lgbtq cinema is more popular than ever, so why is it still lacking diversity?

Why we need to look beyond one voice within film.

by Alim Kheraj
05 April 2016, 2:12pm

Last week, the British Film Institute confirmed that this year's Flare Festival -- London's annual LGBT film event -- was one of its most successful, with attendance up 9% from the previous year. The festival, which celebrated its 30th anniversary, was a box office success, too. It saw the UK premieres of football drama The Pass, starring manly man Russell Tovey; the anticipated adaptation of Timothy Conigrave's memoir, Holding the Man; and sensual French drama, Summertime (La Belle Saison).

No one can accuse the Flare Festival of lacking diversity. 30 countries were represented at the event, with coverage of many aspects of LGBTQ culture, including workshops and panels discussing transgender representation. There were films about finding freedom in conservative India, one that featured the voice of Isabella Rossellini as a talking hamster, and a presentation of the acclaimed Tangerine. And, it seems, audiences were drawn in -- LGBTQ cinema is more popular than ever. It's odd then that a festival aimed specifically at me should leave me feeling so left out.

Growing up as a gay, mixed-race, slightly over-weight, Muslim (who quite quickly realized that religion and the mosque wasn't for me), I always felt like an outsider. It's something that many LGBTQ people experience when confronted with the heteronormative narratives and ideals that surround them. Likewise, growing up under the tyrannous rule of Section 28, discussion of homosexuality wasn't allowed in schools.

So when I discovered gay cinema in my late teens, I was drawn into classics like Beautiful Thing and was wowed by Brokeback Mountain. I was so desperate to relate to a character, any character, I became obsessed with Hollyoaks and the dramatic unfolding of John Paul and Craig's love affair, even seeking out fan fiction about the pair. Yet, just because these things speak to a gay narrative, it doesn't mean that they speak to every gay person watching. 

"Like Hollywood, LGBTQ media as a whole is failing the community."

Representation is a big topic at the moment. In Hollywood, the yearly #OscarsSoWhite controversies were a key talking point; while in the UK, this year's Brit Awards was accused of white washing the music industry. It's impossible to argue that music lacks BAME representation, but the film industry is different. There just simply aren't enough minority stories being told -- as the Guardian put it: "It's not the Academy that is cheating minorities, it is the film industry itself."

Of course, festivals like Flare play an important factor in helping diversify the narratives being told, and how. And, of course, not every single person can be represented all the time; to think otherwise is naive.

However, as LGBTQ narratives have become more populist within mainstream culture, I've begun to feel disconnected from what I'm watching and what I'm experiencing. The BFI's own list of the 30 Best LGBT Films contains some commendable pieces of cinema, but reading the list left me with a feeling that it was missing something.

Last week, rapper and activist Mykki Blanco called out gay media's homogenization and inherent inclusivity problem. Spurred on by a tweet by singer songwriter Jesse Saint John, Blanco went on to state, "'Gay Media' is failing a majority of LGBTQ people, no inclusion, no visibility [sic]".

Blanco's case is strong, and one he's able to back up with prime examples of prominent LGBTQ publications favoring the ripped white (sometimes even straight) man for their cover stars. A look online only adds ammo to Blanco's observations. And, of course, lesbians and members of the trans community hardly ever get a look-in. Like Hollywood, LGBTQ media as a whole is failing the community.

As I've gotten older and become more secure in myself, I've spent more time searching for explanations and expressions of my existence. This, I'm sure, isn't a unique thought process; as human beings, we constantly seek out validation in some form or other, whether that be shared interests with friends or association with fictional characters. One of the bonuses of social media is that, with a few clicks and 140 characters you're able to connect with like-minded individuals who, mostly, share your views on life, but who can also educate you. I've learned more about the nuanced issues, and read more interesting stories, about the lives of the LGBTQ community that celebrate otherness on social media than anywhere else.

"There's obviously increased interest in LGBTQ narratives and voices but increased interest doesn't need to equate to homogenization." 

For years, the LGBTQ community has fought for a semblance of acceptance, be that equal rights or the right against persecution. Part of this, in Western countries specifically, has taken the shape of assimilation. Issues such as marriage and the family were thrust to the forefront of public consciousness, contextualizing the LGBTQ experience through the ideas of conventional white-man heterosexuality. 

I've had cisgender heterosexual friends ask me why there needs to be a LGBTQ 'community' at all. I can understand where they're coming from; why, when all our hopes of acceptance are being answered, should we seek solace in people where our common ground is defined by gender or sexuality? However, in 2016 it doesn't seem that it's this that ties us together. Instead, it's a shared appreciation and perception of otherness that unites us under a flag of rainbows. Our stories come in many shapes and sizes, and they should be told. The culture we created for ourselves was most certainly built out of survival, but also a celebration of everything that was different. Watching it implode on itself, as Blanco points out, is terrifyingly sad.

In a recent interview with Vulture, veteran drag queen turned reality TV icon, RuPaul, spoke at length about perceived acceptance, especially when placing gay culture in a wider cultural sphere. However, one part of the interview irked me. Rather than celebrate the differences and variety of voices that many feel is their right to share, RuPaul is quick to dismiss this as the whimsical fancies of the "Me Generation" (or millennials), who he describes as "the narcissistic generation needing to make their environment reflect who they think they are."

According to RuPaul, I'm wrong for wanting to see some part of my experience represented somewhere. I shouldn't feel entitled to see a glimmer of myself portrayed in the vast swathes of media we consume on a daily basis. What RuPaul doesn't realize is that young gay boys who are desperate to appear on his show are doing so, in part, because they're desperate for variety and excitement; they want to relate to people like themselves on TV.

There's obviously increased interest in LGBTQ narratives and voices -- that much is clear. But, as with anything, increased interest doesn't need to equate to homogenization. We shouldn't avoid telling the diverse stories that are out there, and we certainly shouldn't try and assimilate our experience, neutering it beyond recognition. Roland Emmerich's miscalculated re-telling of the Stonewall Riots, and the reactions to it, showed that audiences are becoming more aware when they're being fed a revisionist version of events.

The 2011 film, Circumstance, about the relationship between two women in Iran, along with documentary A Jihad for Love and the 2007 politically charged film The Bubble prove that there are bold narratives about lesbian and gay Muslims aching to be told. This no doubt translates to the wider gay and lesbian media, too. And, as the popularity of Flare proves, there's an audience with a thirst for the rich tapestry of LGBTQ narratives. As a culture born out of difference, we no longer need to focus on the white, gay, male narratives.

Today's society has provided many people with platforms to tell their stories. Last year's heartfelt transgender comedy, Tangerine, was shot entirely on iPhones, while Kickstarter has allowed projects like the unflinchingly important documentary about LGBT Ugandans, Call Me Kuchu, to come to fruition. Let's follow suit and share more stories and experiences that showcase every color in our rainbow so that people no-longer feel like outsiders. 


Text Alim Kheraj
Still from Circumstance

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