It has taken basically forever for those who are not white, Christian, heteronormative, cis-gender people to be centered in any way, shape, or form in popular culture, especially in mass media like movies and TV.
Although there were several early attempts in the late 70s — q.v. Billy Crystal in Soap — they tended to be campy stereotypes and while, granted, every character in Soap was a campy stereotype, Crystal’s Jodie Dallas was dragged through the indignity of suddenly deciding he was “transexual” after being dumped by his shady bisexual boyfriend — “because every gay man really wants to be a woman, right?” as late 70s logic went.
Eventually, Jodie settled down with (and knocked up) a woman, although I think their baby turned out to be the antichrist or something. Or maybe that was the priest who had an affair.
Yeah, not the greatest of times there, eh? It really wasn’t until the early 90s, when people like Scott Thompson from The Kids in the Hall just said “fuck it” and came out, RuPaul broke through the taffeta ceiling, and it was only real when Ellen (not a nice person) came out in real life and on her sitcom.
Boom — the 90s came to an end. You’re gay? Cool. Here’s your boarding pass to the 21st century. Enjoy!
Except, maybe, not so much. There was still a lot of shit to deal with. But what about all the shit that came before?
Once the media gained the ability to record and preserve performances, a certain hierarchy emerged. Now keep one thing in mind. The second use of any new technology is porn. Period.
Some dude invents cave painting as early movies and uses firelight to make it look like a herd of elk is running across the cave wall? Cool.
One cave over, someone else has already figured out how to use the same techniques to create erotic dances featuring everyone’s favorite big-breasted fertility goddess, as well as the first cave-painting feature called Threeway: Hunter, Hunter, Gatherer.
At every stage of the development of art, it really only happened because some dude was trying to figure out a more realistic way to paint titties or dick or both.
Once photography happened, you just know that half of every professional shot taken was some guy convincing his girlfriend, mistress, fiancée, wife, or best friend to strip off and pose with the good stuff.
Film? Yeah, in those early days for every legitimate short or Great Train Robbery, there were at least ten “Millie Gets Railed” or “Horny Farmhands” or “When the Parson Came to Call.”
Hell, in the very early days of legitimate film, full frontal nudity was very common, and it didn’t end until the early 1930s (right after the introduction of sound) when the spoilsports clamped down with the Hayes Code, which didn’t end until after it was declared unconstitutional in 1952 and was finally abandoned in 1968, when the MPAA started its ratings system.
Still, when the Code ended, mainstream Hollywood really didn’t go into full-on porn. The closest they got was Midnight Cowboy, to this date the only X-Rated movie to ever win the Best Picture Oscar, but to be honest, nowadays it’s a very, very mild R, and the only reason it was so shocking back then was that it depicted (gasp!) male homosexuality because it was about a guy who came from Texas to New York to be a male escort to rich women, but was not above turning the occasional male trick on the side.
But he wasn’t gay, dammit!
The X-rating quickly ended, though, because the MPAA had never trademarked that letter and the porn industry co-opted it to prove that you’d be seeing the real thing. It was eventually replaced with NC-17, but since that’s box office poison because, again, prudes in the industry, it is rarely if ever issued, and most moviemakers would rather release their films as “Unrated.”
Let’s get back to that hierarchy of art again. While porn is the second use of any new art or technology, the older any art or technology is the less likely it is to be censored.
Now when you think of naked art, what comes to mind?
Most likely you’re thinking either Greek or Roman statues or a ton of paintings from the Renaissance onward — the former which influenced the latter — but a lot of which nowadays are pretty much a part of the curriculum for, at the least, high school students studying art, not to mention being common décor in public spaces.
I mean — would a reproduction of the Venus de Milo or Michelangelo’s David be all that shocking anywhere nowadays? Really, no — although some quarters still seem to have a big issue with the fact that David has a dick.
Next up came literature, as in the written word, prose, poetry, and sometimes theatre scripts. And this also goes way back. Hell, just read certain bits of the King James Bible if you want pure porn.
Later on, when serialized novels became popular entertainment because people had nothing better to do than gather together and read out loud to each other, the most popular works were also very obscene and pornographic. Don’t believe me? Read something like Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais to your family and see how long it takes you all to be laughing so hard you’re all crying while also marveling at how filthy it all is while yet being relatable.
Literature is doing and saying things that other art forms can only imagine until we get to the 20th century, and then the subject matter becomes even more daring because, surprise surprise, certain people are working in the field in disproportionate numbers.
In case you’re wondering, I’m talking about mostly gay men (and some lesbians) who have gravitated to working in all areas of theatre in the 1920s in big cities, mainly New York and the touring circuit, and this is where they feel safe.
They are actors, dancers, playwrights, set, lighting, and costume designers, stylists, make-up artists, dressers, assistant directors, choreographers, and so on.
These are mostly not considered to be “masculine” professions because, really, did these jobs even exist outside of big cities?
But it all came together in New York with the unwritten rule: If you don’t stick out too much, you can be as gay as you want behind the scenes and we welcome you, and you get to go on tour with the shows as well.
Of course, not welcome everywhere. When Mae West’s play The Drag opened in Connecticut in 1927, there was instant scandal, and she wound up going to jail for it. Given the title, yes, the play was about exactly what you think it was about — a closeted gay socialite trapped in a loveless marriage.
