A documentary is an audio-visual recording designed to present credible information on a subject. Most Gay documentaries are made by members of the community for the community.
Beginning in the early 1970s, Gay documentary emerged as a form of education, advocacy, and art in the LGBTQ community. Prior to this era, there was little visibility of Gay people, as homosexuality was presented as a problem that must be fixed through legal, religious, and psychiatric means. To be Gay was to be criminally deviant, an unrepentant sinner, and mentally ill. After Stonewall, Gay activism grew as the community demanded acceptance as a legitimate part of American society. The documentary was an ideal medium by which to showcase Gay folklife and connect with mainstream audiences.
When the art form first emerged, its primary purpose was to provide a positive image of Gays, a people who were feared and unacknowledged by the rest of the population. As the Gay Liberation movement increased in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the focus shifted towards the advancement of anti-discrimination laws and the overturning of anti-Gay policies.
Most early Gay documentaries were geared towards making the community more visible. Coming out (revealing one’s Gay identity) was a political maneuver that rejected deviant status in favor of respect. An early documentary of testimonies concerning the presence of Gays in all walks of life was Some of Your Best Friends (Kenneth Robinson, 1971). Another documentary of note was Word Is Out:Some Stories of Our Lives (Mariposa Film Group, 1977). Based on interviews of approximately 200 Gay men and Lesbians across the USA, participants rejected claims that they were sick or immoral, and revealed a thriving community formed around a shared sense of persecution and dedication to resistance.
Establishing a History
Films during the late 1970s and early 1980s were no longer as concerned with outing the Gay community as they were with proving it to be a law-abiding, non-offensive social entity. Conservative backlash fueled a movement to repeal Gay rights legislation. Consequently, there was a higher demand for positive Gay-themed documentaries.
As these documentaries became more widespread, their focus shifted from asserting the existence Gay men and Lesbians to the establishment of a collective history. Before Stonewall (Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg, 1984) examines pre-Stonewall Gay and Lesbian history by using archival footage to tell the story of Gay life from the 1920s to the pivotal Stonewall Riots. By focusing on the productivity of the Gay workforce during World War II and their persecution during the McCarthy hearings, the film sends the message that Gay people are indispensable members of society that have been unjustly persecuted. The political efficacy and vulnerability of Gay people are also shown in The Times of Harvey Milk (Rob Epstein, 1984), a documentary about California’s first openly Gay public official. The Celluloid Closet (1996), a documentary on closeted Hollywood, was based on a series of lectures and book by Vito Russo.
A sanitized image of Gay identities was important in documentary films of the late 1980s and early 1990s in response to the AIDS epidemic. Documentaries portrayed the severity of the disease and the necessity of immediate action without unduly demonizing those infected. Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 1989) shows the devastation of the disease by telling the story of the AIDS Quilt.
Silverlake Life: The View From Here (Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman, 1993) and Fighting in Southwest Louisiana (Peter Friedman and Jean-François Brunet, 1991) document the lives of two couples living with the disease. Although most AIDS-related documentaries shy away from the more visceral aspects of the disease to keep from alienating their audience, they serve as a medium through which the Gay community counteracts AIDS-related stigma.
Demanding a Place
As AIDS panic ebbed in the late 1990s, the Gay community could be less defensive and more proactive in pursuing social parity by producing documentaries aimed towards the acquisition of marital and parental rights. There were early efforts to legitimize alternative family forms, such as We Are Family: Parenting and Foster Parenting in Gay Families (Dasal Banks, 1986), but such documentaries did not emerge in greater numbers until the 2000s.
Documentaries employ two basic tactics when making the case for marriage and family equality. They may illustrate how the denial of marriage and parental rights hinders the lives of LGBTQ people as shown in the film Tying the Knot (Jim de Sève, 2004).
In addition, they may feature examples of a successful “alternative family,” such as the ones in Daddy and Papa (Johnny Symons, 2002) or Paternal Instincts (Murray Nossel, 2005), and point out the injustice of denying such families full legal protection.
Conveying an inoffensive image of the Gay community is another strategy for political activism. For example, a conservative group in Oregon made an anti-Gay documentary, Gay Pride? (Oregon Citizens Council, 1991) and introduced a ballot measure that would make the promotion of homosexuality illegal. A documentary entitled Fighting For Our Lives (No on 9, 1992), which portrayed Gay people as respectable, law-abiding citizens who were being persecuted by conservative demagogues, was instrumental in overturning the measure.
