'It's time for happy stories': The evolution of LGBTQ storytelling in film

The abundance of LGBTQ film and television programs available on popular streaming services offer audiences — and queer viewers — a variety of stories to choose from.

Films like 'Fire Island' starring and directed by queer creatives, are opening the door for new storytelling

Peter Knegt, who organizes the Queer Cinema Club, stands for a portrait outside Paradise Theatre in Toronto, on Jun. 9. Knegt said streaming has helped usher in a wider variety of LGBTQ films. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Peter Knegt remembers sneaking out to video stores as a teenager searching for films that he could relate to. 

Sometimes, he couldn't find anything.

"The accessibility that queer youth have now to this content is very new," Knegt said. "It's remarkable ... and is going to go a long way in helping them get through tough times if they have them."

The abundance of LGBTQ film and television programs available to stream now gives audiences — both inside and out of the community — a wide variety of content to choose from.

It's all part of a shift from one-dimensional storytelling to accommodate demand for stories that showcase the joy of LGBTQ life, those in the industry told CBC. Films that once centred around trauma-filled coming-out narratives or rejection by family members are getting replaced by original stories.  

That's also due to the rise in LGBTQ filmmakers, many of whom take inspiration from authentic personal experiences. 

Knegt, who is also a columnist for CBC Arts, says he's excited about this nascent diversity — and to see where things are going.

"I think people are curious about cultures … that they don't belong to because that's not what their day-to-day life is like. We all watch The Crown, but none of us know what that feels like," Knegt said.

What was missing

In curating the recent Inside Out film festival in Toronto, Andrew Murphy and Elie Chivi were keen on highlighting films that depict heartwarming, funny and joyful stories, something they felt was missing within LGBTQ cinema.

"We deserve happy stories ... it's time for happy stories," said Chivi who is director of development and co-head of the festival.

Elie Chivi and Andrew Murphy, curator of the Inside Out LGBTQ film festival in Toronto, pose in front of the TIFF Lightbox theatre. The two say that audience demand for a wider variety of LGBTQ films has grown. (Esteban Cuevas/CBC)

Growing up in the Middle East, Chivi had trouble finding films that depicted anything outside of heteronormative culture. If he had access to LGBTQ content, he said it was inherently negative or very dark.

But stories that speak to the truth of LGBTQ lives are essential, he said.

"It's like a snapshot of what life could be for someone on the other side of the world," he said.

As the audience for these stories grows, so has the demand for films that showcase the full breadth of what LGBTQ life can be.

"Our stories matter and queer stories matter," said Murphy, co-head and director of programming at Inside Out. "We need to keep working to get more of them out there."

With Wonder celebrates queer liberation

One of the liberating films highlighted in this year's festival was Canadian film director Sharon Lewis' documentary With Wonder.

The film highlights the multifaceted relationship between LGBTQ individuals and Christian communities — and how, for some, it can be a positive relationship rather than one that is marked by rejection. 

In creating the film, Lewis said she did not want to present a "one-dimensional account" of LGBTQ life, acknowledging that many programs seem to define queer people by trauma and otherness.

A frame from the Sharon Lewis film With Wonder, a piece that explores the multi-faceted relationship between Christianity and the LGBTQ community. (Inside Out)

"The reason films are about ... our hardships and our suffering is because those films get funded for the mainstream, [for] non-queer audiences who want to learn about us," she said.

But by telling the story herself, Lewis says, she is not teaching. Instead, she is sharing, revealing and exploring.

Former LGBTQ films pave the way

Industry watchers say that the mid-1990s marked the start of LGBTQ romantic comedies reaching mainstream audiences; films like The Birdcage and In & Out were big hits.

However, some films included characters that were part of the community but mainly in the form of tropes like the "gay best friend."

"Sometimes we'd see storytelling and they throw a queer character in, but there's nothing queer about them," Lewis said "It's just tokenizing."

Then films like Brokeback Mountain, Call Me by Your Name and Imagine Me and You began to pave the way for films that brought LGBTQ storylines back to the forefront.

In 2016, Moonlight broke down doors as the first film with an LGBTQ main character to take home the Oscar for best picture.

"I keep seeing us moving toward that direction, and I am not going to ever give up," Lewis said.

Fire Island marks exciting future 

Joel Kim Booster, centre, is seen in a frame of the film Fire Island, which he also wrote. The film was created by and is starring those in the LGBTQ community. (Disney)

While earlier films featured stories about the LGBTQ community, the new comedy Fire Island is the first major studio-released romantic comedy that was created by and stars queer creatives.

The film was written by Joel Kim Booster and directed by Andrew Ahn as a loose adaptation of the popular Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice. It explores queer relationships as it follows a group of friends on their annual trip to the Fire Island Pines.

"I think that with The Birdcage and In & Out, for example, there's a lot of straight people involved there," Booster said in an interview with CBC Arts.

Just in time for Pride Month, viewers can connect with the unique personalities showcase in the film, which began streaming June 3 on Disney+. 

Noah (Joel Kim Booster) is the passionate and confident leader of the pack, keen to find Howie (Bowen Yang) a confidence-boosting fling after the long-time friend confides he feels lonely.

The main cast members of Fire Island can be seen outside on a sunny day in a frame from the film. It's the first major studio-released LGBTQ romantic comedy. (Disney)

Alongside those two, is their lesbian mother figure, Erin (Margaret Cho) and their friends Luke (Matt Rogers), Max (Torian Miller), and Keegan (Tomás Matos) — each of whom bring a certain flair to the film.  

"I'm excited to move into this space with a movie like Fire Island and I hope that it inspires more movies like this," Ahn said.

And with the upcoming release of Bros, written by Nicholas Stroller and Billy Eichner, marking the next major studio-released gay romantic comedy, queer content is something Hollywood is now investing in.

For Knegt, this new wave of films leaves him feeling excited for the future. 

"We're getting much more variety now, and that's really hopeful," Knegt said. "I grew up watching depictions of a certain kind of gay man that I thought I was supposed to be."

Knegt stands in front of a movie theatre in Toronto. He said he's optimistic that LGBTQ films will only continue to have wider-ranging narratives. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

He said that "really messes with people" and gives them "messed-up perspectives" as to who they should be and how they should act. 

"So to have this variety out there, I think, is just really important," he said. "It makes me optimistic, at least for where things are going."


Griffin Jaeger is a reporter for CBC News and a 2022 Joan Donaldson Scholar. You can reach him at griffin.jaeger@cbc.ca