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Cinema and Gay Rights: Reflections on Imitation Game, Love Is Strange, and Pride

Walter Moss: With the U. S. Supreme Court set to hear arguments on whether the Constitution requires state governments to recognize same-sex marriages, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on gay rights and the three recent films mentioned in this essay’s title.

With the U. S. Supreme Court set to hear arguments on whether the Constitution requires state governments to recognize same-sex marriages, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on gay rights and the three recent films mentioned in this essay’s title. There have been plenty of books and some movies dealing with the portrayal of gays (including lesbians) in films—a Google search of “gays and films” produces over 50,000 listings. The Celluloid Closet, for example,was both a book by Vito Russo in 1981 (later revised) and then a 1995 documentary film. This essay has a more limited scope. It focuses on just three films, which I recently viewed via Netflix, and considers them against the background of gay human rights progress over the past century.

Films on Gay Rights

In my book An Age of Progress? (AOP) I evaluate to what extent the twentieth century was an age of progress and conclude that is some ways it was and in others not. In broadening human rights we did progress, and I devote about 15 pages to indicating how so in regard to various groups including gays, workers, and unions. (The latter two groups intersect with gays in a major way in the film Pride, so more about this linkage later.) I conclude that “in the Western world, and to a lesser extent worldwide, homosexuals were freer in 2000 than in 1900 to engage in homosexual behavior. Not only were laws less restrictive, but public opinion in most countries had become more accepting of homosexuals.” By 2000, the world’s workers were also freer in regard to exercising such rights as the freedom to organize and have union representation. In 1995 more than nine-tenths of the world’s governments declared their support for such workers’ rights.

Prior to the late twentieth century, discrimination against gays was blatant and widespread. In 1895 the English playwright Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two year’s hard labor for committing homosexual acts. And I mention in AOP, “In the first half of the twentieth century, thousands of additional British citizens were prosecuted for homosexual activities. Private homosexual acts by adults were not legalized until 1967 in England and Wales; 1980 in Scotland, and 1982 in Northern Ireland.” At the end of the Imitation Game words on the screen are more specific, telling us that between 1885 and 1967, “approximately 49,000 other gay men [besides Alan Turing, the central character in the film] were convicted and punished.”

Regarding gays in the United States, AOP states the following:

Homosexual sexual acts were prohibited by sodomy laws, most of which prohibited sexual acts such as oral and anal sex for all people. In the 1950s, the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy attacked homosexuals as well as communists, and he headed a committee that wrote a report entitled "Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government.” Not until 1961, did the first U. S. state, Illinois, throw out a sodomy law. By the end of the 1970s, about 20 states had jettisoned such laws. In the 1980s, some other states also got rid of their sodomy laws, but a 1986 Supreme Court ruling (Bowers v. Hardwick) upheld a Georgia law outlawing sodomy and declared that the Constitution did not give homosexuals the right to engage in sodomy. This 1986 ruling slowed the repeal momentum, and by century’s end more than a dozen states still had some type of sodomy law in effect.

The European Union was more progressive. By 2000, all of its countries had decriminalized private adult consensual homosexual behavior.

Knowledge of earlier widespread discrimination helps us better understand the precarious position of Alan Turing in the Imitation Game (brilliantly played by Benedict Cumberbatch). The film is a top-notch thriller about how the British math whiz and computer-development pioneer Turing and others (including Joan Clarke as rendered by Keira Knightley) broke the German Enigma code during World War II. But it is also about Turing being a homosexual and the tragic consequences for him that it entailed. A late conversation between Alan and Joan (according to the film script) captures part of the tragedy.


I have to go in for weekly oestrogen treatments. At the hospital.


What are you talking about?


The judge gave me a choice. Prison. Or “hormonal therapy.”


Oh my god. Oh my god. That’s —


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— Chemical castration. Yes. To cure my homosexual predilections.
Of course I chose that. I wouldn’t be able to work from prison.

In the interest of not giving away much more about the film, I’ll reveal no more here except to say that the film reveals how unenlightened and tragic the British treatment of homosexuals was in the 1940s and 1950s. (Turing died in 1954, just a few weeks short of his 42nd birthday.) In portraying the discrimination of an earlier era, however, the 2014 film and its favorable reception reflects the progress that has occurred in recent decades regarding the general public’s views of gays.

