Inverts, perverts, abnormal, sick, queer, criminal. You can learn a lot about people from their labels. Some of the pejorative terms of the last several centuries used to describe homosexual behaviour have disappeared. But what these words have in common is that they describe a perversion from the norm - obviously, whatever it is they are describing is on the outside. It can therefore be argued that the development of a specific lesbian and gay culture was originally oppositional to a norm which is assumed to be biologically 'natural', that of 'heterosexuality'.

Queer. Dyke. Gay. Faggot. These labels, too, were originally pejorative, but in the 1990s, interestingly, a good many people would happily describe themselves as such. Obviously, the inference that the behaviour that these labels describe is somehow wrong has mutated, particularly for those practising the behaviour - the queers, dykes, gays and faggots themselves. Instead, people use these words to describe a community which over the last twenty or so years has grown increasingly visible, particularly to itself. This visibility has come about so rapidly that there are now gay characters on television and film whose presence is only mildly risqué, whereas just ten years ago it would have been risky. In this, the twelfth year of the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, a time in which the Lesbian/ Gay/ Bisexual/ Transgender Pride celebration has multinational corporations fighting over sponsorship (not to mention infighting), a time in which the lesbian and gay community itself is splitting, re-naming and re-forming, it is important to look at how both the cultural visibility and the self-definition of a lesbian and gay community has been fashioned.

To understand the lesbian and gay community is to understand a process of ghettoisation and, in some senses, an emergence from the ghetto. When people are ghettoised, socially or physically, they have the concentration (and usually the oppression) to identify themselves as a separate group. Even within smaller subsets of the gay community this has gone on in the past and is still going on. In the eighties, for example, a political lesbianism flourished, to some extent the result of non-recognisance by gay men in the larger lesbian and gay community. But as gender and sexual dogma change, the resulting communities of the 'gay ghetto' are slowly changing, too. According to Tim Cole, former deputy director of the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, "The audience has really matured over the years. At one point, it was very much that the lesbians went to the lesbian screenings, the gays went to the gay screenings and you had a real sense of that...With the whole issues around gender and transgender, the boundaries have moved and there is more of a crossover..."

You cannot discuss homosexual culture without discussing at the same time the general assumptions of the surrounding culture of heterosexuality. Despite being brought up in a culture of heterosexuality, the large number of people who do not fit its strongly acculturated givens does cast some doubt on heterosexuality's elemental' nature. The preoccupation of nature vs. culture and how sexuality itself is fashioned explains in part the intense focus by gay and lesbian filmmakers on the discovery of sexuality within oneself. As Cole puts it, "If I have to see another film about coming out, I'll scream." In relation to recurring themes in gay and lesbian film, Cole points out that the concentration on 'coming-out' has diminished, if one judges by the films screened throughout the twelve years of the London Lesbian & Gay Festival... "I think it is a film genre which is maturing - has matured - substantially, which is not just the standard format of look what happened when I came out and this is my last affair'. Issues specifically around direct issues of sex and sexuality are not as overwhelming as it was... In the beginning, it was far more a case of an explanation of sexuality and the prejudice surrounding it and coming-out stories, etc. That's moved, so that lesbian and gay characters form part of a narrative and it may focus on their other experiences outside of their sexuality. A lot of the time now, a lesbian/gay sexuality is taken as fact and not questioned. That's the biggest difference, really: that's all to do with the maturity of the filmmaking and different social perceptions and social issues."

Throughout history and certainly before the advent of film, the problem of naming sexual and emotional experiences which are not socially recognised has persisted. From the 'Mary Anne' male prostitutes of the nineteenth century to lesbian relationships in mediaeval convents to whole cultures which experience and label sexuality in different terms to the Western structure, it becomes evident that a wide variance exists. Additionally, throughout Western culture there is also the great occurrence of homosexual behaviour amongst 'heterosexuals' in nearly all same-sex environments: prisons, convents, same-sex boarding schools, the military. Also, 'heterosexuals' often engage in same-sex behaviour in addition to heterosexual behaviour even within a 'straight' environment (as do, conversely, 'homosexuals').

The lesbian film Go Fish (1994) seemed to have moved on from the original 'naming process' and, just as Cole describes, is a film exploring the characters' lives and loves, not a 'coming-out' story. Interestingly, it deals with the above-mentioned (and until recently in lesbian film completely taboo) subject of lesbians who occasionally sleep with men. However, this is a subsidiary point in the film Chasing Amy (1997)'s main theme which is also that of a lesbian who sleeps with men. Although the film is generally sympathetic to the gay characters, perhaps this centrality of theme is due to the writer and director being both straight and male. This is significant because it now seems to be the straight mainstream which lags slightly behind and who are exploring basic questions of sexual identity, as in The Birdcage, the recent re-make of La Cage aux Folles. Another recent example would be the Hollywood film In & Out, in which Kevin Kline stars as an ostensibly straight man complete with girlfriend who has been nationally 'outed' ('outing' being the public labelling of a person as lesbian or gay). In a sense, these new 'liberal' mainstream films are still preoccupied with coming-out stories and the negotiation of sexuality, rather than the comfortable acceptance of non-normalised sexualities and, more recently in gay and lesbian cinema, more fluid sexualities. Gay and lesbian cinema seems in part to have moved on from the necessity of naming oneself and from the worry attached to being seen by the mainstream as 'unnatural'.

