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History of LGBTQ Representation in Film and TV, Told by Chris Witherspoon

By Allison Raymond

On Wednesday, March 22nd, students of Joy-Ann Reid’s Race and Gender in the Media class had the pleasure of learning about the history of LGBTQ representation in Hollywood from Chris Witherspoon. Witherspoon works as a correspondent for Fandango and shared an interesting perspective into the topic.

The ‘80s and Early ‘90s: The Discussion (and Stereotype) Begins

When actor Rock Hudson died of an AIDS-related complications in 1985, revealing his sexuality, “his death really opened up the conversation about being gay in America,” Witherspoon explained. “No one had any idea he was gay until his death–he was the Hollywood heartthrob of the 50’s and 60’s.” This shed light on the LGBTQ community for the first time in a major way in America. Then, in 1990, the film “Paris is Burning” was the first major award-winning documentary to explore gender, race, and sexuality. The general public was able to digest the material because it was put in the context of an issue they were familiar with: the AIDS epidemic. This lead to a slew of films, plays, and other works depicting gay characters as sick or ill, creating the first major stereotype of the LGBTQ community.

The Late ‘90’s and 2000s: Gay Role Models Emerge, Pushing Bounds of Stereotypes

 

As time progressed, the conversations surrounding the LGBTQ community did, too. “Will and Grace” helped move the conversation from HIV and AIDs to shedding light on how members of the community interact with other people in the world. “I think this had a huge impact–it helped to normalize the gay community,” Witherspoon said. As the discussion of the LGBTQ discussion evolved, more celebrity role models emerged. Ellen came out in 1998 on “Oprah,” followed by Neil Patrick Harris in 2006. As we all know, Neil continues to thrive in Hollywood, and Ellen even got her own talk show. These role models helped further the conversation and diversity perspectives of the LGBTQ community.

The 2010s: Expanding Gay Roles in Hollywood

 

In 2009, “Glee,” the TV show that we now call a huge success, almost didn’t air. Advertisers were hesitant to put their money into a show that was so progressive. However, once it aired, it turned out to be a huge hit–not just with the gay community, but also with straight and young viewers. Other TV shows such as “Modern Family” and Amazon’s “Transparent” have further expanded what “gay roles” could be, and have normalized the LGBTQ community.

Today and Onward: Nonchalantly Gay

Moving forward, “we don’t know what to expect,” Witherspoon said. Some shows such as “The 100” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (and even the newest Disney live-action movie “Beauty and the Beast”) have included gay characters with a lack of stereotypes, roles Witherspoon thinks of as “nonchalantly gay”. The old stereotypes of a sick gay character are no longer, and different representations of the LGBTQ community continue to be told, such as in the award-winning film “Moonlight.” Today’s generation isn’t bothered by gay roles like others in the past have been: it isn’t a taboo subject to talk about anymore, and we will be the ones to reshape and define these industries in years to come.

Thanks to Chris Witherspoon for coming into class to talk about this topic!

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