Coming of Age Queer Cinema!
Adolescence is a bitch. It’s a time of questioning identities, exploring sexuality, and raging hormones. These challenging years are often even more difficult for LGBTQIA youth, many of whom are just figuring out that they don’t fit in the cookie cutter shapes society has dictated for them. Cinema is one of the greatest tools to help us understand both our own experiences and those alien to us. Queer coming-of-age stories present a way not only to help questioning adolescents understand themselves, but to normalize the queer experience and make it relatable for everyone. So much of adolescence is spent questioning everything; it’s normal to question the way we feel about our bodies and each other. Queer cinema provides a way for kids to question things without feeling so alone.
As a teenage rebel-without-a-clue in the suburban southern United States, I was constantly at odds with my own identity. I first began questioning my sexuality watching James Cameron’s television series Dark Angel, of all things. All the feelings that I had assigned to boys were suddenly projected onto Jessica Alba’s character Max. My attempts to discuss my confused feelings with my family and friends only made me feel more lost. Being a cinephile from an early age, I then did what I always did, and turned to the movies to try to make the real world make sense.
I stalked the aisles of my local video store, passing over oft-rented favorites in search of something to ease my adolescent awkwardness. I would later rent a plethora of queer coming-of-age stories, from Hedwig and the Angry Inch to Heavenly Creatures. Each new film I rented was instrumental in helping me understand both myself and the world, and many hold an important place in LGBTQIA cinema history.
On that day, however, I settled upon But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), which promised laughs, love, and RuPaul. It gave me all of those in spades, but it also taught me that sexuality is a spectrum, and that it was okay to be a little gay.
But I’m a Cheerleader and Shattering Stereotypes
In But I’m a Cheerleader, Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is a picture-perfect all-American girl. She’s a high school cheerleader with a handsome boyfriend, but she’s not very interested in kissing him. While she chalks her disinterest in him to her being a “Christian girl”, her family decides to send her to True Directions, a gay conversion camp. Megan, still in denial of her own sexuality, is shocked by the behavior of her fellow campers. It’s only after she falls for Graham (Clea Duvall) that she realizes that it’s possible to be a lesbian and a cheerleader.
But I’m a Cheerleader’s brilliance lies in the way it approaches stereotypes. Megan doesn’t believe she’s a lesbian because she’s ultra-femme, and her interests are more traditionally straight. She’s juxtaposed with Jan (Katrina Philips), who was sent to True Directions because of her short hair, love of softball, and masculine way of dressing.
“I mean, everybody thinks I’m this big dyke because... ‘cause I wear baggy pants, I play softball, and...and I’m not as pretty as other girls, but that doesn’t make me gay. I mean, I like guys. I can’t help it,” she confesses during group therapy.
Megan and Jan are two sides of the same coin. Because they express their femininity in different ways, their sexualities are assigned to them by society instead of letting them simply be themselves. But I’m a Cheerleader’s primary message is that there is no right or wrong way to be gay – or straight – if you’re being true to yourself. It’s a celebration of queer identity featuring some of cinema’s greatest queer icons, including RuPaul and Mink Stole. It’s an affirmation, a bright spot among a subgenre mostly filled with angst. Feeling more secure in questioning my sexuality, I dove headlong into the more dramatic side of young queer cinema.
Mysterious Skin and the Dark Side of Adolescence
Growing up as anything but straight and cisgender isn’t all sunshine, rainbows, and happy endings, so I sought to broaden my perspective through dramas. As much as I was beginning to understand being questioning and female, I had no idea what it was like for a young man to challenge his identity.
Traditional concepts of masculinity tend to be more homophobic than those of traditional masculinity, so I could only imagine the extra difficulties in navigating adolescence as a gay or bisexual man. Mysterious Skin (2004), starring Joseph Gordon Levitt as a teenage hustler, shattered my heart and expectations. Written and directed by New Queer Cinema alum Gregg Araki (based on the novel by Scott Heim), Mysterious Skin explores how trauma can impact our sexuality. Neil (Gordon Levitt) and Brian (Brady Corbett) were both molested by their Little League coach as children. Neil sees the coaches’ acts of abuse as love and seeks out relationships with older men who resemble his abuser. Brian doesn’t remember what happened, and instead believes that he was abducted by aliens.
While Neil is unabashedly promiscuous and prostitutes himself, Brian is sexually inhibited, shying away from even the mildest flirtations from anyone. What they share is that neither of them is able to connect with others, their abusive experiences isolating them from society. It is not their queerness that separates them, but their trauma.
What sets Mysterious Skin apart from other gay coming-of-age dramas is that it allows its characters to be genuinely flawed. The story is messy and ugly, and shown subjectively through Neil and Brian, both as children and teens. It depicts abuse without sensationalizing it and allows for more complex conversation about how our experiences shape us.
XXY, Let the Right One In, and the Fluidity of Gender
With a basic understanding of lesbian, gay, and bisexual experiences under my belt, it was time to delve into an even more complex and controversial subgenre of queer cinema: stories about gender and transgender people.
