Fine-tuning the Image of Gays in Hollywood: An Open Letter to Amy Pascal

In your recent speech at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center you said, "We need to create an atmosphere that encourages people to speak up, so we get this right." This letter is me speaking up, with the hope that we can get this right.
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Dear Ms. Pascal,

In your recent speech at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center you said, "We need to create an atmosphere that encourages people to speak up, so we get this right."

This letter is me speaking up, with the hope that we can get this right. If we're not absolutely precise about planning the coordinates of our destination, we could easily end up miles away from where we want to go.

First, I applaud your acknowledgement of this issue and want to thank you for setting a precedent which makes this dialogue possible. Yes, I agree with you that an alarming volume of movies and TV shows thoughtlessly rely on anti-gay slurs for humor, thus perpetuating the idea that homosexuality is a shameful and comprehensible source of ridicule. Just one example is The Hangover, which manages to call texting "gay" and use the nickname "Dr. Faggot" in the first few lines of the movie. However, I also think that calling for an across-the-board ban of the word "fag," with no consideration to context, is counterproductive for creating a climate of learning and compassion. I assume, of course, this is a concept you're familiar with, after the public's polarizing response to Django Unchained.

But unlike Django Unchained, several of the movies cited in your speech -- Boys Don't Cry, Milk, Gods and Monsters, Philadelphia -- are true stories. Important stories. You can't rewrite the ending of Harvey Milk's life, but you can tell the inspiring story of a hero who fearlessly stood for civil rights in a time when it seemed unthinkable. Philadelphia didn't gloss over the consequences of HIV/AIDS or the gross ignorance surrounding the disease, but it was one of the first Hollywood films to acknowledge and humanize the illness that dare not speak its name. Again, context is crucial when examining what qualifies as harmful or helpful.

And yes, these films are bummers, full of martyrs and tragic protagonists. But why? Well, unlike the cautionary morality tales of post-Hayes Code cinema, which warned of the "dangers" of being gay, the films listed above strive to highlight tragedy and injustice and create empathy among audiences who might have never experienced such pain firsthand. The goal of these stories is to bring an audience to understand that bullying, assault, murder, and suicide are part of an agonizing reality for many LGBT men and women. Without these stories, how else will we express the severity of the present crisis and underline the imperative need for acceptance? The sad truth is, movies like Boys Don't Cry and My Own Private Idaho are still relevant because the self-destructive behavior of tormented gays, and the violence against them, is still very real for millions of people every day. We tend to forget that in our big-city bubbles, where being gay is about as relevant as eye color.

Interestingly, almost all of the films cited on your list were either written, directed, or produced by LGBT filmmakers: Gus Van Sant, Kimberly Peirce, Ian McKellen, Dustin Lance Black, Michael Cunningham, Tom Ford, Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski. Like you, I look forward to a time when people can be "incidentally gay," but the queer commonality between these artists actually serves as a great example of how focusing on sexuality, instead of making it incidental, gives us an important perspective. See, if drawing from personal experience is what creates an authentic narrative with realistic depictions, then certainly, there could be no one better to develop, guide, and shape LGBT themes than the aforementioned professionals. Now, I realize the intent of your speech was not to imply that queer artists aren't expressing themselves the "right" way, nor was it to say that gays are responsible for the homophobic culture of hate-mongering maintained by the mainstream. But perhaps you'll see why I believe this point is so necessary when you consider this perspective:

As an illustration of the LGBT community's lack of authentic representation in Hollywood, a heterosexual woman criticizes the most significant cinematic and cultural milestones helmed by acclaimed LGBT artists. Sometimes, even though our heart is in the right place, we may not always communicate what we intend.

As for gay characters who remain "witty best friends" or "swishy hair dressers," frankly, many of us are swishy and witty. And many of us aren't. (Poor things.) Since femininity and cleverness aren't negative qualities -- no, really, they're not -- they're likely not the problem here.

The problem might be that the diversity within the gay community is not visible in the mainstream. But if Hollywood shies away from one "type" of gay in favor of another, the problem persists, no matter what shade of gay ends up being en vogue. Whether the proverbial gay kid mentioned in your speech identifies with the drag queen or the upstanding soldier, if only one of those archetypes exist, then countless others are left without any reflection of themselves in pop culture.

The way I see it, the solution is not to lean toward or away from specific types of gay characters or stories, because if there were simply more of an LGBT presence within mainstream storytelling, incidental or not, there would be less pressure to "get it right."

Ultimately, true equality means representing LGBT people who embody all facets of humanity, not just the admirable ones. Or the ones deemed admirable.

And so, I greatly respect and admire your call to challenge the current standard in Hollywood, with one significant distinction: overall, we need to focus on more of everything -- the whole complex spectrum -- not less of certain things. Let's focus on incorporating the strengths and the flaws, the ups and the downs, the rights and the wrongs, the successes and the failures, the comedies and the tragedies of our vastly different experiences. In doing so, we'll gain a more colorful, more dynamic, and more accurate reflection of ourselves. Not to mention, it'll make for some damn good entertainment.

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