. I encouraged my students to watch the film in critical context, remaining aware of its limitations in terms of class and race, but to allow themselves to access its very moving presentation of one community’s growing panic and despair.
Sharon Ullman: Regardless of its real faults and limitations, the film can provide an emotional window onto what it may have felt like for those in the early days of the epidemic. Now, Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning Philadelphia is, of course, the film most people think of when they recall AIDS-themed movies from the period. Tom Hanks won a Best Actor Oscar for his sensitive portrayal, the lawyer who sues for discrimination after he’s fired from his Philadelphia law firm when his partners realized he has AIDS. Based on a real case, the film’s protagonist is, as with the Early Frost, not actually the dying gay man.
Sharon Ullman: It is instead the heterosexual lawyer who sues the homophobic law firm on behalf of Tom Hanks’ character. Played by Denzel Washington, this character stands in for a presumed mainstream, straight audience. Washington’s character evolves from a homophobic resistance at first, to a supportive alliance with the Hanks character and his extended family by the movie’s end. Hanks’ performance does dominate the film, but the movie’s true goal is to persuade the audience via the transformation experience by Denzel Washington’s character to care―to care about those dying of AIDS and to see them as part of the wider American family.
Sharon Ullman: It was admired by mainstream audiences. Philadelphia, however, received significant criticism in the LGBT community, which felt that its focus on AIDS phobia in the heterosexual community had the effect of erasing and stereotyping the gay man who should have been at the heart of the film. But it remains a popular film with many. It give students the chance to discuss the power of cinema to intervene in a national dialog. Along with other similar films, aimed squarely at heterosexual audiences, Philadelphia helped reshape the national mood from one of fear to one of sympathy.
Nicholas Syrett: Between the 1980s and 1990s, this period that Sharon’s just been talking about, and today, and this is just so to get us into films that are documenting the more recent past, we can see that between that period and now, an enormous amount has happened for queer people in the United States. That’s going to be reflected in the films that are produced about this moment and that are produced now documenting earlier moments. These have been some significant decades. Think about it this way. In 1986, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, the Supreme Court ruled in a case called Bowers v. Hardwick that it was perfectly constitutional for states to have laws that made gay sex illegal, as a number of states still did at the time.
Nicholas Syrett: Only 17 years later, in 2003, in a case called Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court reversed that decision outlawing these anti-sodomy laws across the country, making it unconstitutional for any state to have such a law. Many of the same justices were still sitting on the bench representing all the millions of Americans who had changed their minds about homosexuality as well. As more and more Americans came out of the closet, those around them now not only had a gay friend or relative, now they knew they had a gay friend or relative. Homosexuality had increasingly been humanized over this period.
Sharon Ullman: Yeah. Think about, say, 1996. President Bill Clinton controversially signed the so-called Defense of Marriage Act in late September 1996, in the dead of night, about six weeks before the election to help him, he assumed, win that re-election. The Defense of Marriage Act, known colloquially as “DOMA,” was put forward by a Republican congress in a moment of pre-emptive, vile homophobia. It said, the federal government did not have to recognize gay and lesbian marriages if some state should ever agree to legalize them. Remember, at that moment in time, no state had, but several were talking about it.
Sharon Ullman: DOMA also gave states the right to not recognize such a marriage if it was performed in a different state. When Clinton signed this bill, it was considered a huge betrayal from a president who had openly courted the queer vote in 1992 and had lesbian and gay advisers working for him. DOMA only made activists fight harder. State by state, marriage equality began to become the law of the land either through state Supreme Court rulings or by popular vote. In 2013, the United States versus Windsor, the Supreme Court ruled that the part of DOMA that allowed the federal government not to recognize a marriage that was legal in a state was ruled unconstitutional.
Nicholas Syrett: There’s actually a documentary about that case, which tells the story both of the relationship and marriage of Thea Spyer and Edie Windsor, for whom the case is named, and then also about the case itself. That movie is called To a More Perfect Union.
Sharon Ullman: Yeah. Shortly after that, really not very long at all, comes the famous Supreme Court decision Obergefell versus Hodges in 2015, which struck down the rest of DOMA and made marriage equality the law of the land for everyone, everywhere. We have to remember that by the time Obergefell was decided in 2015, marriage equality was already the law in a majority of states and in areas where more than 70 percent of the nation’s population lived. The Supreme Court was actually following a national movement, not leading one. But what a change in under 20 years. Very much tracking the change, Nick just mentioned between 1986 with Bowers and 2003 with Lawrence.
