Talking Movies, Media, Pride Month and More With the Author of The Queer Film Guide

Kyle Turner explores 100 films that tell LGBTQIA+ stories

"I am hoping for this book to be a way to raise the visibility of and increase conversation about the complicated, nuanced and beautiful history of queer people on screen," says Kyle Turner, author of The Queer Film Guide.

Published this month by Smith Street Books and featuring Andy Warren's illustrations, the book highlights 100 movies that tell LGBTQIA+ stories. Organized in chronological order, The Queer Film Guide unspools through the decades to explain the significance of films including Morocco, Rope, Glen or Glenda, The Boys in the Band and The Rocky Horror Picture Show—as well as more recent entries into the queer canon like Carol, Moonlight and Spa Night.

Below, Turner, a freelance film and culture writer, discusses the movies that have affected him on a personal level, the origins of queer cinema and the groundbreaking work of directors like John Waters and Arthur J. Bressan Jr.

Muse: Do you remember the first time you saw a film that spoke to you as a queer person and made you feel represented? I remember seeing Go Fish and being stunned that there were lesbians like me starring in a movie.

Kyle Turner: There have definitely been certain films that have spoken to me in different and resonant ways. Dolan Xavier's I Killed My Mother was special to me, especially in college, because I have a complicated relationship with my mother, and it felt like he had been camping in my basement and recording conversations and then using them as dialogue. That was really striking. And Andrew Ahn's Spa Night is a really beautiful examination of a Korean kid coming to terms with his identity ... it takes this very internal personal process and exposes it. So those two films are personal examples.

A lot of readers may be surprised to see how far back queer cinema goes. Different from the Others, made by director Richard Oswald during Germany's Weimar-era and released in 1919, is considered the first gay film. 

Different from the Others was actually part of a series of movies that the filmmaker was making with Dr. Magnus Hirschfield, who was examining and studying alternative sexualities, so to speak. He was exploring and investigating homosexuality and transgender identity, and part of that process was making these kind of docudrama, almost PSA-like movies. At the time, Germany criminalized homosexuality. It wasn't enforced very strongly until the Third Reich began to crack down on queer people. But part of the [reason behind making] these educational films was to raise the visibility and understanding of homosexuals. These films were used primarily as educational devices, and the hope was that the more these films could be made, they would change the policy around criminalization.

In the book, you note how the Nazis destroyed most of the copies of Different from the Others and other movies from that project. I couldn't help think about what's happening now with books featuring LGBTQIA+ characters being removed from libraries in the United States.

It's really frightening. We are living in a terrifying time. Most of the population of the United States—as far as Pew Research polls are showing—they don't care [in a negative way] about trans people. It is more this conservative rising political class that is intent on grabbing as much power as possible, targeting those most at risk. These movies [written about in the book] can be, hopefully, a beacon of hope, showing that people can make things true to themselves that are honest, authentic examples of how they live and how they love in spite of oppressive authoritarian regimes.

The first American film that you talk about is George Cukor's 1935 film Sylvia Scarlett, which has Katharine Hepburn dressing as a boy.

I would argue that there are examples of queerness in the United States that happened even before. Sylvia Scarlett just happened to be a pretty good entry point as far as Hollywood studio stuff. Even in the silent cinema era, there were examples of gender transgression, gay or queer archetypes—like the sissy sophisticate, which is one of my favorite archetypes. But they would be side characters and comic relief characters. And then you also have some of the big vaudevillian comedians who became silent movie stars like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy, who would play with gender presentation and whatnot.

There was so much that was hinted at but unspoken in a number of Hollywood studio films.

So much existed in implication, at least in the United States, because of the Hays Code. [Established in 1930 by Hollywood studios], it was a list of rules—you could not include certain things in movies. So that's why there is not a lot of explicit expression of LGBTQIA+ characters. They were either criminals or murderers, or would somehow be punished or die. [Censorship via the Hays Code ended in the late 1960s.]

Can you talk about the impact director John Waters [whose early films include Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble] had on queer cinema? I like that the cover of your book features an illustration of Divine.

John Waters is one of my favorites. He has been one of the most transformative filmmakers of my life. He is the Pope of Trash, the King of Bad Taste. He was making films that had a specific point of view and a whimsy about them, and he crosses boundaries and taboos that most people aren't willing to even go near. But what I've always loved about his films is that they're fun. They have a good sense of humor. John Waters is a good joke writer, and he was part of this ragtag team of people in Baltimore just getting together and making movies and having a lot of fun.

In the documentary realm, Arthur J. Bressan Jr. directed Gay USA. It was the first American feature-length documentary about LGBTQIA+ people, and he sent camera crews out across the United States to capture 1977's Gay Freedom Day marches. But, as you note in the book, his work is often overlooked.

Bressan was an incredible documentarian and AIDS activist. He made one of the first theatrical films to address the AIDS crisis, [1985's] Buddies, which is about the buddy system that existed where people would volunteer as emotional support for those who were living with HIV/AIDS in hospitals. His films offer such an interesting and crucial understanding of that time period and also the time period slightly before the AIDS crisis.

Gay USA captures a time way before gay culture was mainstream enough for corporations to see us as consumers they should be targeting. With Pride Month approaching, how do you feel about the onslaught of advertising suddenly aimed at our community in June?

I think the way in which people are targeted by huge corporations at specific moments when it is financially advantageous for those companies to do so is very much a product and symptom of the capitalist landscape that we live in. When that means these corporations are able to extend benefits to their LGBTQIA+ employees, and to actively help out and provide for those communities, that's a good thing. But I think we've seen too many examples in which these huge corporations are primarily interested in just using us as a marketing demographic. They're not interested in meaningfully changing the way that policy and law affects their employees and their consumers. So many of these corporations end up contributing so much money to foundations and politicians who are seeking the eradication and the oppression of queer people. That's the problem.

Director Sean Baker isn't a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, but he made Tangerine, which is featured in your book. In addition to telling a story about transgender women, he broke ground in filmmaking by shooting on iPhones. It seems to me that queer filmmakers and non-queer people making films about our community tend to be creative in terms of not just storytelling but technique and the tools that they use. Do you agree?

I think that they need to be, often out of financial or aesthetic necessity. Sean Baker's Tangerine is a really good example of consumer technology being used to create queer art. Another example is Southern Comfort, the documentary about a trans man living with ovarian cancer. It was shot with a digital camera. It's a really beautiful insight into the trans community in the South, especially the perspective of older trans people, which we don't often get to see.

Christine Champagne
Muse contributor Christine Champagne is a writer based in NYC.

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