Romance and relationships in LGBT cinema

By Sophia McDonald

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Over the last decade or so, it is as if we have come into a golden era for LGBT film. Beginning with Brokeback Mountain and more recently, Moonlight, more and more stories are being told that have LGBT characters at the centre of them. As well as the representation carrying incredible weight for the LGBT community, awareness has been raised about multiple issues such as bullying, homophobic attacks and social exclusion.

What stands out the most when LGBT characters are portrayed are the relationships that they have, especially romantic ones. This is where representation is so important. Whilst growing up and trying to figure out yourself, your consciousness gets flooded with stereotypical “girl next door” films. A hormone filled girl falling for the boy with perfect skin where they just so happen to have windows facing each other. Glances are stolen, they go to prom and then they get kiss. You know the drill. This is inaccurate simply for the lack of acne between the pair but also, spoiler alert, not everyone is straight!

To see someone on screen having the same feelings that you have is invaluable. To normalise that which has been made taboo by so many is so reassuring that you’re not doing wrong, that you’re not going against the grain of a piece of the wood of social norms.  To find out that there was one director, one actor, even a whole team of people who agreed that this story needed to be told, a story that crosses paths with your own is overwhelming good.

Although the LGBT section on Netflix has many a gay tale right at your fingertips, it can still be difficult to find representation that is romantically accurate. One that I came across was First Girl I Loved which follows two girls who become curious about their sexuality and start exploring their queerness. It deals with the stigma that’s in the minds of teenagers when a gay relationship is added to the normal dramas of high school. It is not seen as normal which puts pressure on the girls to hide their true feelings.

This theme of social exclusion is continued in the teen LGBT films, Handsome Devil and The Way He Looks. Although not as glamourous as the more typical coming of age films, they come very close to what it is like to be young and gay.

Handsome Devil gives us a glimpse into just how horrible it can be labelled as different. Although there isn’t any romantic relationship at the core of the film, you can see how the protagonist’s values are tested when “gay” is used as an insult against him for standing out. The friendship they form enables them to conquer the ridiculously traditional mindset of “gay is bad”.

Brazilian film The Way He Looks is a wholesome story about a blind boy’s relationship with the new boy who joins his class. Already held back by his disability, he is teased for being with his boyfriend. From watching these films, there is always an enemy, always a reason to watch over your shoulder, which unfortunately isn’t far from the reality of being within the LGBT community.

Something that I’ve noticed in cinematic portrayals of LGBT relationships is how they’re always defiant. There’s always a close-up shot of holding hands followed by a shot panning up to a same sex couple and, boom! Everyone accepts gay people for who they are. What is also common within LGBT romantic films is the sexualisation of gay relationships which is particularly prevalent in Blue is the Warmest Colour.

Renowned for being one of the most explicit lesbian films in recent times, the three hour epic follows the explosive relationship between two French girls as they go into the real world for the first time after leaving school. With multiple sexual scenes that extend for five or ten minutes at a time, they seem to be the centrepiece of the film rather than the emotional turbulent relationship. Scenes build to either fights or sex which shouldn’t be the base of a relationship, fictional or real.

Whilst the exposure of lesbian relationships on screen is valued due to their rarity (look up LGBT films and 7/10 will be about white gay men), the lack of depth that these characters have can be disheartening. There seems to generally be less  investment in making fully rounded LGBT romantic characters than their straight counterparts. There is always a difference in how it’s approached and how it’s treated even though the only difference is that the couple is what some people call unconventional.

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The trap that some filmmakers can fall into is following the stereotypes already established for LGBT characters from years previous. Usually a gay character is the antagonist, the “troubled one”, or the victim of the film usually ending up dead or bereaved by the death of their partner. These can be damaging for a young LGBT audience to see as they try to find themselves within their fictional counterparts. They see many romantic endeavours on screen as hopeless or at the very least, strenuous.

The importance of LGBT romances in film is not just for the representation for those within the community. It is also invaluable to have wider society exposed to LGBT culture. Little by little, there is progress being made to normalise and de-sexualise LGBT relationships on screen. Whilst in film it can become very dramatic and sexy all of a sudden, it isn’t a direct reflection of what gay relationships are like. What can be glossed over is the fact that those in the LGBT community are complex people who have issues that extend beyond sexuality.

What can be said for the film industry and its complicated history with gay films is that there are gay, bi, trans, non-binary and other queer filmmakers and actors who are still striving to tell the stories that they see as significant. They want to have others know that they’re not alone and that romance can be just around the corner, something that will always be paramount.