My first foray into these films was Boys Don’t Cry (1999), a dramatization of the true and tragic story of Brandon Teena. Teena, a transman, was brutally murdered for being trans in Nebraska in 1993. While critics lauded the film, Hilary Swank (a cisgender woman) portraying Teena felt disingenuous. Little did I know that cisgender actors taking the roles of trans characters would be a massive problem for years to come. My dissatisfaction with Hollywood portrayals of LGBTQIA individuals led me to explore independent and foreign cinema.
As my desire to explore different identities in cinema grew, I began discovering non-heteronormative perspectives in unusual places. The Swedish horror film Let the Right One In (2008) features the budding romance between a young boy named Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) and a child vampire named Eli (Lina Leandersson). Eli repeatedly tells their new companion that they are not a girl, and eventually it’s revealed that Eli has been castrated and is non-binary. Eli and Oskar’s relationship is about finding love in the taboo, whether that’s Eli’s gender or preternatural life. The American remake failed to explore any of the Swedish film’s gender dynamics, though that’s almost to be expected with the United States’ puritan disposition toward sex and sexuality.
Another international film that sank its fangs into me was XXY (2007), an Argentinian film about an intersex teenager named Alex (Inés Efron). Alex has Klinefelter Syndrome and has XXY chromosomes and was born with both sets of genitalia. Though she has been living as a girl and taking suppressing hormones for her entire life, she begins questioning her gender and identity as she reaches puberty. She stops taking her hormones and allows the more masculine parts of her body to develop, and she begins a sexual and romantic relationship with a boy in town who is in the process of figuring out his own sexual identity.
XXY’s greatest strength is in its ambiguity. Just as Alex is “between” sexes, the film doesn’t provide any hard truths about its characters. Despite many characters in the film (and, likely, the audience) being interested in Alex’s genitalia, it is never shown onscreen. In fact, great care is taken to highlight why what’s between Alex’s legs has nothing to do with who she is as a person. Toward the end of the film, her father asks her whether she wants to be male or female. He expects her to begin taking her hormones again or go through reconstructive surgery. Her answer is brilliant: “What if there is nothing to choose?”
Alex is comfortable in her body, despite it not conforming to society’s heteronormative, binary standards. XXY is one of the few films about the intersex experience to take its subject seriously and approach it with heart.
Paris is Burning and the Need for Representation
Despite having some luck finding compelling narratives about intersex and non-binary individuals, I was still having trouble finding genuine coming-of-age stories with a transgender perspective. I also felt as if the stories I had watched were predominantly those of white people, and I was trying to learn more about all identities, not just the privileged ones.
Paris is Burning (1990) provided a glimpse into some of the most marginalized people in Western society: transgender and gay Black men and women. The acclaimed documentary shines a light on the world of drag balls in the late 80s in New York City. Director Jennie Livingston spent six years interviewing subjects from all aspects of drag ball subculture and gave audiences an intimate look at how drag houses serve as surrogate families for young queer people who have been rejected by their own biological families.
The documentary digs deep into how its subjects deal with the AIDS crisis, rampant racism, poverty, and homophobia. One of the girls is even strangled to death, likely by a prostitution client who was disgruntled with her gender identity. The day-to-day struggles of living on the fringes of society are examined in depth. Everyone in the film has their own goals, their own gender identity that they’re trying to make concrete. Myriad gender and sexual identities are highlighted, with the one-on-one interviews allowing for the subjects to dictate their status.
Livingston’s film is a powerful portrait of the difficulties facing Latinx and Black queer people. Drag is a complicated performance of gender that allows marginalized people from already marginalized communities to truly express themselves.
The Future of LGBTQIA Coming-of-Age Cinema
Queer coming-of-age stories are hip right now. Following the critical success of films like Love, Simon (2018), Call Me By Your Name (2017), and The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018), a plethora of LGBTQIA coming-of-age films are bound for theaters and digital rental. While most of these stories are based on privileged (white) narratives, there are also filmmakers of color creating compelling art. Dee Rees’ Pariah (2011), Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016), and Park Chan Wook’s The Handmaiden (2016) all offer a look into queer people of color figuring out their identities. Moonlight even won the Best Picture Academy Award in 2016, a landmark win for LGBTQIA cinema.
As we continue to highlight diversity, we must strive to keep it authentic. Transgender roles should be portrayed by transgender actors, and ideally any non-straight character should be portrayed by someone who identifies as part of the queer rainbow. It’s important for there to be diversity behind the camera, too. Coming-of-age stories are deeply personal, and it’s vital that directors, screenwriters, and other crew understand the subject matter.
Through my journey to understand my own gender and sexuality and those of others, I’ve learned how important it is to experience stories outside of ones’ comfort zone. Watching these films not only helped me figure out myself, but they taught me to have empathy for people who are different. Queer cinema isn’t just for confused kids trying to put the puzzle of their sexual identities together; it’s for everyone.
Danielle Ryan is a freelance writer with a passion for things that make people uncomfortable. A cinephile before she could walk, she writes for /Film, Daily Grindhouse, Birth.Movies.Death, and others. She also occasionally guests on podcasts, where you can hear just how fluently she swears. Her current obsession is how horror cinema allows us to examine race, gender, and sexuality and understand viewpoints different from our own. You can find her on twitter @danirat.