And if homosexuality is not 'unnatural', then why is it considered so threatening to Western social structure and visual/information culture in particular? As early as 1929, Pabst's Pandora's Box was cut by British censors because it showed lesbian characters, presumably because it violated the prescription of heterosexuality and was considered perverted or even dangerous. Homosexual behaviour and subcultures have been and in some sense, remain, threatening to the status quo because they disturb and pervert the most socially dichotomised feature of most human cultures- that of gender and gender expectations. Specific amongst these expectations is the sexual union of a male and female - the ultimate butch/femme split. Now, obviously, many heterosexual pairings contest these prescriptions, for the male/female behavioural ideal puts pressure on heterosexual unions which do not conform just as it does to homosexual unions.

But historically what all of this comes down to, eventually, is a politics of opposition to the big male/female behavioural split. Not to heterosexuality per se, but to heterosexuality as the only option and to the polarisation of gendered behaviour within it. So while it is not surprising that various same-sexuality groups can always be found throughout Western history, it makes sense that 'gay liberation' is really considered to have begun in the late 1960s in conjunction - but also separate from - the women's movement which also heavily questioned traditional gender roles (although it is often forgotten that a political homosexual movement also surfaced in 1930s Weimar Germany in conjunction to class uprisings - ultimately, of course, to be squashed by Hitler and the rise of fascism). And it is in the late 1960s and early 1970s that films first start to appear which show gays and lesbians as anything other than suicidal and psychotic (although this representation was an addition, not a substitution, to the portrayals already present).

What is interesting in regard to visual culture is the emergence first of non-heterosexual characters in British and Western cinema, and then non-heterosexual voices and eventually the emergence of Queer Cinema itself, as all of these factors contribute to the "self-visibility" of a Queer culture (by Queer I mean transgendered, bisexual, lesbian, gay - and any others who challenge idealised sexual and gendered expectations). 'Queer' is a bit of a stronger word than a lot of other terms used to describe homosexual behaviour: for one thing, it is a word which has been 'claimed back'. In addition, it is considered more inclusive (see my definition above) and finally, it generally denotes a more radical politics, one which not only names oneself as different but also questions the assumptions behind the necessity of the naming in the first place. These ideas having been floated around for a number of years now, there could be considered to be a post-Queer cinema in the past two years or so, as well - à la Beautiful Thing. Although a traditional 'coming-out' film, Beautiful Thing still relates to what Tim Cole says when he speaks of lesbian and gay characters becoming more fully integrated human beings in film, "rather than just a role as a sexual experience or a sexual object. They [the characters] are fuller and rounder in cases... I think there is certainly a greater level of tolerance, the use of lesbian/gay characters on screen that is sort of popular in more and more major Hollywood character roles whether they be in sort of a positive or negatively perceived role, they are still appearing more on screen and probably in a more positive light."

Following early categorical censorship, the first mainstream film to address male homosexuality as a central topic was Victim in 1961, however the character played by Dick Bogard was hardly positive regarding his sexuality. This theme continued through the years, with suicidal (The Children's Hour, Wyler, 1961), neurotic (The Killing of Sister George, Aldrich, 1968) and psychotic and monstrous (The Hunger, Scott, 1980) gay and lesbian characters, through to contemporary films such as Butterfly Kiss, Fun, Heavenly Creatures, Basic Instinct, Bitter Moon... The dominant culture has a strong investment in showing suicidal and/or disturbed lesbian and gay characters - you can't transgress a society's deepest social mores and remain unpunished and untouched, can you?

And it is here that the audience becomes important, particularly in regard for whom the mainstream films are being shown as well as the intended audience for the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, When questioned regarding the audience for the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, Tim Cole responded that he had never polled the audience as to sexual orientation, "I've never worked out to what extent the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival would attract, if you are talking terminology, heterosexuals to it... I mean I can't wander around saying 'Well, what is your sexuality, why are you here?' No research has been done." This is certainly a valid point. But the audience is an important factor as is its reaction, intentional or not, as Black, British and Gay filmmaker Isaac Julien states: "I wanted to make audiences feel uncomfortable to a certain extent and challenge expectations, especially those of the black straight audience. But I underestimated the reaction... The role of fantasy should enable one to inhabit different subject positions and allow us to identify with characters, be they black or gay or both. But there is resistance." (Isaac Julien interviewed in Performing Sexualities, p.34). As an audience is used to seeing gay and lesbian characters as psychotic and ultimately 'punished' in the course of the film Julien and other gay and lesbian filmmakers have used and subverted these expectations...

Tim Cole interviewed by Marco Zee-Jotti

Full article published in Filmwaves - Issue 3, February 1998. Subscribe now!