Category Archives: LGBT

What do movies communicate to audiences about gay/lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender people and relationships? With this group of films, we take a broad look at the history of LGBT issues.

Steven Soderbergh: Another Steven in Hollywood

Steven Spielberg, possibly the most recognizable name in Hollywood, has entertained and educated America for decades with his films—Jaws (1975), E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), Indiana Jones (1984), Jurassic Park (1993), Schindler’s List (1993), and Saving Private Ryan (1998)—to name a very few. Steven Spielberg’s resume lists one big-grossing blockbuster after another, and no other director, producer, or writer comes close to duplicating this. He stands alone on top of the “Ivory Tower of Hollywood,” where he could rest comfortably on his laurels with a career that goes beyond even his wildest dreams.

Steven Soderbergh inspired by Spielberg

Yet, there is another successful Steven in the movie-making business, set on that course by receiving serious exposure to movies from his movie-buff father, coupled with an awe-inspired viewing of Jaws—directed by Spielberg, of course. This man is Steven Soderbergh and he can boast an impressive resume as well. Soderbergh spun out his own movie-making magic with Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), Traffic (2000), the Ocean’s Eleven series (2001), and Magic Mike (2012). His movie Erin Brockovich (2000) won him a much-deserved Oscar.

Soderbergh’s calling – a film on Liberace

steven soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh

Born in 1963, Soderbergh was among a generation familiar with America’s infatuation with the flamboyant Liberace—an outrageous pianist, singer, and actor. Soderbergh felt called to do a film on Liberace, but struggled with a framework to base it upon. When he came across the book written by Liberace’s alleged lover, Scott Thorson—Behind the candelabra: My life with Liberace (Thorson & Thorleifson, 1990), he knew how he was going to preserve Liberace on film. However, finding a studio willing to finance a project is the necessary evil for every director with good ideas in Hollywood.

Directors can easily round up the best among available screenwriters, costume designers, actors, prop designers, etc., but coming up with the money to make the movie is the first order of business. Even in this age of enlightenment for LGBT causes, studios are still skittish about financing gay-themed movies. It’s all about return on investment. The concern about the Liberace film was whether mainstream America would open their wallets to watch unsettling scenes of an older man romancing a teenage boy. Producer Jerry Weintraub,  another movie-making legend, said this about his attraction to the project (HBO, 2013):

What excites me is story and character. . . . The other thing that excites me is working with people like Steven Soderbergh. He and I have a great relationship. That excited me. Working with Michael Douglas and Matt Damon excited me. Working with Richard LaGravenese’s script excited me. Working with Marvin Hamlisch excited me. The people involved are so creative and compelling; I’d be out of my mind not to do it.

Thus, Weintraub managed to interest HBO executives with Soderbergh’s idea and a deal was eventually sealed. These executives were subsequently rewarded for their risky investment in Behind the Candelabra with two Golden Globes and numerous other awards.

Soderbergh attracts top actors to HBO

"behind the candelabra" - cannes
Douglas, Weintraub, Damon

It must be a testament to Soderbergh’s reputation that he was able to attract two big-name actors, Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, for a movie that was not destined for the big screen. These actors’ skills contributed enormously to Behind the Candelabra‘s success. I am wondering if we are entering an age heavily influenced by Netflix, Amazon Streaming, and home theater technology, where actors don’t think of making it to the big-screen as the ultimate determining factor of success in Hollywood. The same must go for directors.

Now today, according to IMDb (“Steven Spielberg,” 2016) Steven Spielberg has a slew of movie projects in the works, so he is not resting on his laurels anytime soon. Yet, Soderbergh has decided that the time has come to fold up his movie-making chair. He has since moved on to other ventures such as releasing a novella on Twitter (@Bitchuation). In my view, it will not be surprising when he feels called to make another movie.


HBO. (2013). Behind the Candelabra: Interview: Jerry Weintraub. Retrieved from

Steven Spielberg (2016). In Retrieved from

Soderbergh, S. (Director), Weintraub, J. (Producer), LaGravenese, R. (Screenwriter), & Thorson, S., & Thorleifson, A. (Writers). (2013). Behind the Candelabra [Motion Picture]. USA: HBO.

Thorson, S., & Thorleifson, A. (1990). Behind the candelabra: My life with Liberace. New York: Knightsbridge Pub Co Mass.

Liberace: Staying in the Spotlight

Entertainers, musicians, movies, and all popular cultural items come and go, but some manage to keep their profiles high across multi generations; Elvis, The Beatles, Star Wars are examples among many.  It is a safe bet that our great-great grandchildren will be reading books on a certain boy wizard named Harry.

While these cultural icons survive the test of time, there are those that belong to only the generation that first embraced them. Liberace—American pianist, singer, and actor—is clearly one of those.

20th Century “Mr. Showmanship”


Also known as “Mr. Showmanship,” Liberace’s fame spanned the mid 20th century, when many a woman had a “celebrity crush” on this flamboyant entertainer.

Liberace’s shows in Las Vegas were stuff of legend, and rightly so according to my husband who saw one during a business trip. He recalls when his mother’s dressmaker replaced a framed picture of Cary Grant with one of Liberace, an entertainer who had that knack of making you feel like you were the special person in the audience, that he was performing solely for your enjoyment.

Liberace unknown to millennials

Recently while visiting in the hospital room of my granddaughter, as a steady stream of young nurses and patient care techs trickled in, I asked each one if she had heard of Liberace. They all expressed confusion, scanning their brains for mention of that unusual name. Not a one could give an affirmative response. Liberace must be slowly but surely dying that third death in which no one speaks of him or remembers him anymore. One nurse did not even bother to ask who Liberace was, and instead started talking about Prince, an entertainer that I know next to nothing about, except that my Facebook newsfeed was inundated with posts regarding his recent death.

