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Reel Queer: A Movie Lover's Look into Films Dealing with LGBT Issues

Kim K's picture



*Please note: There is a vast range of films in this category. This is just a sampling of a few films that I felt pertain to certain aspects of our class discussions of gender and sexuality.



Chasing Amy (1997).

Kevin Smith’s late 90’s movie deals comically with issues of bi-sexuality, lesbianism, and sexual experimentation. Ben Affleck plays a comic book artist who falls in love with Alyssa (played by Joey Lauren Adams), who decides to leave her lesbian orientation for a heterosexual relationship with Affleck’s character.

Biological Probability: This movie deals with issues of multiple sexual feelings – from the relationship between Affleck’s character Holden and his best friend Banky (played by Jason Lee), to Alyssa’s bi-sexual past, which makes Holden think twice about his love for her. While Holden and Banky’s friendship focuses on a strong suggestion of homosexual feelings between longtime friends, Alyssa’s fluid sexuality rings true with many.

Stereotypes: The movie loses points for clichéd “threesome” suggestions, and some homophobic and stereotypical views about lesbians and lesbian sex, including an eye roll-inducing conversation about how Alyssa must still be a virgin because she has never had sex with a man. It somewhat redeems itself at the end, however, because Alyssa ends up with a woman.

Why It’s Important: It was one of the first popular American movies to feature a lesbian lead character, and it’s a must see for Smith fans.

*Bonus Points: It’s funny, as only Kevin Smith can do, and the scene in which Silent Bob breaks his silence to tell the heartbreaking tale of his unrequited love for “Amy” makes the movie.


Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001).

Part acid trip, part rock opera, part love story, this film tells the tale of Hansel (played by John Cameron Mitchell), a boy who grows up in poverty stricken Germany, suffers sexual abuse at the hands of his father, and witnesses the construction of the Berlin Wall. When Hansel falls in love with a male American soldier, he undergoes a sex change operation in order to marry his lover and escape Germany. The botched operation leaves Hansel, now Hedwig, left with an “angry inch” of flesh between his/her legs. As a result, Hedwig spends the rest of the film searching for his/her other half.

Biological Probability: While there have been some occurrences of genitals being accidentally damaged during medical procedures, (like the well known case of David Reimer), it is a rare occurrence in modern sexual reassignment surgery.  Hedwig is neither biologically intersex, nor (willingly) transgender; however, it brings up relevant issues pertaining to anyone who feels outside of their biological gender.

Stereotypes: Hedwig has a lot of external issues he/she is dealing with throughout the film such as poverty, alcoholism, and a history of sexual abuse, which somewhat perpetuates the negative preconception that trauma causes homosexuality and sexual identity issues.

Why It’s Important: Hedwig’s story resounds with positive vibes regarding issues of transgender and intersex people. Hedwig’s musical public performances about his/her search for identity within his/her biological gender and physical body brings audiences into the confusing and often hilarious world of an unconventional hero’s quest for true love - both of the self and of others.

*Bonus Points: Hedwig’s “The Origin of Love” song.


Transamerica (2005).

Bree (played by Felicity Huffman) is a pre-op male to female transsexual who fathered a child years ago. Now the teen is searching for his biological father, Stanley (Bree). At the recommendation of her therapist, Bree reconnects with her son just before undergoing surgery to become female, and embarks on a cross-country road trip with him, without first telling him that she was his father.           

Biological Probability: According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, between ¼ and 1% of the population are transsexuals (

Stereotypes: Nothing outwardly offensive. The movie does a good job of explaining misconceptions surrounding transgender people and sexual reassignment surgery.

Why It’s Important: Overall message is extremely positive regarding transsexual/transgender people, and reminds the viewer that family bonds can remain strong throughout change and that love can exist within many unconventional borders.

*Bonus Points: Actress Felicity Huffman won an Academy Award for her brilliant portrayal of the transgendered Bree.


Brokeback Mountain (2005).

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal portray gay lovers in this emotionally driven, unapologetic tale of two cowboys in 1960’s Wyoming who fall in love with each other, and struggle to conceal their homosexuality throughout their lives.

Biological Probability: Many men and women are forced to conceal their homosexual identities in fear of being ostracized, shunned by society or religion, or physically harmed.