Mae was an ally even then, and it’s no wonder that her biggest fans until the end of her career and long life were gay men. Of course, she cast actual gay men in The Drag, finding them through open calls at a gay bar in the Village — this at a time when the acting unions banned gay men from having speaking parts on stage.
Apparently, audiences loved the play when it opened. The problem were the prudes and bluenoses who condemned it.
But as long as it wasn’t put out blatantly on the stage, people were too naïve to notice, and so the gay underground went on. The stage in particular, but movie musicals as well, provided perfect cover for all of these young, queer folk. after all, it was an era in which unmarried people did not have sex, ever!
This was partly due to religious ethics and morality and all that bullshit, of course, but the real practical reasons were that truly effective birth control didn’t exist — there was no pill, and at the time, vasectomies were pretty much only used for eugenics — that is, to prevent “undesirables” from being able to reproduce.
No self-respecting red-blooded American man, after all, would willingly give up the ability to make babies, married or not. And while abortions were available, they were still mostly illegal, so only performed in underground clinics or by very expensive doctors.
You’ve probably heard the term “back-alley abortion,” and this was the era for it, although women had other methods, good and bad, like douching with Coca Cola right after sex.
As a kid, I remember my uncle telling a story about an unmarried women who’d gotten pregnant but couldn’t afford the abortion doctor. A friend told her, “Gladys, here’s what you do…” (Women in these stories are always named Gladys.)
“Gladys,” the friend explains, “You drink half a fifth of whisky, then climb up on the kitchen table — make sure the chairs are out of the way. Roll off and land on the floor, and voila. No more baby.”
In my uncle’s version of the story, Gladys downed half that fifth, got up on the kitchen table and rolled off and, as he put it, “She broke her leg but still had the damn baby.”
But, like the clergy, being in a Broadway Chorus was perfect cover — fraternizing between the chorus boys and girls was just not allowed because they were professionals.
Naturally, this left plenty of time for same-sex fraternizing (sororizing?) behind the scenes. And, as we all know, it’s perfectly innocent when two boys or two girls past college age but unmarried live together, right?
And then, gays began showing up in films, although deeply coded. They were often depicted by somewhat prissy actors, but never in sexual roles — look up people like Franklin Pangborn or Edward Everett Horton — the former sort of slightly openly gay, the latter in denial for life.
But if a producer or director wanted to dog whistle to audience members who knew, “This guy is a homo,” they’d cast people like them.
After World War II, two conflicting events happened. Number one was that a lot of young men who had gone off into the armed forces discovered during their tours of duty that they did, in fact, love other men. When they came home, they generally arrived in major port cities — San Francisco, Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego, New York, New Orleans, Miami, etc.
Instead of heading back home to the Midwest or South, they just stayed in these port towns and found their own kind, and it’s no accident that each of these cities became major gay hubs in future.
But, at the same time, the government, partly freaking out over the Soviet Union suddenly becoming an adversary, banned gay men and lesbians from serving in the military, and proceeded to hunt down those they could find not only in the military but with government jobs.
Meanwhile, Joseph McCarthy was busy finding monsters under his bed in the form of a Communist Infiltration of America. (Hint: It never happened, at least not in the way that HUAC envisioned it.)
But gay men and lesbians in the late 1940s and early 1950s went back to hiding in plain sight. This time, they founded their own communities within those port towns and yet again took on certain jobs — gay men, for example, became hairdressers, interior decorators, designers, personal assistants, or went to work in creative positions for the Hollywood studios.
Tons of lesbians became flight attendants because they were not allowed to get married — another convenient excuse for the parents.
In all of these positions, they were less likely to be investigated, as well as less likely to be fired in a lot (but not all of) them if they were found out as gay.
The ultimate safety for a gay couple, of course, was to start their own successful business, and many a combination antique store and interior design house, florists, a B&B with its own stylist, or music/acting/dance school came out of these disguises.
There were those certain professions that men went into if they wanted to signal that they were gay without being too obvious — interior/set decorators or designers, stylists, make-up artists, or fashion/costume designers, to name just a few, and any of those had their place either serving the wives of rich men or within the studio system itself on set.
By the end of the 1960s, things started to change after the Stonewall Riots, which led to the first pride parades a year later in 1970. It was still an uphill struggle, not helped by the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s (and the way it was totally ignored by the Regan Administration), but in some ways that plague galvanized the community.
The old prejudices started to be forced away in the 1990s for a lot of reasons — more representation in the media, more celebrities coming out, and (on a personal level) more and more people realizing that friends and family they’d known for years were gay when they fell ill and came out.
The thing is, these people were the loved ones of those they had to come out to near death, and this really started to change opinions.
After the turn of the century and as medical science started to get a handle on AIDS and HIV, things really started to progress, albeit slowly, until same-sex marriage became the law of the land, LGBTQ+ groups and representation started popping up everywhere, and our current generation of kids in high school and college don’t even question the idea of sexual orientation, or that biological/assigned sex and gender are very different things.
It’s a very different kind of hiding in plain sight, but one that doesn’t so much involve hiding who you are as it does being who you are without hiding it. It’s a nice place to be, as long as we can keep the momentum going forward, but it’s still going to take a lot of work.