Arts·Point of View

The Oscars rewarded more LGBTQ stories than ever. So why did they feel so homophobic?

The Academy Award telecast was mostly a surprising delight — except when it ignored queer legacies.

The Academy Award telecast was mostly a surprising delight — except when it ignored queer legacies

Rami Malek after winning his Oscar for Bohemian Rhapsody. (Eric McCandless/ABC via Getty Images)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

Honestly, had a few things gone differently at the Oscars this past Sunday, I might have been able to let it all go on and move on. (And don't worry — I know some of you wish I already had!) Because let's be very clear: in so many ways, it was a pretty glorious night that bucked essentially everyone's assumption of the messy trainwreck telecast it seemed all but destined to be (especially after a certain conspiracy theory that Whoopi Goldberg was the secret host was debunked).

There was instantly iconic fashion that paid tribute to queer greatness (thank you, Billy Porter). There were brilliant, innovative presenter pairings (thank you, Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry, among many others). There were epic speeches (thank you, every female winner not associated with the Vice makeup team...and Spike Lee). There was a major upset win that, as much as we all felt bad about, was undeniably deserved and gave us one of the best best actress speeches of all time (thank you, Olivia Colman/sorry, Glenn Close).

But then..there were some other things. Things we really shouldn't just brush under the awards season table now that we can finally move on. Like it or not, the Oscars aren't just an awards show — they are a microcosm of both the film industry and the society it represents. That microcosm, I'm sure I don't need to remind anyone, just gave their highest honour to Peter Farrelly's Green Book and the most awards to Bryan Singer's Bohemian Rhapsody.

So where do we even start with this unholy duo? I probably could just keep going until you pry this keyboard out of my cold, dead gay hands. But at this point I don't even want to, and I probably don't need to. If you've been paying even remote attention this awards season, you've heard and read countless voices questioning both the representation and quality of these films. I've said all I need to say about the actual existence of Bohemian Rhapsody, and if you need some insightful updates on Green Book, head to Wesley Morris of The New York Times, who talked about the film's problematic fantasies of racial reconciliation in the shadow of its big Oscar wins on The Daily earlier this week. Or watch Yaruba Richen's recently released documentary The Green Book: Guide To Freedom, which, unlike Farrelly's movie, presents the real story behind the history of its titular book. And if you want further discussion of how both films are, let's just say, artistically underwhelming, just read one of the many dozens of negative reviews lowering their Metacritic scores to 69 and 49, respectively.

What I do want to discuss is the new piece of this tragic puzzle that came on Sunday night: despite all of the pushback against these two films, a very sizeable amount of the membership of the Academy decided it was still okay to give them a total of seven more Oscars than they'll probably ever give Glenn Close. And in addition to what Green Book's wins specifically say about institutional racism in Hollywood, both of these films' wins ring some major alarm bells when it comes to homophobia. Before I lie this awards season to true rest, I need to get out one last rant in that regard.

There are many historic LGBTQ-related elements to the winners of the Academy Awards that should be noted before going any further, many of which I haven't seen much discussion about in the days since the awards:

  • Green Book is the second film with a lead LGBTQ character (despite Mahershala Ali winning best supporting actor, few deny he was Viggo Mortensen's co-lead) to win best picture, after Moonlight two years ago.

  • Green Book is the first with a leading LGBTQ character based on a real person (Don Shirley, who Ali portrays).

  • Bohemian Rhapsody has won more Oscars (four) than any other film with a lead LGBTQ character, taking the tied record of three apiece away from Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight.

  • Three of the four acting winners (Ali, Malek and The Favourite's Olivia Colman) won for playing real-life LGBTQ characters, by far a record.

  • Thirteen straight actors have now won Oscars for playing LGBTQ roles. Only one openly LGBTQ actor has ever been nominated for playing an LGBTQ role (Ian McKellen for Gods & Monsters).

  • Films with lead LGBTQ characters won a total of 8 Oscars, also by far a record.

You'd think that — save the dismal stat about LGBTQ actors — most of that would be cause for celebration, no? Well...maybe if the queer legacies of the people these movies represent felt at all present at the ceremony. In fact, the only time during the ceremony I felt like a queer person was truly being honoured for who they were was when Regina King opened her speech by passionately acknowledging the late gay author James Baldwin for creating the character she played in If Beale Street Could Talk.

The most truly appalling absences when it came to speeches were the white, straight producers of Green Book, who did not even mention Don Shirley's name when they came on stage to accept the Oscar for Best Picture for making a movie widely regarded as disrespecting his legacy, and every single winner from Bohemian Rhapsody (including Malek), who failed to utter the words "Bryan Singer" or "HIV/AIDS" at any point whatsoever. With regard to the former, all I will say is that by not naming him, the allegations of the multiple people that have come forward against Singer felt erased, and that if Singer were a straight man and his alleged victims were young women, Bohemian Rhapsody would never have won four Oscars (nor would Singer have a new movie in the works). In regards to the latter, I will just direct you to this Saturday's Independent Spirit Award speech by Richard E. Grant. If you ever end up being a straight person winning an Oscar for playing someone dying of AIDS, this is how you do it:

Here's the thing: I don't even necessarily mind straight people telling LGBTQ stories and getting awards for them. Ang Lee and Barry Jenkins, for example, did so in a way that made me feel respected and represented when they won for Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight, and I'm absolutely certain I would have felt the same if Grant had won an Oscar for Can You Ever Forgive Me?. But on one too many occasions, I felt like folks who were not true allies were getting up on stage winning Oscars for problematically telling stories about LGBTQ people. And by voting for them — and for a movie directed by Bryan Singer — a major portion of Hollywood made it clear: they aren't allies either.

About the Author

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag and interactive project Superqueeroes, both of which won him 2020 Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

now