When the Gay community is portrayed in such a sanitized way, more controversial issues of gender, race and class are sidelined. Some documentaries, such as Tongues Untied (Marlon Riggs, 1989), a film exploring the lives of African-American Gay men, portray a more diverse picture of the Gay community. These types of films were often met with disinterest, hostility, and in some cases, attempts at censorship. However, there have been some successful films in the 2000s that have acknowledged the diversity in and often-scandalous history of the American and Canadian LGBTQ communities. Paris Is Burning (Jennie Livingstone, 1990) and How Do I Look (Wolfgang Busch, 2006) showcase the mostly Black and Latin urban Ballroom community, and The Aggressives (Daniel Peddle, 2006) explores the lives of masculine African American Lesbians who participate in specifically Lesbian Ballroom folklife. Others, such as Gay Sex in the 70’s (Joseph Lovett, 2006), document erotic Gay male history.
Aspects of Gay Canadian-American festive folklife are reflected in documentaries about the community-as-celebratory. Radical Harmonies (Dee Mosbacher, 2002) looks at women’s music festivals. Got 2 B There (José Torrealba, 1998) gives a glimpse into the world of Gay male Circuit parties, XY Drag (Robin Deisher, 2001) documents drag kings, and Drag Kings on Tour (Sonia Slutsky, 2004) follows six drag kings from city to city.
A host of Gay-related documentaries explore multicultural folk perspectives. For example, Out of the Shadow, Into the Sun (Kathryn Klassen, 2001) looks at female bullfighters in Latin America and Spain. Although it does not mention Lesbian issues (the director could not do so explicitly and still be granted interviews with female bullfighters), the documentary has been successful in the LGBTQ film festival circuit.
Still others are Farm Family: In Search of Gay Life in Rural America (Tom Murray, 2006) and Gay Republicans (Wash Westmoreland, 2006) in an attempt to encompass people of all locations and ideologies within the LGBTQ community. There have been documentaries dealing with homophobia in the Canadian and US military, such as Open Secrets (José Torrealba, 2003) and Tell (Tom Murray, 2007).
Ke Kulana He Mahu (Kathryn Xian, 2001) looks at members of the LGBTQ community in Hawai’i, and the struggle to preserve traditional Hawaiian attitudes of tolerance concerning sexual orientation and gender difference. Trembling Before G-d (Sandi Simcha DuBowski, 2004) is about Gay Orthodox Jews, and A Jihad for Love (Parvez Sharma, 2007) presents LGBTQ people in Islamic countries.
A series of documentaries in the twenty-first century deal specifically with transwomen in different countries and cultural contexts. Muxes: Auténticas, intrépidas y buscadoras de peligro (Alejandra Islas, 2005) is situated in Juchitán in Oaxaca, Mexico and documents muxes, males who dress and act like women in a society that traditionally accepts and even celebrates them. Call me Salma (Bideshi Films, 2010) follows the life of a 16-year-old hijra in Dhaka, Bangla Desh. Kumu Hina (Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson, 2014) looks at Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu and her husband Hema Kalu as well as Wong-Kalu’s work as a teacher, mahuwahine (Hawaiian transwoman identity) LGBTQ advocate, and Native Hawaiian.
Ellis, Jack C. and Betsy A. McLane. A New History of Documentary Film. London: Continuum International, 2005.
Gregg, Ronald. “Queer Representation and Oregon’s 1992 Anti-Gay Ballot Measure: Measuring the Politics of Mainstreaming”. Between the Sheets, In the Streets: Queer, Lesbian, Gay Documentary. Ed. Chris Holmlund and Cynthia Fuchs. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1997. pp. 30-45.
Porter, Darwin and Danforth Prince. Blue Moon’s Guide to Gay and Lesbian Film. New York: Moon Productions, Ltd., 2006.
Waugh, Thomas. “Walking on Tippy Toes: Lesbian and Gay Liberation Documentary of the Post-Stonewall Period 1969-84”. Between the Sheets, In the Streets: Queer, Lesbian, Gay Documentary. Ed. Chris Holmlund and Cynthia Fuchs. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1997, pp. 107-126.