50 Years of Gays in the Media & in the Streets: The 1980’s

May 21, 2014 in inQueery

80smediaMany events came to pass in the 80’s that made it one of the most important decades of progress in our gay history. The LBGT community was dealt heavy blows from a myriad of sources, and struggled to reclaim its voice from setbacks in both cinema and society. While a few films lent themselves to lighter and more uplifting tones, others chose to demonize and damn the LBGT community in its entirety. Because of these bruises and the LBGT communities’ reaction to them, the 1980’s became a pivotal decade that forever changed the landscape of gay history and the way we see the world.

While no single event can encapsulate the general tone of the 1980’s, one disease that reared its head greatly impacted it. It began in the early 1980’s with the emergence of reports detailing a list of symptoms that doctors around the world thought to be a new type of cancer. Few similarities emerged from the patients, but one thread they overwhelmingly had in common was that they self-identified as men who had sex with men (MSM). Because of this one commonality, in 1982, the disease was given a name. This name was G.R.I.D. (gay-related immune deficiency). Though GRID was to be known later as the HIV virus, the poorly understood mechanics of the virus and how it functioned infused new life into the stream of anti-gay rhetoric for years to come. One film that premiered before the rhetoric hit its high note came into view with Al Pacino as its first billed cast member.

Cruising (1980)

Cruising was one of the first films to emerge in the 1980’s that delved into LBGT lifestyles, portraying community members in a more dark and sinister light. In the movie, Pacino plays an undercover cop who investigates a string of murders connected to the S&M scene in which LBGT people, namely gay men, play a prominent role. While the ending could be considered laughable by today’s standards, it sent a strong message of condemnation to the community by portraying them as walking stereotypes. As if the film hadn’t sent a strong enough message, the Vatican would see itself sending a message to the community a few short years later.

In 1986, Pope John Paul II demonized homosexual behavior, stating that LBGT people are “ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder. As if it weren’t enough for the LBGT community to be blamed for the AIDS crisis, the Vatican didn’t help matters much by speaking out against them in a time of inner turmoil. This very public message of condemnation had the power to sway public opinion in more religious circles which further isolated the gay community and the world’s view of them. Despite the isolation, the U.S. would at least see another positive addition to the library of gay films when the “Torch Song Trilogy” was released.

Torch Song Trilogy (1988)

The “Torch Song Trilogy” film was one of the few movies that surfaced in the 1980’s that attempted to portray a story about what it meant to be gay in a world that wasn’t ready for it. In the film, Arnold (Harvey Fierstein) struggles with societal pressures to conform to a heterosexual lifestyle while attempting to establish relationships that feel meaningful for him. While the film is equal parts comedy and drama, it served as one of the few films that explored LBGT issues from the perspective of a gay man (something that hardly any films had done in this decade). This film was a welcome addition to the library of LBGT cinema as more serious matters in the community were simply being ignored. If it weren’t enough that the Vatican chose to speak out against LBGT community members, a much more dangerous issue was unraveling at a national level. This issue was Ronald Reagan’s inability to acknowledge the existence of HIV/AIDS until 1987.

It wasn’t until the LBGT community (and Hollywood) lost a well-known face that prompted Reagan to speak up about the HIV/AIDS crisis. That person was Rock Hudson. For the entirety of his career, Rock Hudson earned a reputation for being a leading man with a handsome face. He’d worked with Hollywood heavy-hitters such as Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean before marrying his then-wife Phyllis Gates in 1955. While the two were to divorce only years later, Hudson’s personal life beyond that remained mostly private until he received an AIDS diagnosis in 1984. It was a year later that he decided to not only go public with his diagnosis, but also his sexual orientation. Hudson’s unfortunate diagnosis was believed to have forced Reagan’s hand to publicly acknowledge the HIV/AIDS crisis two years later as more and more cases arose around the globe. In the meantime, thousands died without ever seeing the then-president of the United States admit that the nation was facing a public health crisis.

While discourse regarding the 1980’s is largely shaped around the bruises the LBGT community sustained at the hands of HIV/AIDS, the Vatican, and our own government, it is also remembered for the strength shown in the face of adversity. While the 1980’s were a rather heavy decade for America as a whole, it also energized a base of LBGT community members and supporters to make drastic changes in the road ahead for the 1990’s.

To be continued…in the 90’s! (For the previous decades: 1960’s | 1970’s)

J.J. Medina is a contributor at InQueery.
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