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Hollywood Can't Handle Gay Sex

Tinseltown supports LGBT rights everywhere but the big screen.

James Franco, that jack of all media, is on yet another artistic mission: The star of the soon-to-be-released Disney film Oz: The Great and Powerful is hell-bent on bringing gay sex into mainstream Hollywood cinema. Adding to an already considerable oeuvre of gay-themed projects such as Sal, Howl, Milk, and The Feast of Stephen, Franco and co-director Travis Matthews’s Interior. Leather Bar., which premiered at last month’s Sundance Film Festival, attempts to recreate the “missing” 40 minutes of footage that William Friedkin had to cut from his controversial 1980 film Cruising in order to obtain an ‘R’ rating from the MPAA. In the quasi-documentary, Franco discusses how it was “a little shocking” to watch two men have sex, but only because his “mind has been twisted by the way that the world has been set up around me.” “Every fucking love story is a dude that wants to be with a girl,” he says. “I’m fucking sick of that shit.” Franco then sums up Hollywood’s mentality: “Oh, don’t show gay sex, don’t do that, that’s the fucking devil. In previews, show people getting blown away and killed, but don’t show gay sex.”

Does he have a point? The gay rights movement has made exponential strides in the past 20 years, but one has to wonder if Hollywood has been paying attention. Sure, gay characters abound on television, from “Modern Family” to “Glee” to “The New Normal,” but beyond the split-second lip lock, audiences are rarely being exposed to man-on-man action. Even in celebrated gay movies such as Brokeback Mountain or My Own Private Idaho, the camera usually cuts away just before the action turns R-rated. By largely ignoring gay male sexuality onscreen, Hollywood seems to be reinforcing the shame associated with gay sex. This is doubly disappointing given that Hollywood is home to some of the gay community’s strongest allies, celebrities who spoke out against Prop 8 in California, hold countless AIDS fundraisers, and participate in “It Gets Better” videos.

If anything, things may be getting worse. None of this year’s Oscar nominations for acting involve a gay role. And even when Hollywood has bestowed an award for playing gay, it’s always been given to a straight actor who had the “courage” to take on the role, a la Tom Hanks in Philadelphia or William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman. No openly gay actor has ever won an Academy Award.

When discussing his Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, soon to premiere on HBO, Steven Soderbergh has repeatedly chastised the movie studios for turning down his movie as “too gay.” "We went to everybody in town," Soderbergh told The Wrap. "We needed $5 million. Nobody would do it…. They said it was too gay. Everybody. This was after Brokeback Mountain, by the way…. I was stunned.” And when repeatedly asked about his gay sex scenes in Kill Your Darlings, which also premiered at Sundance, Daniel Radcliffe told MTV: “It’s interesting that it’s deemed shocking. For me, there’s something very strange about that because we see straight sex scenes all the time…. I don’t know why a gay sex scene should be any more shocking than a straight sex scene.”

Why indeed.1 But Hollywood largely caters to one audience in particular—straight males—and occasionally to less-profitable audiences, like straight women or children. In an industry as averse to risk and as driven by the bottom line as the film business, it’s not all that surprising that gay male sex rarely, if ever, makes it to the screen: Studio heads have long been convinced that gay storylines don’t play well, and that gay sex turns audiences off. But shouldn’t we be seeing some cracks in this aversion to onscreen male-on-male sex? Why, if our culture has become more accepting of LGBT rights, do these feelings linger?

There’s a long-held belief that homophobia originates partly from an inherent disgust that many straight men feel at the thought of gay sex. Consider the infamous poker scene in the first season of “Louie,” when Nick DiPaolo says to Rick Crom, the one gay comedian in the room: “I know it’s a free country, Rick, and I don’t care what you guys do… but I gotta be honest… it really makes me sick, and not on a political-Bible level either. I mean, just picturing you touch another guy’s dick, that’s gross.” Jesse Bering, writing in Scientific American, highlights Harvard psychologist Dr. Yoel Inbar’s study of a possible evolutionary cause behind straight male “disgust”: “Individuals belonging to unfamiliar groups, especially those who engaged in unusual practices regarding food, cleanliness and sex, posed a higher risk of carrying novel (and therefore particularly dangerous) infectious agents. Perceiving such individuals would thus activate the behavioral immune system and cause avoidance behavior and the accompanying emotion of disgust.”