Nicholas Syrett: Yeah. You can see that between the 1980s and the early 2000s, the changes have been really monumental. Those changes have found their way on to screens, large and small. There are, for instance, an enormous number of documentaries representing all kinds of contemporary queer experiences, far too many to go into here because this is a podcast about history. Suffice it to say that because of a bunch of talented documentarians, you can now see films on gay families, on various LGBT ethnic and racial populations, on queer people in various locations, on gay bars, gay politicians in politics, queer Jews.
Nicholas Syrett: There’s a great film called Trembling Before G-d, about orthodox queer Jews, same-sex marriage, queer youth. You name it, there is a film about it. One that I remember, particularly because it is both Oscar-winning and also a film by my cousin, is called Freeheld, which charts the struggle of a dying woman to leave her pension, she was a firefighter; to leave her pension to her partner. In an era before same-sex marriage, she was unable to do so without becoming an activist about doing so. In one way, when it was made, it was documenting a contemporary struggle. Now, we can actually use it to demonstrate a moment now, not all that long ago, but a situation that would no longer occur because same-sex marriage would now be available to that couple.
Sharon Ullman: Yeah. LGBT characters start appearing in pop culture and popular media more generally over the last 20, 25 years. There’s a general incorporation of more positive LGBT characters in the same period on TV, starting as early as the early ’80s, something called Love, Sidney was on; Ellen, obviously, the very famous series in the mid-90s where Ellen DeGeneres became the first person to come out in her own TV series; obviously, Will & Grace, everybody’s favorite queer series from 1998 to 2006 originally, and then revisited now; returning from 2017 to the present, think about Queer as Folk, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, et cetera, et cetera, all on TV.
Sharon Ullman: There’s still many more; I really can’t get into them all. In film, you’ve had everything from as noted before, Brokeback Mountain in 2005, all the way to films just this year which are quite well known, Love, Simon; Boy Erased. You had film set in historical time, Imitation Game, Milk, Pride, and of course, AIDS themes recur, Dallas Buyers Club from a few years ago, the HBO version of Angels in America, the film The Hours. The queer characters in these films are expansive. They are often sympathetic. But a lot of them are fraught. Their being queer is the source of the film’s tension, not often simply part of the character’s story.
Sharon Ullman: Moonlight, the Best Picture of 2016, stands out precisely because it is about a young man of color. His queerness, while it is central, is not his only problem. In fact, although a force in his life’s tragedies, his queerness is also ultimately his sight of redemption.
Nicholas Syrett: Sharon, I am disappointed that among your litany of television shows you did not mention my favorite, The L Word, which was as trashy as can be but also great fun.
Sharon Ullman: It was―I loved it, too.
Nicholas Syrett: It was.
Sharon Ullman: I love the British Queer as Folk versus the American Queer as Folk since I’m watching them both and comparing them.
Nicholas Syrett: We’ve little discussed here trans representation on film because it has been limited. There are some exceptions though: Paris Is Burning, the 1990 documentary, showed the underground New York City ball scene populated by trans people of color. In 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry told the story of transphobia in the Midwest in excruciating and horrifying detail: that’s the murder of Brandon Teena. Both films, of course, have gained significant criticism over time. But both also offer a glimpse of an emerging movement that began to bring trans lives into the popular cinematic conversation.
Nicholas Syrett: Also included on a list of films depicting trans characters in the last, say, two decades or so would be The Crying Game, though that also not without controversy. One I especially loved that came out I believe when I was just beginning college, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, in the early 1990s, and then more recently, Transamerica and The Danish Girl.
Sharon Ullman: Don’t forget Tangerine from 2015. That was a fabulous film.
Nicholas Syrett: Definitely. I would say also there have been a rising number of trans representations in recent years, particularly on television: Transparent, Orange Is the New Black, and then at least in the later seasons on The L Word as well. One area of controversy here is that most of the time, these characters have not been played by trans actors. This is a site of concern that is currently being debated both, obviously, by trans people and then by the Hollywood establishment that hires actors for movies and for TV shows and is often more worried about financial bottom line than about trans representation.
Nicholas Syrett: The number of queer characters on TV and in movies is generally rising. In 2017, it was about 6.9 percent of characters on TV were queer, according to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. That said, 77 percent of them were white. We still have a long way to go to really represent the full diversity of queer people of color, especially on screen. Film representation in the same period was static over the past few years, with 83 percent of the few LGBTQ characters in films, gay men. The majority of the queer characters were gay male characters―often members, as it turns out, of a production number in a musical. Hollywood remains a complicated place to either unravel the LGBTQ past or to reveal its trajectory today.
Sharon Ullman: We have a great opportunity with these films, nonetheless. Those of us looking to film and many of us are doing this in our classes to help share the complexity of the LGBT past have a really willing audience in our students. Their experienced consumers of visual culture; they thrive on it. They have a fluency in it. We have a lot to offer them, both in terms of how queer life has been represented over time and then how the history of LGBT citizens have been revealed in film. We should open that visual door for them. We should help them walk through it. We should trust them to be able to stand thoughtfully on the other side.