Stereotypes: The cowboy aspect drew some negative attention and perpetuated numerous gay cowboy jokes. Many also found the aggressive sex scenes between the two men to be an insulting representation of gay sex. Also *** SPOILER*** the end gives into the ultimate consequence that many gay characters face – a violent, untimely death.

Why It’s Important: While some ridiculed it, many found this film to be progressive in terms of its mainstream cast, box office success, and Academy Award nominations and wins. Its overall powerful message of true love is both poignant and relevant.

*Bonus Points: Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger on screen together for two hours. Seriously.


The Kids Are All Right (2010).

Jules and Nic, played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, are a longtime lesbian couple with two teenage children whom they had through the use of an anonymous sperm donor. After their children decide to contact the donor, Paul (played by Marc Ruffalo), his presence in their family and closeness to the children begins to threaten Nic. Her uneasiness over Paul becomes valid when she discovers that he and Jules are sleeping together. (Yes, you read that right).                       

Biological Probability: Some lesbian couples have children and start families. Many use anonymous sperm donors to achieve this. However, the likelihood that one of the women would begin a sexual relationship with the donor is questionable.

Stereotypes: Stereotypes abound. Jules and Nic’s painfully bland attempts to have fulfilling sex are purposely contrasted with the wild sex scenes between Jules and Paul. The kids patronizingly refer to Jules and Nic as “the moms.” There is also an underlying message that in order for kids to be well adjusted they must have both female and male role models in their family dynamic.

Why It’s Important: Like Brokeback Mountain, this successful film featured popular actors portraying gay characters. It received many awards and nominations including Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, and Ruffalo and Bening both received nominations for their acting.

*Bonus Points: The acting is outstanding from all involved and, really, who doesn’t love Julianne Moore?


Boys Don’t Cry (1999).

Kimberly Peirce’s emotional biopic chronicles the short but extraordinary life of Brandon Teena (played by Hilary Swank), a transgender teen living in rural Nebraska, who poses as a teenage boy, and is brutally raped and murdered after it is discovered that he is anatomically female.

Biological Probability: 100%. This is a true story with realistic portrayals of transgender topics. While Teena did not take hormones to become male, he felt connected to a male identity, versus his biological female gender.

Stereotypes: No overt stereotypes within the lesbian or trans aspects of the film, but again, the gay hero meets a brutal, in this case sadly true, death. The movie itself faced its share of controversy with the MPAA due to graphic “lesbian” sex scenes, and the brutal depiction of the rape of Brandon Teena, which Peirce was later forced to edit in order for the film to receive an R rating, instead of an NC-17 rating.

Why It’s Important: In today’s society, with issues of gay bullying becoming more and more prominent, this film is extraordinarily relevant as an educational tool to promote understanding of the differences and diversity that exist within the realm of gender and sexuality, both for people dealing with these issues personally, and for society in general.

*Bonus Points: Hilary Swank’s Oscar winning performance is worth a watch, and Brandon Teena’s story is an important part of queer history. Peirce does a good job portraying the heartbreak and struggles that gender questioning youth often face. Also, Chloe Sevigny co-stars. Enough said.


The Twilight of the Golds (1996).

This Showtime movie focuses on a conservative Jewish family and their two children, Susan (played by Jennifer Beals) and David (played by Brendan Fraser). When Susan becomes pregnant her husband urges her to get a genetic analysis done on the fetus. The results reveal the baby to be perfectly healthy - and gay, like Susan’s brother, David. This sparks tension within the family, who already struggles with David’s sexuality, and forces Susan to decide between either aborting the pregnancy or giving birth to a gay child.

Biological Probability: The idea of a “gay gene” has been contested by scientists and doctors alike. Some believe that specific hormones, prenatal conditions, and even genetic predispositions can play a role in determining sexuality. While amniocentesis can provide information regarding a fetus’s probability of being born with certain mental or physical disabilities such as Down Syndrome, no such test (yet) exists to determine the sexual orientation of a fetus.

Stereotypes: David and his male lover are not offensively stereotyped, although it is hinted at that David is HIV positive. The audacity of gay stereotyping comes with the reactions of the family, (especially the mother-to-be) upon receiving the news that her son could be… GASP! This plays into the mistaken notion that homosexuality is a mental disease, and disgustingly entertains the possibility of aborting a child merely because he is gay.