Can there be a Liberace revival?

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon
Michael Douglas and Matt Damon

However, there is hope for Liberace’s name and fame to linger on for more years. For the movie, Behind the Candelabra (2013), Director Steven Soderbergh made the wise choice to cast Michael Douglas as Liberace, and Matt Damon as Scott Thorson; both actors are well renowned with multi-generational appeal, and loyal audiences. In a way, Scott Thorson, his life story, and how it resonated with Steven Soderbergh, saves Liberace from becoming obsolete.

Liberace and Scott Thorson
Liberace and Scott Thorson

How is that? Well, Behind the Candelabra focuses on the volatile six-year relationship between Liberace and Scott Thorson, who is the author of the book (Thorson & Thorleifson, 1990) from which the movie is adapted. Thorson, approximately 40 years younger and Liberace’s alleged lover, was just 16 years old when their paths crossed. Yes, that might be statutory rape, but this is the entertainment business after all.

Now, how did a boy whose childhood was spent bouncing from one foster home to another end up personally involved with a world famous entertainer?  It started with Thorson’s knowledge of animal care, and a chance visit backstage where Liberace invited the teenager to care for his blind dogs at home.

Thorson bedazzled by Liberace’s glittering lifestyle

One does not need a psychology degree to understand how the best defense against being swept away by cults, gangs, and toxic individuals is a strong and consistent family foundation. Thorson’s family background was anything but, making him a prime target for Liberace to pick up and play with exclusively for the next six years.

Thorson was understandably bedazzled by Liberace’s glittering lifestyle, so he fully consented to the twisted sexual/father-son relationship, which included a chin implant with the purpose of looking more like the entertainer. It is not a surprise that drugs came into the picture; and Thorson became addicted, sending him into a tailspin that continues to this day with his imprisonment in the Northern Nevada Correctional Center (AP, 2014).

Thorson sues for palimony

People who come onto you strongly leave just as strongly, so it was inevitable that Liberace would eventually move on to other boys. However, after being discarded, Thorson did not go quietly into the good night. He sued Liberace for palimony, gave interviews about their relationship, and released his tell-all book, Behind the Candelabra in 1988. Intensely private about his homosexuality, Liberace would have denied all allegations and gone out of his way to counter Scott’s claims. Yet, it is that very book that caught Steven Soderbergh’s eye, and started the ball rolling toward a movie focused on Liberace, keeping him in his favorite position—in the spotlight—more than 25 years after his death.

Liberace’s entertainment continues

After Soderbergh approached a number of studios with the project, HBO took the bait, and Behind the Candelabra ended up winning two Golden Globes in 2014. While Liberace belongs to a time that is long past, Michael Douglas’s performance should give these nurses a reason to search for videos of the real Liberace on YouTube. For the essence of LIberace, they would best start with his Christmas special from 1954.


Associated Press. (2014, Jan 23). Behind the bars: Liberace’s former lover jailed for up to 20 years after failing drug test while on probation. Retrieved from

Soderberg, S. (Director) & Thorsen, S. (Writer). (2013). Behind the Candelabra [Motion Picture]. USA: HBO.

Thorson, S., & Thorleifson, A. (1990). Behind the candelabra: My life with Liberace. New York: Knightsbridge Pub Co Mass.

Notes on the Real Story of The Danish Girl

The Danish Girl provides a highly entertaining version of the lives of Gerda and Einar Wegener. However, it appears that the book  Man into Woman (1933/2004) provides a more accurate assessment of the married couple. Differences between the movie version and book version are listed below:

  1. The Danish Girl portrays sexual passion between Gerda and Einar/Lili.  In reality, their relationship was almost purely platonic.
  2. By 1931, Gerda and Lili had separated. The King of Denmark had annulled their wedding. Gerda married an Italian officer and Lili was in love with a young French painter.
  3. It was after this that Lili went in for one more surgery to have a uterus put in her body, which failed. The first successful organ transplant didn’t happen until 1980. By that time, anti-rejection medicine had been discovered.
  4. After Lili’s death, Gerda divorced her husband. She rented a small flat in Copenhagen. Her art was out of fashion. She drew Christmas cards that sold for one Danish Krone apiece to support herself. She started drinking and died alone in 1940.
  5. Dr. Renee Richards, American ophthalmologist and former tennis player, gives the book, Man into Woman, credit for inspiring her transformation in 1974 (Herman, 1976).
  6. Gerda’s art was rediscovered in the 1980s when some of her erotic drawings turned up in Copenhagen junk stores.


Herman, R. (1976, August 27). ’No Exceptions,’ and No Renee Richards. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Hooper, T. (Director, Producer). (2015). The Danish Girl [Motion Picture]. USA: Focus Features.

Hoyer, N. (pseudonym)/ Harthern-Jacobsen, E. L. (Ed.). (1933/ 2004). Man Into Woman: An Authentic Record of a Sex Change. London: Blue Boat Books Ltd

Wikipedia (2016). Lili Elbe. Omics International. Retrieved from


Gender Differences: Why the Sudden Concern?

Gender differences are suddenly a front-burner concern for citizens of Mississippi, North Carolina, and Georgia—possibly frightened because of the Supreme Court decision last year that gave the right to marriage to same-sex couples (Liptak, 2015). Their particular concerns about gay, lesbian, and transgender people have led to passing laws that have drawn reactions nationwide.

In Mississippi, companies such as Tyson Foods, MGM Resorts International, Nissan and Toyota, all major employers in the state, have raised objections to the law signed by Gov. Phil Bryant. The far-reaching legislation allows individuals and institutions like churches, religious charities and privately held businesses to decline services to gay people if doing so would violate their religious beliefs on marriage and gender (Mele, 2016).