The same could be said for the other two films being considered here. (See here for an article indicating the progress made in one city, Cincinnati, during the last decade.) Love Is Strange is set in New York sometime after same-sex marriages became legal in that state in the summer of 2011. In fact, the film opens with the celebration of such a marriage between two long-time lovers, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina). Both actors are excellent, and the director (Ira Sachs) portrays them as good, sympathetic characters who have a whole host of friends, gay and straight. But even though the legalization of marriages such as theirs, at least in New York, and the general acceptance of their relationship indicate great progress since the middle of the twentieth century, some discrimination continues to exist.

When the head of the Catholic school where George teaches music discovers that he has married Ben, George is fired for violating his contract which prohibited such a public display that contradicted Catholic teaching. That such a dismissal could still occur in today’s world was clearly demonstrated in other real-life cases for a similar reason. One such was the post-marriage 2013 firing of a long-time male teacher at St. Lucy's Priory High School, an all-girls Catholic school in Glendora (in Los Angeles County).

As a result of George’s firing, he and Ben can no longer afford their co-op and are forced to reside separately with different friends. Most of the rest of the film deals with the difficulties they face in trying to adjust to living apart and as house guests of other people.

Although Love Is Strange is well acted and a sympathetic depiction of a gay couple’s life, it is slow-moving, with some scenes almost seemingly prolonged to insure that it runs a respectable time (1 hour 38 minutes).

Conversely, Pride, a two-hour film, moves along at a brisk pace. Most of it is set in Britain, especially in London and South Wales, in 1984-85, when a nationwide miner’s strike occurred in response to the closing of some mine pits. What links the striking mineworkers with gays is the formation of the London group L.G.S.M. (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners), who collect money and travel to South Wales to support the strikers.

In that Kenneth Turan has expertly reviewed the film for the Los Angeles Times, only a few additional observations are needed here, primarily about the film’s linkage of gay and worker’s rights. This connection is emphasized often.

In a conversation with Dai (Paddy Considine), who speaks for the miners, the London gay activist Mark (Ben Schnetzer) says he cannot understand supporting gay rights but not women’s or workers’ rights. Dai agrees on the need for solidarity. As Turan points out: the film begins with “Pete Seeger singing ‘Solidarity Forever’ and goes on from there.” Later on in one of the film’s most moving scenes with mining families and the London homosexuals drinking beer together, a young Welsh woman with a beautiful voice rises at a gathering and sings “Bread and Roses.” Other Welsh women and then eventually some men join in. The song was based on a poem written in 1912, occasioned by the massive Lawrence, Massachusetts strike of 1912, where 23,000 workers walked off their jobs and young textile mill girls carried a banner reading “We Want Bread and Roses Too.”

Prior to the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt U. S. workers had a few rights and unions were weak. At the time of the Lawrence strike, half of the striking workers were women and children who earned only six dollars a week. Many of them were also immigrants or their children. They struck because the mill owners wished to reduce their wages to compensate for a new law reducing the maximum weekly work hours from 56 to 54 hours for women and children under 18.

Besides workers other groups during the last century, such as women, ethnic minorities, and homosexuals, repeated the pattern of agitating and suffering to gain greater rights. These battles were never easy. Pride depicts the prejudice and discrimination that the gays faced when they first appeared in the small Welsh town. One woman, who called them perverts, worked especially hard to drive them out. And as can be imagined most Welsh miners were at first reluctant to accept help from a group of London homosexuals who appeared to them so flamboyantly different.

All the groups pushing for greater rights had to contend with establishment politicians and media resistant to extending their rights. For labor in the United States before WWI, for example, it was not the Republicans or Democrats who were most supportive of labor. It was the American Socialist Party, which was one reason it received the support of honorable people like Eugene Debs, who was the party’s presidential candidate on five occasions, and his good friend the poet and later Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg.

By the late 1980s, the moderately socialist British Labour Party would support gay rights, but the Conservative Margaret Thatcher government was much less friendly. At one point in the film, a local pro-union Welsh historian , played by the talented Bill Nighy, refers to the prime minister as Margaret F***** Thatcher. She did everything in her power to put down the miners’ strike.

In an interview, Nighy said: “The great thing about Pride is that it shows that Margaret Thatcher had it wrong when she said, famously, that there was no such thing as society, just individuals. This [the film] is the exact opposite of that terrible remark—it shows our longing to be part of something greater than ourselves, and what big things small acts of kindness can achieve.”

Pride also illustrates the truth of the United Nations declaration that “human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.”

walter moss

Walter G. Moss