“It’s Time for Happy Stories”: The Evolution of LGBTQ Storytelling in Film

Peter Knegt remembers sneaking into video stores as a teenager looking for movies he could relate to.

Sometimes he couldn’t find anything.

“The accessibility that young queer people now have to this content is very new,” Knegt said. “It’s remarkable…and it’s going to go a long way in getting them through tough times if they have any.”

The abundance of LGBTQ film and TV programming available for streaming now offers audiences – inside and outside the community – a wide variety of content to choose from.

It’s all part of a shift from one-dimensional storytelling to meet the demand for stories that showcase the joy of LGBTQ life, industry players told CBC. Films that once centered on traumatic coming out stories or rejection by family members are being replaced with original stories.

This is also due to the increase in the number of LGBTQ filmmakers, many of whom draw inspiration from authentic personal experiences.

Knegt says he’s excited about this burgeoning diversity — and seeing where things are going.

“I think people are curious about cultures…that they don’t belong to because it’s not their everyday life. We all look The crownbut none of us know what it looks like,” Knegt said.

What was missing

By organizing the recent Inside Out Toronto Film Festival, Andrew Murphy and Elie Chivi were keen to shine a light on films that portray heartwarming, funny and joyful stories, which they say LGBTQ cinema lacks.

“We deserve happy stories…it’s time to have happy stories,” said Chivi, director of development and co-head of the festival.

Elie Chivi and Andrew Murphy, curator of the Inside Out LGBTQ film festival in Toronto, pose outside the TIFF Lightbox theatre. The two say audience demand for a greater variety of LGBTQ films has increased. (Esteban Eduardo Cuevas González/CBC)

Growing up in the Middle East, Chivi struggled to find films that represented anything outside of heteronormative culture. If he had access to LGBTQ content, he said it was inherently negative or very dark.

But stories that speak to the truth about LGBTQ life are essential, he said.

“It’s like a snapshot of what life could be like for someone halfway around the world,” he said.

As audiences for these stories grow, so does the demand for films that showcase the full scope of what LGBTQ life can be.

“Our stories matter and queer stories matter,” said Murphy, Co-Director and Director of Programming at Inside Out. “We have to keep working to attract more of them.”

With Wonder celebrates queer liberation

One of the liberating films highlighted at this year’s festival was Canadian director Sharon Lewis’ documentary With Marvel.

The film shines a light on the multi-faceted relationship between LGBTQ people and Christian communities – and how, for some, it can be a positive relationship rather than one marked by rejection.

In creating the film, Lewis said she didn’t want to present a “one-dimensional narrative” of LGBTQ life, acknowledging that many programs seem to define queer people through trauma and otherness.

A still from Sharon Lewis’ film With Wonder, a play that explores the multi-faceted relationship between Christianity and the LGBTQ community. (Upside down)

“The reason the movies talk about… our struggles and our suffering is because those movies are funded for the general public, [for] non-gay audiences who want to know more about us,” she said.

But in telling the story itself, says Lewis, it doesn’t teach. Instead, she shares, reveals and explores.

Old LGBTQ movies lead the way

Industry watchers say the mid-1990s marked the beginning of LGBTQ romantic comedies reaching mainstream audiences; movies like The bird cage and Entrance and exit were great successes.

However, some movies included characters that were part of the community but mostly in the form of tropes like “gay best friend”.

“Sometimes we would see stories and they would add a weird character, but there was nothing weird about them,” Lewis said. “It’s just symbolic.”

Then movies like Brokeback Mountain, call me by your name and imagine me and you began to pave the way for films that brought LGBTQ stories back to the fore.

In 2016, Moonlight broke down doors as the first film with an LGBTQ lead character to win the Best Picture Oscar.

“I keep seeing us going in this direction, and I’m never going to give up,” Lewis said.

Fire Island marks an exciting future

Joel Kim Booster, center, is seen in a frame from the film Fire Island, which he also wrote. The film was created by and features members of the LGBTQ community. (Disney)

While previous films featured stories about the LGBTQ community, the new comedy fire island is the first major studio-released romantic comedy that was created by and features queer creatives.

The film was written by Joel Kim Booster and directed by Andrew Ahn as a loose adaptation of Jane Austen’s popular novel. Pride and Prejudice. It explores same-sex relationships by following a group of friends on their annual trip to the pines of Fire Island.

“I think with The bird cage and Entrance and exitlike, there’s a lot of straight guys involved there,” Booster said in an interview with CBC Arts.

Just in time for Pride Month, viewers can tune in with the film’s unique personalities showcase, which began streaming June 3 on Disney+.

Noah (Joel Kim Booster) is the passionate and confident leader of the pack, eager to find Howie (Bowen Yang) a confidence-building adventure after the longtime friend confides he feels lonely.

The main cast of Fire Island can be seen outside on a sunny day in a still from the film. It is the first major studio-released LGBTQ romantic comedy. (Disney)

Alongside these two are their lesbian mother figure, Erin (Margaret Cho) and their friends Luke (Matt Rogers), Max (Torian Miller) and Keegan (Tomás Matos) – each bringing a certain flair to the film.

“I’m thrilled to be moving into this space with a film like fire island and I hope it inspires more movies like this,” Ahn said.

And with the upcoming release of Brothers, written by Nicholas Stroller and Billy Eichner, marking the next big gay rom-com to hit the studio, queer content is something Hollywood is investing in now.

For Knegt, this new wave of films has him excited for the future.

“We’re getting a lot more variety now, and that’s really encouraging,” Knegt said. “I grew up watching depictions of a certain type of gay man I thought was meant to be.”

Knegt stands outside a movie theater in Toronto. He said he was optimistic that LGBTQ films will continue to have larger narratives. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

He said it “really upsets people” and gives them “wrong perspectives” as to who they should be and how they should act.

“So having that variety out there, I think, is really, really important,” he said. “It makes me optimistic, at least to know where things are going.

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