North Carolina Law Bars Transgender People

The North Carolina law “bars transgender people from using public bathrooms that do not match the sex on their birth certificates” (Mele, 2016). Because of Gov. Deal’s veto of Georgia’s so-called “religious liberty bill,” we narrowly escaped state-sponsored bigotry ourselves. To me, this simply underscores the ignorance and strange attitudes that exist surrounding human biological characteristics and the relationships of these characteristics to a spectrum of other associated human attributes.

Thus when I refer to gender differences, I conceptualize a sub-set of all human differences.  I envision these gender differences along a spectrum of characteristics that people have typically limited to simple notions of male and female. But, where do we draw the lines?

In truth, we are all naturally curious about other humans and how they look and behave. We have observed and/or heard about all manner of people in our lifetimes, from those who seem to look like us and adapt well to day-to-day activities and conflicts, to those who are different and whose behavior is dangerous, problematic, or puzzling. We have all formed opinions about others ourselves, based on our own experiences—coupled with public opinion. In fact, what we consider appropriate or inappropriate largely relates to public opinion.

Gender Differences Not Fully Understood

Over the years, discussion about gender differences, esp. those outside a heteronormative worldview, has gone underground because of censorship, which of course is related to public opinion. Now, gender differences have suddenly become a critical social issue, even though obviously genderqueers have been around since the beginning of recorded history. Do you think The Danish Girl  (Hooper, 2015) contributed to the urgency of this perceived public problem?

First, considering the fact that all of humanity is not fully understood in societies gives rise to fear and distrust in many for how to think about “the other”—that particular person or group that is beyond their experience, e.g., queer or otherwise different. Sometimes these differences have led to marginalization because people think of them as disabled or dysfunctional or scary.  Any number of physical, intellectual, emotional, and/or psychological variations may cause individual functional limitation or impairments; however, these do not necessarily lead to disability unless society fails to take account of, and include, people regardless of their differences.

Defining a “Problem” of Gender Differences

Next, and consequently, human differences may be considered as a “problem.” Thus the person who has characteristics that are outside recognized norms is in danger of unjustified social limitations. Further, simply how a problem is defined or the particular tools available to manage it dictates its solution. (“If your only tool Is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail.”)

In our movie this month, Einar/Lili pursues a consultation with medical doctors for help with gender identification. This reveals that in his/her context, she and Gerda have defined this distressing condition as a potential medical problem.

The following are three ways that people typically define individual human systems dysfunction:

  1. Psychiatric problem:  crazy, mental disorder, mentally disturbed

    Mental disorders are usually defined by a group of attributes: how a person behaves, feels, perceives, and  thinks.

  2. Medical problem:  physically disabled, a medical model of disability:

    “the result of a physical condition intrinsic to the individual (it is part of that individual’s own body), may reduce the individual’s quality of life, and cause clear disadvantages to the individual” (Medical Model of Disability,2008, p. 718). Once a condition is classified as medical, a medical model of disability tends to be used in place of a social model. Medicalization may also be termed ‘pathologization’ or (pejoratively) ‘disease mongering'(Medicalization. 2017, Oct 23).

  3. Religious-belief or faith problem:  sinful, acting against God’s laws

    When a condition is classified as religious problem, it may further be classified as a physical, metaphysical, or moral evil.

By the way, regarding terms and definitions, I didn’t realize until recently the distinctions that the LGBT community makes regarding the destructive nature of certain terminology. Both the Associated Press and The New York Times restrict usage of the term ‘homosexual’—a word whose clinical history and pejorative connotations are routinely exploited by anti-gay extremists to suggest that lesbians and gay men are somehow diseased, or psychologically and emotionally disordered.

The editors have also established rules against the use of inaccurate terminology such as “sexual preference” and “gay lifestyle” (GLAAD, 2013). It would be good for all of us to become familiar with these distinctions so that we might not be guilty of promoting hurtful prejudice.

The Problem Represented in the Movie

Now, let’s look at how the gender identification problem is represented in The Danish Girl, particularly regarding Einar/Lili’s diagnoses. First, a medical doctor treats him with radiation, but it is not clear why. Then, a psychiatrist weighs in, at which time the diagnosis becomes schizophrenia, and in that scene, he barely escapes the men in white coats pursuing him with a straitjacket. If he had been shown to consult with a priest, would the treatment have been exorcism to cast out his demons or evil spirits? If a pastor, would the treatment be to shun him until or unless he repents and remains celibate (Ben, 2013;  Denison, 2014)?

Lack of information and/or understanding can produce all kinds of responses thought to be helpful (or hurtful), but this movie depiction simply underscores a societal misunderstanding that still exists (Sasson, 2015).

Richard von Krafft-Ebing
Richard von Krafft-Ebing
Psychopathia Sexualis
Psychopathia Sexualis

Psychopathia Sexualis (Krafft-Ebing, 1886) is said to be the first scholarly attempt to shed light on human gender differences, and this book is available for reading thanks to the Guttenberg Project and the Internet Archive.

Krafft-Ebing proposed a theory of homosexuality as biologically anomalous and originating in the embryonic and fetal stages of gestation, which evolved into a ‘sexual inversion’ of the brain (Richard von Krafft-Ebing. 2017, Jun 22).

The Fallacy of Assignable Gender is a more recent contribution from an author who has lived through the experience herself (Bradford, 2007).

The focus of The Fallacy of Assignable Gender is gender identity conflict. … The condition is examined from the perspectives of medical science, religion, political theory, the arts, and others. Perhaps as compelling as the nature of the condition is society’s reaction to it.

The Bradford work appears to be a courageous book that is worthy of our reading.



Medicalization is the process by which human conditions and problems come to be defined and treated as medical conditions, and thus become the subject of medical study, diagnosis, prevention, or treatment.


