Unlike many of my gay male brethren in particular I am not a great fan of the big screen. A consistent theme in my life has been to almost exclusively read non-fiction books and that spills over these days to rarely seeing any movie that is not a documentary. I am fond of anything dealing with political themes but in rather cowardly fashion I suppose I do avoid films on the climate crisis. I find them very valuable but so disturbingly truthful and realistic I can’t watch. I suppose I do watch documentaries because I am lazy and it’s easier to just sit back and have it all laid out for me. Reaching for the popcorn is easier than reading and having to continually turn the page.
Perhaps this avoidance to film dates back to the first movie I ever saw in a theatre and that was Disney’s Old Yeller. A quick refresher: the movie takes place in Texas in 1869 and the star is a loveable yellow lab, who would put Lassie to shame any day. Yeller of course had the advantage of being teamed up with a much more relatable friend in 15 year old Travis. Lassie was burdened with Timmy who seemed destined in every episode to make really stupid choices that only his dog could save him from. What of course so seared Old Yeller into my psyche was that he gets rabies fighting off a predatory wolf and has to be shot by Travis. I never really got past this despite the Disney attempts to soften the ending with a new puppy for the family. Sorry, the damage was done. I actually don’t think I saw any movies after that until the James Bond movies came out and the obvious draw for me to these films was James and not any of the Fox-News-personality-type female sexual partners central to every Bond film.
I do though appreciate how important film is to the LGBT community and the tremendous impact this can have in both very positive ways and damagingly negative reinforcement of out internalized homophobia. So much of our early coming out is the struggle to find the “other”, a soul we can relate to. The search to find someone else like us is often relentless. The game-changing realization that I am not alone is certainly a recurring theme bringing us back again and again to celluloid escapism as a way to soothe our pain. Gay men in particular may want to be fucked by the leading man but it is the strong female leads that have been our succor for decades and we grasp at any hit of a queer character or theme.
Perhaps the singular patron saint of the tortured history of Queers and their portrayal in film was Vito Russo. He is best known for his landmark book the Celluloid Closet, still easily available and I suspect or hope a copy or two is in The Center’s library. Russo was one of the founders of GLAAD in 1985; previously know as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. In recognition of bisexual and trans-persons the organization is now just GLAAD and no long an acronym. GLAAD was initially formed in response to the hateful and vile portrayal of persons with AIDS by the New York media particularly the New York Post. Vito Russo himself died from AIDS in 1990.
GLAAD remains quite active today keeping a watchful eye on all forms of media for inaccurate portrayals of Queer folk. They have developed their own criteria for analyzing how LGBT characters are portrayed called the Vito Russo Test.
This Vito Russo Test is patterned after the “Bechdel Test” which is used to look at how women are portrayed in film. I have included the criteria for the Russo test and they are as follows:
- The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.
- That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity. I.E. they are made up of the same sort of unique character traits commonly used to differentiate straight characters from one another.
- The LGBT character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect. Meaning they are not there to simply provide colorful commentary, paint urban authenticity, or (perhaps most commonly) set up a punchline. The character must matter.
These criteria are taken from GLAAD’s 2016 Studio Responsibility Index. Unfortunately this year out of 22 films with significant LGBT characters only 8 or 36% have met these criteria and that is apparently a significant decrease from recent years.
Our struggle continues so to the barricades brother and sisters or at least to the theatres with a discriminating eye.