Can it be this deep-seated? Has evolution somehow passed down an inherent disgust with gay sex in order to keep straight men from neglecting their duties to propagate the species? Certainly one way, perhaps even the most prominent way, straight men define their masculinity is by an intrinsic rejection of all things that don’t reinforce this masculinity. Even among the most enlightened of straight men, you will often find a lingering fondness for locker room bravado, a tendency to tease and mock any action thought of as feminine or weak, something that may have more to do with the courting rituals and social hierarchies of the animal kingdom than we may think.

Still, it’s not like straight men are disgusted by blowjob scenes in hetero porn. If the only difference is the gender of the mouth doing the bobbing, it’s hard to believe this disgust is simply genetic. It may in fact be far more sociological in nature, a notion reinforced by a culture that has been demonizing gays for decades and has only recently begun to change course. Given more time for these cultural barriers to fall, straight men might become less sensitive to the sight of gay male sex. Numerous studies have shown that among the current generation of high school and college students, acceptance of homosexuality has increased considerably, experimentation beyond fixed orientations is growing, and the need to adopt one-size-fits-all labels such as “gay” and “straight” seems to be on the wane. “Studies have shown that people can be habituated to stimuli that trigger disgust over time,” Bering writes, citing a study that found medical students’ disgust toward dead bodies fell significantly over a semester. The problem, he says, is gay secrecy: “As long as we remain out of sight, we remain foreign—and thus likely to trigger disgust in the minds of those prone to hypervigilance.” In other words, the more straight men are exposed to gay sex, the less it will bother them—so get cracking, boys!

Certainly visibility is important. In fact, visibility has been the driving force behind the progress of the gay rights movement. But gays are hardly the only ones complaining about a lack of representation in Hollywood. Latinos, African-Americans, even women have long been underrepresented, too, and all of us seem to be shouting into the void. Instead, maybe gay men and their sympathizers should go out and make these movies themselves. Stop engaging in sheepish self-censorship and create films that depict our lives with the fullness we expect onscreen, passionate sex and all. Push the envelope, but not just to provoke titillation or disgust; rather, to illustrate that sex is as regular a part of our lives as it is a straight person’s.

This doesn’t mean gays need give up on Hollywood, or stop celebrating the straight actors, like Franco, who are trying to bring their stories to the mainstream. But we need to get beyond the “Access Hollywood” mentality of asking every straight actor playing gay what it was like to kiss a man, which only reinforces our “otherness.” Instead, gay men should convince the industry that its focus on such a narrow audience might be causing its economic woes. How many times can Hollywood executives act flummoxed at the success of not-for-straight-men movies such as The Help or The Blind Side? Television ratings for shows like “Modern Family” prove there’s plenty of money to be made without appealing to straight teenage boys (or to adults who think like them).

Not that the audience for movies featuring gay intimacy will ever match, say, the audience for the next Transformers. But they don’t have to; they just need to bring a return on their investment. A lot of blockbusters fail, and a lot of smaller movies surprise—movies such as A Single Man, Beginners, and Boys Don’t Cry all outperformed their budgets. One day Hollywood might begin to acknowledge its own homophobia, but why wait? The movies can still be made, the hypocrisies questioned, the push for normalcy furthered. It’s already happening: In movies such as Keep the Lights On, Kill Your Darlings and Weekend, gay directors are portraying gay sex on the big screen, and being praised for it.

So maybe James Franco is on to something. But what a shame that the gay community still must pin its hopes on straight actors to bring our stories to the screen. In a country where the president mentions gays in his inaugural address, and where the eventual nationwide legality of same-sex marriage seems all but a foregone conclusion, one would hope that our Tinseltown allies would stop talking about how much they support gay rights and start advancing the cause through the hugely influential mass medium at their disposal. 

Eric Sasson is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and the author of the story collection Margins of Tolerance. Follow him on Twitter @idazlei.

  1. Needless to say, homoesexuals aren’t shocked by it—and neither, apparently, are a great deal of straight women.