Ben. (2013, Nov 25). A gay Christian responds to Stanton Jones’s article. Retrieved from

Bradford, B. (2007). The Fallacy of Assignable Gender. Englewood, FL: Transcendent Publications.

Debruge, P. (2015, Sep 2). Venice Film Review: ‘The Danish Girl’ Retrieved from

Denison, J. (2014, Mar 24). World Vision board reverses same-sex marriage stand.   Retrieved from

Denison, J. (2014, Mar 26). World Vision’s same-sex marriage stand: what does God think?   Retrieved from

GLAAD Media Reference Guide – AP & New York Times Style (2013).   Retrieved from

Hooper, T. (Director, Producer). (2015). The Danish Girl [Motion Picture]. USA: Focus Features.

Krafft-Ebing, R. von (1886). Psychopathia Sexualis, with especial reference to the antipathic sexual instinct, a medico-forensic study (12th ed.). New York: Rebman.

Liptak, A. (2015, Jun 26). Supreme Court ruling makes same-sex marriage a right nationwide.   Retrieved from

Medical Model of Disability. (2008). In W. Kirch (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Public Health (p. 718). New York: Springer.

Medicalization. (2017, Oct 23). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Mele, C. (2016, Apr 12). In North Carolina and Mississippi, backlash grows over rights law.   Retrieved from

Richard von Krafft-Ebing. (2017, Jun 22). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Sasson, E. (2015, Apr 27). America has not reached a transgender tipping point.   Retrieved from

Schounov, S. (2015). Eros and identity meet again in Copenhagen, in The Danish Girl.

Spong, J. S. (1992). Was the Apostle Paul gay? Retrieved from

The Danish Girl: The Plight of Transgenders Today

The Danish Girl is an appropriate choice to continue Movies on My Mind’s LGBT theme, as transgenders are prominent in the news of late. This movie, directed by Tom Hooper and starring the accomplished actor Eddie Redmayne, was released in November 2015 and was subsequently nominated for four Oscars. Alicia Vikander won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Gerda Wegener in this film.

2015 a Banner Year for LGBT

Producers of The Danish Girl chose an auspicious time to release the movie, as 2015 was a banner year for the LGBT cause. In 2015, openly gay actor Neil Patrick Harris hosted the Academy Awards ceremony, gay marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court, and Caitlyn Jenner made her grand debut with a Vanity Fair spread (Bissinger, 2015, Jul 15).

The Danish Girl, set in 1920’s Copenhagen, focuses on a married couple, Gerda and Einar Wegener.  A synopsis is available on IMDb, as good as any, and as is typical in true stories, the movie is an entertaining version. Further, the movie’s success is reflective of our times’ progressive march towards full acceptance of the LGBT community.

Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe, and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot
Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe, and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot

The theme of cross-dressers has been in the movies throughout the history of motion pictures.  Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon endeared themselves in 1959’s Some Like It Hot. Dustin Hoffman impressed critics in 1982 with his performance in Tootsie. Robin Williams charmed in Mrs. Doubtfire in the mid-1990’s.  Among these movies of the past is one that shocked the audience: The Crying Game.  Yet, as we recoiled then recovered from the major twist, the movie was simply chalked off as ‘alternative.’

Moving the focus now to transgenders, The Danish Girl is significant because it forces us to watch a real person just like you and I, struggle with gender identity and delves deep into the transformation from a he to a she. It is not a comedy, nor is it a thriller, but a movie based on a true story.

Transgenders and Sex Change Surgery

The concept of sex change surgery is still awkward in mainstream society, but Caitlyn Jenner imposed it on American households in summer 2015.  My generation lauded the gold medal that Bruce Jenner brought home from the 1972 Olympic Decathlon Competition.  The next generation enjoyed eating Wheaties in front of Bruce Jenner’s picture on the cereal box at the breakfast table. Current generations associate her with the Kardashian Family and Reality TV.  When the time came for Bruce to become Caitlyn, it was a lot for Americans of all ages to digest. But digest it we did, and we listened.  We read the sincere article in Vanity Fair.  We opened our eyes to the harsh realities and complexities of gender. With this very recent introduction to transgenders, the timing of the release of The Danish Girl could not have been better.

Complexities Evident in Gender Identification

At the moment of conception, each of us is assigned a gender by God or by science, however you see and/or experience it. In any case, most assume that one is either male or female with no gray areas. Yet, gender is not always as simple as black and white. Much controversy was raised over the gender of African female athlete Caster Semenya, and whether or not she had an unfair advantage over other female athletes due to her abnormally high testosterone levels, the presence of internal testes and absence of female reproductive organs. She was found to be a hermaphrodite, considered by many a derogatory term. Those in book club circles will remember the book Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2013), in which the main character was a mixture of male and female traits. There is also Klinefelter Syndrome, where those afflicted have an extra X chromosome in addition to an X and a Y. The result is a tall and thin body type with no shape. Some historians speculate that George Washington had it. The idea that gender can be considered a spectrum is a slowly emerging one.

Caitlin Jenner’s Life Change

There is no doubt that Caitlyn Jenner was genuine when describing the feelings that propelled her to make such a drastic life change. She has reported (Bissinger, 2015, Jul 15),

The uncomfortableness of being me never leaves me all day long. I’m not doing this to be interesting. I’m doing this to live.

The inner turmoil of a gender mis-assignment must be desperate; otherwise, why would people go through the massive ordeal of a sex change operation? And it is not just the surgery. Caitlyn Jenner and other transgenders undergo the legal process of the sex change at the Social Security Administration, on their driver’s licenses, passports, credit cards, and any other official documents. Just the paperwork alone should give anyone tremendous pause on following through a gender-change. The Social Security office alone would do me in.

