You Can't Get Married When You're Dead

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com February 14 2009 12:00 AM ET

Critics are
heralding Milk as an exceptional film. Sean
Penn was nominated for a Golden Globe and the film is up for
eight Oscars including best actor, best director, and best
film. Penn stars as the charismatic Harvey Milk, an
Obama-like civil rights figure who builds unlikely
coalitions and mobilizes the emerging gay rights
movement. The film is timely as it depicts Milk’s
leadership in defeating a state proposition to bar
gays from teaching, a ballot
initiative eerily reminiscent of the recently passed
Proposition 8 excluding same-sex couples from civil
marriage in California. However, there’s one
way in which the film is not exceptional but rather utterly
conventional: The gay guy ends up dead.

Dead gay men,
lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people abound in film,
and they fall into two categories: ill (Tom Hanks in
Philadelphia, Al Pacino in Angels in America,
and Cherry Jones in What Makes a Family) or killed
(Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, Matthew
Broderick in Torch Song Trilogy, and William Hurt in
Kiss of the Spider Woman). LGBT characters who
don’t end up dead occupy limited and stereotypical
roles: murderous (Charlize Theron in Monster
and Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley),
criminal (Will Smith in Six Degrees of
Separation
and Johnny Depp in Before Night
Falls
), frivolous (Martin Short in Father of
the Bride
and Rupert Everett in My Best
Friend’s Wedding
), or unfulfilled
(Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote and Dennis Quaid in
Far From Heaven). Judging by such films,
Hollywood seems to believe the only stories about LGBT
people worth telling are tragic ones.

If you think we
are being selective, name three major Hollywood films
without negative images of LGBT people.

These archetypes
are not the product of a monolithic, homophobic
Hollywood. In fact, it is often gay people and their allies
who direct, produce, and act in these movies. However,
when LGBT characters seen in film are
disproportionately dead, dangerous, or disturbed, is it any
wonder that they are considered less deserving of basic
rights? These representations certainly evoke sympathy
(or just pity), but perpetual victimhood can be both
disenfranchising and self-fulfilling. Feeling sorry
for someone doesn’t make you want to treat them
equally.

Brokeback Mountain x390 (publicity) | advocate.com
 

The problem
cannot be solved by saccharine gay romantic comedies or
feel-good after-school specials. There should be more
nuanced and diverse representations of LGBT people in
American cinema. We've seen plenty of wedding
planners, activists, and writers. Where are the gay cops,
judges, parents, and teachers? What about lesbian
lawyers, grandmothers, singers, and bankers? What
about gay people of color and interracial couples? Or
bisexual and transgender people who are happy and
self-assured? Where is the hard-working,
family-loving, person-next-door who happens to be gay
but whose role in the film is not premised on pathos?

A recent
exception to the stereotypical trend may be Brokeback
Mountain
, a sensitive and complex portrayal of the
romantic relationship between two cowboys. In addition
to wide critical acclaim, the film became the
eighth-highest-grossing romantic drama in American
film history. However, in the end, the film followed
the same dead-gay-man pattern with the brutal beating of
Jake Gyllenhaal’s character.

Did he really
need to die for it to be a great film?

These
representations matter. Movies provide a lens through which
we view history and understand ourselves and others.
According to the Pew Research Center for the People
and the Press, 60% of Americans do not have an openly
gay relative or close friend, and only 25% of these people
support same-sex marriage. In contrast, among the 40% of
people with an openly gay relative or close
friend, 55% support marriage equality.

If more film
characters (and their nonfiction counterparts) come out of
the closet, tell their stories, and show America that their
experiences are similar to and as diverse as those of
straight Americans, we might witness a time when more
people in more states support equality over
discrimination. Had Hollywood produced different types of
gay characters on the silver screen, perhaps more
people would have voted against Proposition 8 in
California and other such ballot initiatives that have
been passed in 30 states.

For now, though,
we’ll settle for a few films where the gay
protagonist survives until the credits.