Why It’s Important: The ending, ***SPOILER*** in which Susan decides to have the baby, serves to redeem the film somewhat. Its frank, thought-provoking treatment of abortion, homosexuality, and family dynamics sparks controversial debates about human rights. However, in today’s society, some of the trauma surrounding Susan’s “decision” on whether or not to bring a gay child into the world almost comes off as laughable, when you think about real reasons that women choose to have abortions, or actual mental and physical afflictions that babies are born with.

*Bonus Points: None, really, although some may find it fun to watch Jennifer Beals in a post Flashdance, pre “L Word” performance.


But I’m a Cheerleader (1999).

Director Jamie Babbit’s campy tale of a teenage girl (played by Natasha Lyonne) whose family sends her to a school for sexual redirection, where she not only comes to terms with her sexuality, but meets the love of her life (the adorable Graham, played by the even more adorable Clea DuVall).

Biological Probability: It is unknown whether or not you can make someone “un-gay,” and (frighteningly enough) such anti-gay retreats and camps do in fact exist - and promise to “cure” gay people of their, well, gayness. However, the biological probability of success most likely relies on the person learning ways to deny and conceal their homosexuality, rather than actually being able to change their orientation.

Stereotypes: A lot. But they are used purposefully and humorously. This movie is definitely pro-gay, funny, and heartwarming.

Why It’s Important: It’s a coming of age love story that gay and straight teens alike can identify with. It deals frankly with issues of identity and sexuality in the often confusing teenage years. 

*Bonus Points:  Campy humor and an alternative take on the proverbial happily-ever-after ending make this film a classic worth adding to your repertoire.


Milk (2008). 

Acclaimed director Gus Van Sant brilliantly memorializes the life of gay activist Harvey Milk in this poignant biopic, which follows Milk’s political activism within San Francisco’s Castro district up until his brutal murder at the hands of fellow politician Dan White.

Biological Probability: It’s based on a true story, but there are still low numbers of openly gay politicians in America today.

Stereotypes: Nothing overtly offensive, although again, the gay hero suffers a violent, untimely death.

Why It’s Important: Harvey Milk is a prominent figure in the advancement of gay rights. His courageous political activism remains both inspirational and significant today.

*Bonus Points: Sean Penn’s Oscar-winning performance, along with Van Sant’s use of real footage mixed throughout the movie, makes this tearjerker more than worth a box of Kleenex… or two…




Kaye's picture

real reels?

Thank you for organizing trailers for this wonderful collection of movies that explore different dimensions of gender and sexuality!  I've seen about half of them, and will put the others on my Netflix queue.  Including statements about the "biological probability" of the film's characters was a creative way to address this assignment and to situate the biological within larger social and cultural contexts.  You've highlighted several key elements of how biology understands sexual and gender diversity.  However, I would have liked to see even more elaboration on the biology that was being mis/represented. I've included some examples below:

In the case of Brokeback Mountain, being "forced to conceal their homosexual identities in fear of being ostracized, shunned by society or religion, or physically harmed" is not really a function of biology but of societal discrimination.  What might be a more appropriate tie-in would be some biological understanding of the range of sexual behavior in humans and how many people have both heterosexual and homosexual experiences of intimacy.  (I'd also like to push you to think more deeply about "true love."  How do we determine truth(s) about gender, sexual orientation, and love?) 

For The Kids Are All Right, I was most struck by one of Annette Bening's line in the video clip:  "He's not a father, he's our sperm donor."  Another biological dimension you could mention would be the more medical aspects of artificial insemination via sperm banks and the representation of donors by their vital stats. 

Listing the biological probability of Boys Don't Cry as 100% was quite powerful and a strong reminder that these are not just stories, but real lives and real suffering.  However, I was at first confused by your claim that Teena "felt connected to a male identity, versus his biological female gender."  I know that you know that gender is socially constructed and not biologically determined.  Perhaps it would be clearer if you contrasted his male identity with his biologically female body.

In examining the biology behind the Twilight of the Golds, you state, "no such test (yet) exists to determine the sexual orientation of a fetus."  But you could take this further in light of the readings we've done and discuss the likelihood that a "gay gene" will never be discovered, given the multiple biological and environmental factors that contribute to sexual orientation.  The entanglement of biology with psychology, personal history, and culture could also have been added to your review of But I'm a Cheerleader, by highlighting that orientations are embodied and not readily changed via social re-programming.

Although you could have written more in-depth reviews from a biological perspective, the project overall is a creative, informative, and relevant resource.  Thank you!