Recently, my daughter and I visited a friend in the hospital immediately following her knee replacement procedure. We saw her post-op, in the haze of anesthesia with tubes and wires in and out of her body. My daughter asked why my friend or anyone would subject herself to such a painful surgery as a knee replacement. I replied that the pain in the joints can get so severe that one is willing to take any measure to do something about it. I believe the same goes for transgenders who subject themselves to the sex-change surgery. The desperation and inner turmoil of a gender mis-assignment must be that painful.

There were scenes in The Danish Girl that showed where Gerda had prevailed upon her husband, Einar Wegener, to be a model for her paintings. His body type was typical of one afflicted with Klinefelter’s disease, although it is pure speculation that he had it. Einar’s posing as a female for Gerda’s paintings proved to be an eye-opening experience for both artist and model. Dressed in female clothes and adopting female mannerisms, the model experienced an awakening that led to his transformation as Lili.

Gerda’s Paintings and the Fashion Industry

A theory is floating around that Gerda’s paintings are the origin of the fashion industry’s ideal female body type. Artwork from this era is said to be the origin of Twiggy, Kate Moss, and all successful models with the androgynous body type whose images have tortured many women for decades. The ideal female of the Renaissance was forever banished from the artwork. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus would be considered a plus-sized model.

Despite the growing media attention to their plight, transgenders are rare, a minuscule part of the general population. Since no well-meaning human being should feel ostracized, may the world be more welcoming to those who suffer a genuine need to change their gender. May they feel free to come out and do something about it.


Cross-dressing is the act of wearing items of clothing and other accouterments commonly associated with the opposite sex within a particular society.

A person, animal, or plant having both male and female sex organs and/or other sexual characteristics.


Bissinger, B. (2015, Jul 15). Caitlyn Jenner: The Full Story. Retrieved from

Eugenides, J. (2013). Middlesex. London: Fourth Estate.

Hooper, T. (Director, Producer). (2015). The Danish Girl [Motion Picture]. USA: Focus Features.

The Celluloid Closet: Viva Vito’s gay rights legacy!

On June, 26, 2015, the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, and the world erupted in celebration of gay rights. Rainbow flags flew with pride, the White House lit up in rainbow colors, and millions of Facebook users commemorated the occasion by adding a rainbow to their profile pictures. In the midst of the euphoria, there was not one mention of Vito Russo that I remember. That is akin to Americans forgetting Martin Luther King, Jr. while appreciating what the Civil Rights Movement has achieved for African Americans.

gay rights poster
gay rights poster

Why had so many forgotten Vito Russo? After all, the record shows he is credited with writing a landmark book (Russo, 1987) that led to the making of our featured film, The Celluloid Closet (Epstein & Friedman, 1996), with being a “a giant in the fields of gay and AIDS activism” (Tomlin, 2011), and the “founding father of the gay liberation movement” (Schwartz, 2011).

Russo was born in the 1940’s and grew up in New York City and New Jersey. As a child, he was surrounded by boys playing stick ball in the alleyway, but he, himself, never felt compelled to join them. It was a lonely childhood because he knew something was different about him from other boys. Film provided an escape from those confusing emotions.

Like a good Catholic, Vito went to confession many times to ask for absolution after having sex with a man.

And of course, (the priest) recognized my voice because, you know, every week he was hearing me say this, so he says finally, ‘Look, enough is enough! Next time I’m not giving you absolution’ (Ibid., p.38).

That was a turning point for Russo, who realized that being gay was not a sin. How could it be when it felt so natural to him? It was simply a part of who he was, and he could no more change that than the color of his skin.

Cabaret Nights and Firehouse Flick

Russo began to embrace his homosexual nature and proceeded to encourage others to do the same. He reached out to other gay men through his passions for theater and film in “Cabaret Nights” and “Firehouse Flick.”

Cabaret Nights was an instant success since it guaranteed entertainment from talented gay men and gave performers an outlet to express their talents, thoughts, and feelings in a safe place. Through Firehouse Flick, Russo had the opportunity to network with gay men by gathering in an old firehouse to watch movies. This allowed good camaraderie and total acceptance from their fellow man, something they did not have in mainstream society where they were openly shunned at places of employment and multi-tenant complexes.

One Firehouse Flick movie they watched was Battle of Algiers, which fired up the audience to storm up and down 6th Avenue screaming for rights. At the same time, Russo had witnessed Martin Luther King, Jr. advancing the cause of black people in the Civil Rights Movement, which inspired him to do the same for gay people. Russo felt called to dedicate himself to improving lives of gays; thus, he became the first true activist for the gay community.

Russo’s gay rights activism cut short

Sadly, in 1990, Russo’s life was cut short by the big AIDS monster.  Though he did not get to pursue gay activism for as many years as he would have liked, others were more than willing to pick up  the torch and carry on through the 1990’s and beyond.  There is no question progress has been made in all areas.

Today, many gay people will not have to fear their lifestyles’ affecting their jobs. People who are openly gay, e.g., Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, et al., are hired in starring roles on TV and in movies.  Nary an eye is blinked at a family with gay parents, or parents of gay children.  Now, we’ve achieved the ultimate: gay marriage. Michael Schiavi, Vito Russo’s biographer, believes that back then, gay marriage was so far beyond Russo’s frame of reference that he would never have conceived of that victory (2011). For that reason, Schiavi does not know how Russo might have reacted. But I think it is safe to say he would be waving a rainbow flag!

So, here we are in 2016. It would be a grave disservice not to tip our hats to Vito Russo.


Epstein, R., & Friedman, J. (Directors). (1996). The Celluloid Closet. B. Grey, S. Nevens, H. Rosenman, & L. Tomlin (Producers). USA: Home Box Office (HBO).

Russo, V. (1987). The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (Revised ed.): Harper & Row.

