Film Critic Annabel Smith takes a look at LGBTQ representation in cinema and poses the question: is ‘coming out’ all that we are good for?

Written by Annabel Smith
Classical Civilisation and Literature Student.
Last updated
Images by Tim Bieler

With Happiest Season’s recent release on Hulu, a Christmas film which centres a lesbian couple (Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis), gay representation seems to be improving for some. But the narrow lens when looking at the LGBTQ+ community via their ‘coming-out’ stories is too rigid to assume fair representation – at least, according to many releases in the 2010s. The GLAAD review acts as a reference point to the limited representation; it considers the major film studio’s role in ‘the quantity, quality, and diversity of LGBTQ characters’ for the highest grossing releases in 2019. The most recent review reports no film studio achieved ‘good’ or above in their grading system, making it clear what is often ignored by the film industry; the LGBTQ+ community have been side-lined in favour of portraying heterosexual experiences. And when there is representation, the idea of ‘coming-out’ is often the centred storyline; the foreboding closet which needs to be opened to fully accept yourself in a heteronormative society.

Over the past few years, an emergence of coming-out stories has littered teen films. Love, Simon and Alex Strangelove act as progressive stories to show gay teens figuring out, or becoming accepting of, their identity, placed in a school system that has distanced themselves from representing LGBTQ+ people properly. Teen films centre around these stories, with the GLAAD review determining the genre as the most inclusive. Understandably, teen films focus on the exploration of one’s identity, and grasping their sexuality during a time where you highly scrutinise yourself and others. In this sense, the ‘coming-out’ is comprehensible, but it isn’t all gay representation has to offer. Even Love, Simon comments on the convention, with a sequence of heterosexual teens coming-out to their parents, and the subsequent confusion to find out they are in fact what they expected – heterosexual.

The scene mocks the idea of this need to come out and reintroduce yourself to your family, as if your sexual orientation defines you. This progression of cinema to incorporate new stories into the heteronormativity that overwhelms teen movies is the right step, but gay representation doesn’t have to just include their coming-out stories, or romances for that matter; gay characters can have their own stories within cinema, without basing their whole identity on their sexuality.

This progression of cinema to incorporate new stories into the heteronormativity that overwhelms teen movies is the right step

Is ‘coming-out’ all the gay representation that can be seen on screen? The likes of Call Me By Your Name challenge that perception. A romance set in the 80s, it may feature a slightly covert relationship (when Elio’s family are around), but on screen they are seen openly passionate with each other. Compared to Patrick (Ezra Miller), in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, who submits to a closeted relationship with Brad (Johnny Simmons) as a result of the negative culture around the LGBTQ community; Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) reflect a new type of gay romance on screen, one framed with mutual care and passion, in which the parents offer a comforting response to Elio’s heartbreak over another man, not one of abuse – like Brad’s father.

These contrasting coming-out portrayals – one in which it wasn’t even necessary, and the other which provoked fear and violence – does reflect the expansiveness of the trope and the validity of every experience. Nevertheless, films such as Beach Rats reflect how sometimes even coming-out is sometimes beyond reach in gay representation. It follows a raw exploitation of a teenage boy covertly exploring online forums for gay men by night and embracing his hypermasculine friends by day. Despite the compelling perspective of a ‘closeted’ gay teenager and the pressure of masculinity, it is an example of how gay people are always challenged, subject to violence and secrecy in cinema.

The security within their marriage is refreshing for representation

The film industry is slowly taking on this challenge, depicting more openly gay men, in happy relationships, like Supernova, starring Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth. Opting for a release date in 2021, it follows their marriage and the suffering of Tucci’s character with dementia. Although it seems to be another depiction of a gay relationship in suffering, the representation of an illness which tests the strength of their marriage is a compelling subject, one that we wouldn’t blink an eye if it were portrayed with heterosexual couple. The security within their marriage is refreshing for representation, without the trope of ‘coming out’ as the only storyline to portray gay romance.


Comparatively, male gay relationships are seen on screen much more often than lesbian relationships. The Half of It stands as one of the most recent lesbian romances, following a teenage girl dealing with romance, friendship and her identity as an Asian girl and a lesbian in the small town of Squahamish. Despite a compelling storyline, the film is dominated by heterosexual expectations within relationships, with the lead character Ellie being forced to come out to her friend. Perhaps it forms a commentary on the expected heteronormative ways of thinking. Nevertheless, it remains a source of representation which isn’t wholly dependent upon her sexual orientation, but also her interests, her intelligence and meaningful relationship with Paul, whom also subverts expectation.

Despite a compelling storyline, the film is dominated by heterosexual expectations within relationships

In contrast, Blockers takes on a comedic tone, with three teenage girls wanting to lose their virginity (a social construct in itself). However, throughout the film Sam, whose sexual orientation is heavily hinted, feigns an attraction to her male prom date, to come out as gay in the ending scenes among loving friends and family. Despite its flaws, these narratives repeat the coming-out journey in new and diverse ways to validate different experiences, ranging from love, to a feeling of betrayal.

It is evident teen films are racing ahead of other genres, which the GLAAD review corresponds. Booksmart represent a new generation of teen movies where their central lesbian character is discovering her sexuality, but without the need for a cliché coming-out. But, in comparison to TV, film seems to be far behind. Shows like Glee and Sex Education, have and are currently paving the way for representation of the LGBTQ+ community in new ways, that don’t always centre the ‘coming out’ story, but of normalising a teen experience of exploration and discovery of one’s identity.

Booksmart represent a new generation of teen movies where their central lesbian character is discovering her sexuality

Overall, the film industry is going in the right direction in including narratives and characters that are new, compelling and applicable to reality – with the number of LGBTQ+ characters represented. It is taking steps to include different perspectives, centring gay stories more often. With this all said, there are plenty of mistakes cinema is making along their route to representation. Like their depiction of the LGBTQ+ regularly by heterosexual actors (when members of the LGBTQ+ miss out on heterosexual roles), the continuity to make a member of the community a token for the protagonist, as well as its abysmal representation of bisexual people, with a particular focus on the lack of non-binary and transgender people on screen.

Seeing these stories within film is necessary, not only as a society to see different human experiences, but so all generations have figures to look up to where their sexuality or gender is represented in fully developed characters. As the CEO and President of GLAAD said, ‘Film has the power to educate, enlighten, and entertain audiences around the world and, in today’s divisive political and cultural climate, we must prioritize telling LGBTQ stories and the stories of all marginalized people.’

Looking for more cinema analysis? Check out these other articles by Redbrick Film:

Sapphic Sensibilities: Lesbian Representation in Cinema

Pride in Film

We Need to Talk About Manic Pixie Dream Girls

Conflicting Identities in American Psycho

In Defence of Rewrites