Nicholas Syrett: I agree completely. I also want to emphasize one of the points that we raised at the outset. Both of these types of film, documentary and feature, also help our students not just to understand what happened in the past, which is obviously our job as historians and history teachers, but they also serve as a form of what Sharon called “prosthetic memory.” They allow our students to identify with subjects in the past. They help to humanize the struggles of queer people toward self-realization in a world that sometimes deny their very existence. At a political moment like the one we’re in, when the government is trying to literally write trans people out of legal and medical existence, that remains an urgent political project.
Nicholas Syrett: I think part of what we tried to demonstrate here today is that using film in a classroom and then as a history teacher contextualizing that film, is a great way to get students to understand a whole lot about the queer past and really move beyond what students think they already know.
Sharon Ullman: I want to address the squeamishness. Students giggle. They giggle in movies. They giggle on TV, depends on where you’re teaching and what the background is. Often, students giggle in general when there are signs of sexuality in front of them. That’s because they’re uncomfortable―and that’s fair. It takes work to help work with them about what does it mean to giggle, what does it mean to feel uncomfortable, and help students through discomfort. Because otherwise, there’s whole ranges of the world that we can’t talk about. We want to talk to our students. Our students are interested.
Sharon Ullman: Some of this has changed over time with the wide-ranging qualities of the internet and the forms of digital media that many students have access to. Students are way more familiar with a lot of current-day queer topics than we might think. They do associate them with themselves. They associate it with now. They don’t associate it with the past or their parents or their grandparents or, God forbid, their great-grandparents. This is a universe of today. Historicizing this through the visual media that they’re so familiar with is actually really valuable and reminds them that the world doesn’t operate just at the moment. The things that they’re so comfortable with today actually can reach back; you can see them much earlier and see people comfortable with them in the past as well.
Nicholas Syrett: I think also our job as history teachers is certainly to inform our students about the past. I think it’s also in a moment where lots of queer people still do not have something close to equal rights, particularly so outside the United States but within the United States as well. Significant populations of queer people do not enjoy equal rights. It’s important to humanize civil rights issue, not just because we want to understand about the past and what’s going on but also because we want to create sympathy in our citizenry for those who are not able to do as they want to do with their lives. I think that film works to do that in a way that simply me talking in front of a classroom is not always able to do.
Sharon Ullman: Yeah. It’s one of the reasons that the conventions of Hollywood actually work. The melodrama works. People get involved. Hollywood knows how to pull your heartstrings. That’s a good thing in this particular story, because we need people to feel that they care. That’s why Philadelphia worked. It said to people, “You need to care. You need to reflect that this group of people,” and that’s how it was framed―they and us―“are part of our family.” The closing of the film has Denzel Washington character attending the funeral with the entire family and lots of family photos. The film ends with family photos and old videos of the character as a child.
Sharon Ullman: All that is a way of making those individuals with AIDS part of an American family. Film has this really special gift. That’s why it’s so valuable to us in teaching and in getting our students access to a story that, frankly, in the rest of the community, and the rest of the popular culture, and the rest of the media, and the rest of their pedagogy and their school curriculum, just isn’t there. We can do that.
Leila Rupp: Sharon Ullman is Professor of History at Bryn Mawr College. She’s the author of Sex Seen (that’s S-E-E-N): The Emergence of Modern Sexuality in America, and co-editor with Kathleen Kennedy of Sexual Borderlands: Constructing an American Sexual Past. Nicholas Syrett is Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Kansas. He is the author of The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities, as well as American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States. Nicholas is also the co-editor of Age in America: The Colonial Era to the Present.
Leila Rupp: Queer America is a podcast from Teaching Tolerance in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Press. They are the publisher of the award-winning anthology Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History. In each episode, we’re featuring a different scholar to talk about material from a chapter in that collection. You can purchase the book at tolerance.org/podcasts. You’ll also find additional tools including resources we’ve mentioned, episode transcripts and the LGBTQ Best Practices Guide to help your school create an inclusive curriculum and an open and respectful climate for dialog among students and staff.
Leila Rupp: Teaching Tolerance is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, providing free resources to educators who work with children from kindergarten through high school. You can also find those online at tolerance.org. Thanks to Dr. Syrett and Dr. Ullman for sharing their insights with us. This podcast was produced by Shae Shackleford with production assistance from Russell Gragg. Kate Shuster is our project manager. Music in this episode is by Chris Zabriskie. What did you think? Let us know on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Review us on iTunes. Please tell your friends and colleagues about this podcast. I’m Dr. Leila J. Rupp, Professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara, and your host for Queer America.