Schwarz, J. (Director). (2011). Vito. B. Singer & S. Nevens (Producers). USA: HBO Documentary Films.

Schiavi, M. R. (2011). Celluloid activist: The Life and times of Vito Russo. University of Wisconsin Press.

Tomlin, L. (2011). Editorial review. In M. R. Shiavi (Ed.), Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo. University of Wisconsin Press.

Human Diversity: Are You Still Blissfully Ignorant?

It seems strange that our understanding of human diversity is still so shallow in 2016, especially regarding our gender differences. Shouldn’t this particular human difference be one that we all know a lot about by now? It’s often the case however that we cover our ignorance or discomfort with certain topics by laughing about them.

Comedy as Bullying

Sometime last year, as I thought about the portrayal of comedy in motion pictures, I pondered the notion that comedy is used as a vehicle for poking fun at (i.e., bullying) and thereby possibly further marginalizing underserved groups in the U.S. such as gays.

The popular films of the Golden Age could only hint at homosexuality and often portrayed gays as simpering characters, objects of scorn or merriment, or insidious villains (Top doc, 2016).

As it turns out, other researchers have had those same thoughts, and have both studied and written about them, e.g., Lugowski, 1999.

Franklin Pangborn

As played by such prominent and well-established supporting comedy character actors as Franklin Pangborn, Edward Everett Horton, … queer men tended to appear as one of two types. The queer in his more subdued form appears as the dithering, asexual “sissy” sometimes befuddled, incompetent, and, if married, very henpecked (Horton), and sometimes fussy and officious (Pangborn).

Tyrell Davis
Tyrell Davis

Pangborn, however, was one of the actors who (along with the unsung likes of Tyrell Davis and Tyler Brooke) also played or suggested the other type, the more outrageous “pansy,” an extremely effeminate boulevardier type sporting lipstick, rouge, a trim mustache and hairstyle, and an equally trim suit, incomplete without a boutonniere (Lugowski, 1999).

Can We Learn about Human Diversity through Comedy?

Recognizing the extraordinary influence of movies in shaping our culture, I then wondered about how, in contrast, comedy might gently introduce us to people and situations that may be uncomfortable or unknown to us, and therein provide education that possibly leads to new knowledge.

At the same time, and especially given the social taboos historically associated with particular topics and types of people, I thought it might be difficult, but not impossible, to track how we have portrayed genderqueers in film over time. Yet again, but no longer surprising, I find that this very topic has been investigated already.

However, what is surprising, is to learn who provided the investigation. Vito Russo, writer, and director of this month’s film—and author of the book on which it is based—provides evidence of the presence of gay and bisexual actors and stories in Hollywood since the beginning of motion pictures. “It proved to be revelatory, in part because of Russo’s embrace of bricolage, a concept borrowed from anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss” (Kennedy, 2011). Shiavi (2009) states that Russo’s work is “indispensable to our reading of gender and sexuality on screen.”

Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies is approaching its thirtieth anniversary. Prior to its 1981 publication (and 1987 revision), there had been only two major critical works on the portrayal of homosexuals in film: Parker Tyler’s Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies (1971) and Richard Dyer’s Gays in Film (1977), neither of which has enjoyed the popularity or influence of Closet.

Even though dismissed as inadequate in queer film theory, Vito Russo’s activist works are important and visible in today’s texts on the topic because they record his particular contribution to film history and to film criticism related to gay rights and human diversity. In Celluloid Activist, Schiavi (2011) realigns Russo’s legacy, positioning both his politics and his film scholarship on twin pedestals.

Film History and Public Policy

Now, let’s turn to public policy and see how film history might correspond to regulation, which is also a measure of public values and public sentiment. At the outset, motion pictures profoundly affected communication and society, and as now, created fear in the minds of many as to the potential changes they might bring.

By speaking to mass audiences directly, movies all too easily bypassed traditional agencies of socialization—the church, the school, the family. For many they came to symbolize the important changes taking place in the structure of power and influence in the early twentieth century United States, and those groups who feared that their own influence in society was diminishing viewed them as a threat. Fierce debates over the content and control of this new medium arose in the early days of silent film and intensified with the advent of sound technology (Vaughan, 1990, p.39).

The new film industry created an uproar across the nation regarding the acceptability of content being produced for public viewing, typically regarding sex-related content. Last month, we discussed censorship and the structure of the MPAA in the U.S.  The Hays Code became the “official” self-regulating guidelines for what was released for viewing by the six major studios during the Golden Age. However, and prior to that, the government had been involved in such regulation, which had begun in the legislatures of various states. In fact, interestingly we have just past the 100 year anniversary of the Supreme Court decision of 1915 in Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, 236 U.S. 230 (1915), in which, by a 9-0 vote, the Court ruled that the free speech protection of the Ohio Constitution—which was substantially similar to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution—did not extend to motion pictures. Not until 1952 were movies granted protection under the First Amendment.

At that point, the Hays Code was eliminated and replaced with a rating system similar to what we have today, which is becoming more and more relaxed. To relate the rating system to its effects, now two-thirds of Hollywood movies made each year are R-rated; most young people have seen these movies long before they are the required 16 years old (Greenberg et al., 1993).


A person emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to males/men and females/women. This attraction does not have to be equally split between genders, and there may be a preference for one gender over others.

A construction made of whatever materials are at hand; something created from a variety of available things.

Closeted (In the Closet)
Refers to a homosexual, bisexual, queer, trans* person, or intersex person who does not or cannot disclose their identity or identities to others.

Coming Out
1) The process by which one accepts one’s own sexuality, gender identity, or intersex status (to come out to oneself);  2)The process by which one shares one’s sexuality, gender identity, or intersex status with others (to come out to friends, etc.). This can be a continual, life-long process for homosexual, bisexual, trans*, and intersex people.

