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Str8washing v. Gaywashing by Cody Kennedy

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It’s no secret that Hollywood has a long-standing history of “straightening” depictions of historical figures in film.

With the adoption of the Motion Picture Production Code in the U.S. in 1930, it was forbidden to portray “sex perversion” in the movies (film industries in other countries were subjected to similar restrictions). Coincidentally (or not), very few films were made about people known to be gay or bisexual. Though Cole Porter was homosexual, the 1946 biopic “Night and Day” was devoid of any inference of homosexuality.

The relaxation of the code in the 1950s, and subsequent abolishment in 1968, freed filmmakers to present a wider array of subject matter, but LGBT content remained rare. When it was present, it was often ascribed to the “bad guy” role in the film. “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) eliminated the homosexuality of hero T.E. Lawrence, but used the sexuality of the sadistic Turkish chieftain as a means of illustrating the his evil.

There was a small breakthrough in 1968 with The Lion in Winter, a story that preserved the past relationship between Richard the Lionheart and Philip II of France. Since, filmmakers have begun to portray LGBT figures more accurately. Or have they?

Films such as “Milk” fairly accurately portray the life and times and assassination of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk. Yet films such “Capote” and “Infamous” only hint that Truman Capote was in love with Perry Smith, one of the murderers he was writing about in In Cold Blood. “A Beautiful Mind” entirely omits any hint of brilliant mathematician John Nash’s interest in men, despite his arrest for indecent exposure in a restroom which led to his departure from the RAND Corporation and the loss of his security clearance. Nash denies that he is homosexual and chalks his interlude(s) up to “special friendships” with two men. In an interview, Russell Crow, who play Nash in the film, did say that Nash’s sexuality “was relevant to his character, but we didn’t want to imply that there was any possibility that schizophrenia and homosexuality were related.”

Alternatively, breakthrough independent films such as “Gods and Monsters” (1998) produced by Paul Colichman accurately portray the homosexuality of Frankenstein director James Whale (played by Ian McKellen). Whale was openly gay throughout his careers in British theater and Hollywood film, but the film recounts his homosexuality through a completely fictitious relationship with his gardener, Clayton Boone (played by Brendan Fraser).

I could go on and on about films being “de-gayed” (“Sunrise at Campobello”, “Bonnie and Clyde”, “Malcolm X”, “Midnight Express”). Television (including cable and internet television), on the other hand, has been more open-minded. Shows such as Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman’s “Queer as Folk” and Larry Kennar and Helene Shaw’s “DTLA” have gone a long way in not only giving LGBT people screen time, but also in accurately portraying LGBT characters (without turning gay men into himbos).

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LGBT literature has been around for millennia – Plato’s Symposium (c. 385 BC) – and 20th and 21st century authors include such notables as E.M. Forster, Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, Christopher Isherwood, Edmund White, Yukio Mishima, nobel prize-winner André Gide, Judy Blume, David Levithan, and Scholastic editor Michael Cart.

That said, mainstream publishers still tend to “str8wash” young adult literature via cover copy or “the blurb.” Melinda Lo writes a terrific blog post that addresses this issue and discusses the cover copy of Over You by Amy Reed, Coda by Emma Trevayne, and Pantomime by Laura Lam. She writes:

“Among mainstream and the Big 5 publishers, slightly more than half (15) of the 29 titles had cover copy that clearly indicated LGBT content. Two included suggestive copy, and twelve omitted all mention of LGBT content. Among the twelve that didn’t mention LGBT content, a couple seemed somewhat misleading.

I don’t believe that suggestive copy or omitting LGBT content in the copy is necessarily wrong, because there are cases to be made that a book isn’t about a straightforward homosexual story; it’s about something else. For example, Proxy by Alex London (Philomel) has a queer main character, but the book isn’t about his queerness. Indeed, Proxy is one of the few young adult novels that doesn’t turn on a romantic plot at all. It would make little sense for the cover copy for Proxy to state that one of the main point-of-view characters is gay.

Alternatively, if a book’s story is about a more fluid queer identity, it can be difficult to say that in cover copy, which rarely delves into a novel’s complexities.”

Melinda Lo’s statement “there are cases to be made that a book isn’t about a straightforward homosexual story; it’s about something else” is certainly fodder for thought, but I won’t entertain it here in favor of other questions.

The advent of the ebook boom brought thousands of LGBT books into the marketplace. Organizations such as LAMBDA and the American Library Association have paved the way for the genre to gain much traction over the past ten years. The ebook boom impinged on the profits of the mainstream publishers, who realized they had no alternative but to jump into the ebook marketplace or they’d lose market share. Given the expansion and strengthening of the LGBT genre, does it then follow that mainstream publishers will want to “gaywash” literature so as to capitalize on the LGBT genre too? Need a book be labeled LGBT if romance isn’t involved? I’d like to hear your thoughts on these two questions and more.


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About Cody:

Raised on the mean streets and back lots of Hollywood by a Yoda-look-alike grandfather, Cody Kennedy doesn’t conform, doesn’t fit in, is epic awkward and lives to perfect a deep-seated oppositional defiance disorder. In a constant state of fascination with the trivial, Cody contemplates such weighty questions as: If time and space are curved, then where do all the straight people come from? When not writing, Cody can be found taming waves on western shores, pondering the nutritional value of sunsets, appreciating the much maligned dandelion, unhooking guide ropes from stanchions, and marveling at all things ordinary.


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