1) Term used to refer to homosexual- / same-gender-loving communities as a whole, or as an individual identity label for anyone who does not identify as heterosexual;  2) Term used in some cultural settings to specifically represent male-identified people who are attracted to other male-identified people in a romantic, erotic, and/or emotional sense.

An umbrella term for people whose gender identity is outside of, not included within, or beyond the binary of female and male;  2) Gender non-conformity through expression, behavior, social roles, and/or identity.

Lifestyle norm that insists that people fall into distinct genders (male and female), and naturalizes heterosexual coupling as the norm.


Briggs, K. C. (2013). Trans, genderqueer, and queer terms glossary. Retrieved from

Brown, J. D. (2002). Mass media influences on sexuality. Journal of Sex Research, 39, 42-45.

Dyer, R. (1983). Review essay: Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the movies. Studies in Visual Communication (Spring), 52-55.

Epstein, R., & Friedman, J. (Directors). B. Grey, S. Nevens, H. Rosenman, & L. Tomlin (Producers). (1996). The Celluloid Closet [Motion Picture]. USA: Home Box Office (HBO).

Greenberg, B. S., Siemicki, M., Dorfman, S., Heeter, G., Lin, G., Stanley, G. (1993). Sex content in R-rated films viewed by adolescents. In B. S. Greenberg, J. D. Brown, & N. Buerkel-Rothfuss (Eds.), Media, sex and the adolescent (pp. 45-58). Gresskill. NJ: Hampton Press, Inc.

Jowett, G. S. (1989). A Capacity for evil: The 1915 Supreme Court mutual decision. Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, 9(1), 59-78.

Kennedy, M. (2011, Jul 10). ‘Celluloid Activist,’ by Michael Schiavi: Biography.   Retrieved from

Lugowski, D. M. (1999). Queering the (new) deal: Lesbian and gay representation and the depression-era cultural politics of Hollywood’s Production Code. Cinema Journal, 38 (2), 3-35.

Mann, W. J. (2001). Behind the screen: How gays and lesbians shaped Hollywood. New York: Viking.

Schiavi, M. (2009). Looking for Vito. Cinema Journal, 49 (1), 41-64.

Schiavi, M. R. (2011). Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo. University of Wisconsin Press.

Top documentary films: The Celluloid Closet. (2016). Retrieved from

Vaughn, S. (1990). Morality and entertainment: The Origins of the Motion Picture Production Code. Journal of American History, 77 (1), 39.

Wilde vs. Public Morality

We teach people how to remember, we never teach them how to grow.
—Oscar Wilde (1907)

My dear boy, people who love once in their lives are really shallow people. What they call their loyalty and their fidelity is either the lethargy of custom or lack of imagination. Faithfulness is to the emotional life is what constance is to the intellectual life, simply a confession of failure.
—Oscar Wilde (1890)

Oscar Wilde was a witty, prolific, and very successful literary figure who suffered imprisonment for refusing to deny his gay behavior. However, when one’s livelihood requires popularity and acceptance, revolution is a stance that should require thoughtful consideration of its risks. Thus, his story is a conspicuous example where the rules of society, which reflect a society’s conception of moral behavior and its conception (or misconception) of humanity, dictated that a person of enormous talent and intellect must be disguised, marginalized, and/or extinguished. Besides the fact that from the outset of publication he dealt with critical assertions of plagiarism or “presumed unoriginality” (Bristow & Mitchell, 2016), Oscar Wilde also found that some of his work fell under the yoke of censorship. Despite his enormous international fame, it has taken over a century for his symbolic and aesthetic works to achieve full recognition, e.g.,

Revised after it was condemned in the British press over 130 years ago as ‘vulgar’, ‘unclean’, ‘poisonous’ and ‘discreditable,’ an uncensored version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray has finally been published (Flood, 2011).

Wilde’s intelligence, creativity, and razor-sharp wit is clearly demonstrated in the many literary works that made him famous. His novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which he wrote in 1890 is familiar to many, as are his social comedies, notably, “Lady Windermere’s Fan” (1892), “A Woman of No Importance” (1893), “An Ideal Husband” (1895), and “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895).

To his fame, in 1878 Edward, Prince of Wales (who became King Edward VII after Queen Victoria’s death) “asked to meet Wilde, observing epigrammatically: ‘I do not know Mr. Wilde, and not to know Mr. Wilde is not to be known’ ” (Claudia, 2007).

Born in 1854 to prominent Dublin intellectuals—his father a physician and true “Renaissance man” (Walsh, 2014) and his mother a writer, Wilde was educated at Trinity College, and at Magdalen College, Oxford. In 1884, he married Constance Lloyd, who gave birth to their two sons in 1885 and 1886, respectively.

In 1895, despite his popularity and visible contribution to society, he lost his battle in public court when he sued John Douglas, Marquess of Queensberry (a title in the Peerage of Scotland), for defamation of character. The court process turned the tables and indicted Wilde for “gross indecency with men,” a British law enacted to prosecute gay men when acts of sodomy could not be proven.

It is interesting to note that the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954) was convicted under the same law and sentenced to chemical castration as an alternative to prison. Turing, responsible for the software concept of modern computing, has been featured in movies such as The Imitation Game (2014), The Code Breakers (1996), and Enigma (2001)—our movie of December 2011.

Oscar Wilde, while serving two years’ imprisonment in Reading, England,  wrote “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” and a letter to Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas) expressing his anguish, which was later published and entitled “De Profundis” (Latin: “from the depths”). Released from prison in 1897, he moved to Paris and died in obscurity in 1900.

Was Wilde living at the wrong time?

One could certainly make a case for the notion that Wilde was born at the wrong time. If he were living today, I think he might be very welcome in any number of places, most certainly in the cast of Saturday Night Live because of his wit! And, Like Elton John, he might be publicly celebrated for his art rather than condemned for refusing to mask his infidelity to heterosexual norms. … or maybe not. As we focused on The Bird Cage last year, I posted an article speculating about how a survey of filmmaking since the beginning of the cinema might allow us to assess our culture in stages of social adaptation and advancement, and pondered where films about same-sex relationships would come in.

Caitlyn Jenner
Caitlyn Jenner

Regarding heteronormative conflicts, the recent public disclosure of the former Bruce Jenner, now Caitlyn Marie Jenner, has brought attention to the concerns of the transgendered community, and not all positive I am certain. In fact, very recently I even found myself startled a bit at the notion of uncensored realism while watching episodes of Amazon’s Transparent. Not that I consider the series’ content tasteless by any means, but I was simply thinking about unmonitored children who might be watching, and noting that complete frontal nudity, along with realistic depictions of sexual intercourse, is now acceptable for public viewing on film period, no matter its transmission source. (Well, on television, it *is* cable, of course.) It hasn’t been all that long since George Carlin’s “7 words” challenged what is permissible for broadcast—and, they were just words after all. No pictures.

Regarding what constitutes obscene, indecent and profane in broadcasting, these concepts are very difficult to define since strongly related to different cultures and standards. Even so, there are rules in the U.S. regarding time of day (See: FCC ).

It is a violation of federal law to air obscene programming at any time or indecent programming or profane language from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Congress has given the FCC the responsibility for administratively enforcing these laws. The FCC may revoke a station license, impose a monetary forfeiture or issue a warning if a station airs obscene, indecent or profane material.

The courts hold that indecent material is protected by the First Amendment and cannot be banned entirely. FCC rules prohibit indecent speech on broadcast radio and television between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when there is reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.

How and when to legislate for public morality

Thus, the concern for how and when to legislate for public morality remains as pertinent as it was in Wilde’s time, and his arguments against censorship highlight the relationship between artist and public that is a central concern in censorship debates today (Wood, 2002). Think about what we have learned about the climate for gays in Russia (Paulson & Kishkosky, 2015).

But, where is the outcry in the U.S. about sexual content in the movies, one might ask, in view of our history of film censorship (Archer, 2007)? It turns out, films with gay and lesbian characters and actors have been produced in the industry since its inception. But, it was never the gay community that was particularly at odds. Those community members simply hid in the closet while the Catholic Church and similarly-focused organizations railed against the display of other cultural taboos.

Most people really did fear, condemn, and stay away from whatever forms of eroticism they learned were abnormal. The adventurous—Oscar Wilde, Marquis de Sade, Margaret Sanger, Hester Prynne—were punished.

Much of this was about controlling procreation. Some of it was about ignorance toward female pleasure, and hostility toward female enthusiasm. Some of it was about dividing the body into clean and dirty areas, hence clean and dirty activities. Some of it was about managing virginity, which was valuable family property.

Beyond all this, a key reason religion and repressive government have always wanted to control sexuality is because it’s a place where people can experience profound autonomy. Since the beginning of time, even the poorest, least intelligent, least attractive people have been able to feel powerful during sex. Even when you have absolutely no power over the important circumstances of your life, you can, if not instructed against it, do and imagine whatever you want in bed. What powerful social institution would NOT want to control this bottomless well of personal power (Klein, 2013)?

In earlier days, what the major Hollywood studios released to the public in the movies was controlled by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the studios’ self-appointed and self-governing agency. Because of major disruption in the 1920s caused by the outcry of the Roman Catholic Church, the MPAA created the Motion Picture Production Code, known as the Hays Code, to regulate what was acceptable and what was unacceptable content for motion pictures produced for a public audience in the United States. Compliance with the code was required for most movies released in the “Golden Age” from 1930 to 1968.

Next month, we will continue discussing this topic and will focus on some of the important gay and lesbian contributors to the film industry.


The Motion Picture Association of America

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is an American trade association that represents the six major Hollywood studios: Warner Bros. (1923), Universal (1912), Walt Disney (1923), Columbia (1924), 20th Century Fox (1935), and Paramount (1912). Former majors included: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1924–1986); United Artists (1919–1982); RKO Pictures (1928–1960). The MPAA changed its name from the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) in 1945.

Motion Picture Production Code

Also called the Hays Code, the Motion Picture Production Code was a set of industry moral guidelines defining what was acceptable and what was unacceptable content for motion pictures released for public viewing in the United States. The MPPDA adopted the code in 1930 and began enforcing it in 1934, requiring compliance for most US motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968.

MPAA Film Rating System

MPAA’s film-rating system is used to rate the content of a film with respect to its suitability for certain audiences in the US and its territories. The film-rating system, designed and implemented under the leadership of Jack Valenti, replaced the Hays Code in 1968.


Archer, M. (2007). You may be surrounded by Philistines. Retrieved from

Bristow, J. & Mitchell, R. N. (2016, Jan 13). On Oscar Wilde and plagiarism. The Public Domain Review. Retrieved from

Claudia (2007, Jun 20). Edward, Prince of Wales (1841-1910). Oscar Wilde – Standing Ovations. Retrieved from

Flood, A. (2011, Apr 27). Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray published. London: The Guardian. Retrieved from

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Klein, M. (2013, April). The End of Normal Sex. Sexual Intelligence (Issue #158). Retrieved from

Paulson, M. & Kishkosky, S. (2015, Jun 22). Gay-themed play about Oscar Wilde hits a Kremlin roadblock. New York Times. Retrieved from

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Walshe, E. (2014). The Diary of Mary Travers. Ireland: Somerville Press. (See:

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Wilde, O. (1890, Jul). The Picture of Dorian Gray. Philadelphia: Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (46/p. 25) .

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