No Action Films

01.04.12

Why Does Hollywood Hate Gay Sex?

If you’ve seen any of the high-profile gay-themed movies from 2011—from Beginners to J. Edgar—you may have noticed they have one thing in common: the gay sex takes place in the dark (or not at all). Ramin Setoodeh interviews actors, directors, and writers to find out why gay sex is the last taboo in Hollywood.

By now, you’ve probably heard about Shame, this generation’s Last Tango in Paris. Michael Fassbender plays a single (and often naked) Manhattan bachelor named Brandon obsessed with sex, and the movie offers a voyeuristic look into his anonymous encounters with various women. One afternoon he even has sex with a pretty blonde prostitute against the window of the Standard Hotel, for all of downtown New York to see.

On another drunken night, Brandon wanders into a gay club. He’s so desperate for sex, he’ll sleep with anybody—even a man. The scene is meant to illustrate how depraved his character has become, but the moment is a turning point for another reason. For the first time in the film, Shame is ashamed to show you what Brandon experiences. In a dark underground corridor, a guy unzips Brandon’s pants … and the camera cuts away. The screen fades to black.

Gay sex is the last Hollywood taboo. When Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet as the first openly gay sitcom star in 1997—and her fictional self followed suit—a parade of gay characters came after her. There was Will & Grace, and Carrie Bradshaw’s Sex and the City sidekick, Stanford. In movies, the gay best friend became a staple, from My Best Friend’s Wedding to Mean Girls.

Yet none of these characters do what gay men do. As Hollywood portrays it, the homosexual man is, astonishingly, sexless.

If you can’t name any great love scenes between two men in hit films or TV shows in 2011, it’s because there weren’t any. Last summer, Justin Timberlake experienced all the benefits in Friends With Benefits, while his gay pal (played by Woody Harrelson) was sidelined. On Glee, Kurt finally lost his virginity to his boyfriend—off camera, to the frustration of many of the show’s fans. When Christopher Plummer came out of the closet in Beginners, he signaled the occasion by wearing purple (his younger boyfriend hovered in the background). Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hoover in J. Edgar had a hot male companion (Armie Hammer), but he exchanged only a single kiss with him.

The film’s screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for his Milk screenplay, says that a love scene would have been too revisionist historically. “I certainly didn’t want to see J. Edgar doing it,” says Black, who is gay. “In the 1930s, oftentimes, a loving relationship with gay men was never consummated.”

“Don’t let anyone in the audience think about butt fucking and you’ll be fine.”

Max Mutchnick, the co-creator of Will & Grace, remembers attending a party the night before the show’s pilot was filmed. Mutchnick recalls being told by (the also gay) director Joel Schumacher: “Whatever you do, don’t make it too butt-fucky. Don’t let anyone in the audience think about butt fucking and you’ll be fine.”

Mutchnick continues, “The sad reality is, if you’re in a theater and they show gay sex, someone in the audience will shout, ‘Ewww!’”

That’s the crux of it. Studio executives aren’t necessarily homophobic, but the film business is in a financial slump and averse to risks even in the best times. Though gay marriage is now more accepted across the United States, the industry is driven by tickets sold to straight men. That’s why lesbian sex gets a pass: when Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis spend a steamy night together in Black Swan, it helps sell tickets. There’s no similar financial bump attached to gay male intercourse. As one producer noted, anal sex is still considered something out of the ordinary, anyway. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the anal sex scene is part of a rape between a man and woman—existing as a symbol of sexual sadism.

As Vito Russo’s significant 1981 book The Celluloid Closet argued, Hollywood has always had a complicated relationship with gay men, keeping actors in the closet and stereotyping feminine men. For a long time, the Hays Code banned gay characters from even being in the movies. When they finally appeared, they did so with a vengeance in the underground queer films of the ’60s and ’70s. These movies had a lot of ground to make up for, which explains their pornographic tendencies. Andy Warhol’s 1964 short film Blowjob lived up to its title. Saturday Night at the Baths (1975) featured another early depiction of gay sex. Even in the controversial Cruising (1980), starring Al Pacino, gay sex was recognized as an important, defining part of gay male culture—the film features a graphic orgy with a fisting scene.

But as gay people have become more integrated, depictions of gay sex lost their shock value. By the late ’90s, two of the factors that inspired rage in gay filmmakers—AIDS and Ronald Reagan refusing to help us—seemed more like problems of the past. The gay man was beginning to enter mainstream movies, especially romantic comedies, as a kind of cuddly figure (see Robin Williams in 1996’s The Birdcage, Kevin Kline in 1997’s In & Out, or Paul Rudd in 1998’s The Object of My Affection).

I emailed our film critic David Ansen, the artistic director of the Los Angeles Film Festival, to ask whether there was gay sex I had overlooked in any recent movies. He wrote back: “There were actually movies this year with gay sex but really nobody saw them because they only played film festivals, like the very sexy Christopher and His Kind, which was made for Brit TV, and the still unreleased Leave It on the Floor, a musical with an all-black cast about the voguing world. Or James Franco’s experimental student film about Hart Crane, which has very explicit gay sex in it. The movies with gay sex tend to be ghettoized as gay films and not seen by crossover audiences.”

When you ask gay screenwriters and directors to name the most explicit gay sex scene in a mainstream film, they often gulp in silence. Then they name 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. But that tent scene between Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger is still relatively tame. “I don’t think I would say Brokeback Mountain, because it’s not that explicit,” says B. Ruby Rich, the film professor at UC Santa Cruz who coined the phrase New Queer Cinema. “We’re in the post–Brokeback Mountain moment. Even a film like Gus Van Sant’s Milk is astonishingly chaste. The actual life of Harvey Milk was drastically different than that, given it was the ’70s in San Francisco and men were fucking in every doorway.”

One of the standout gay films of last year was Weekend, a British drama that follows a young gay couple home from a one-night stand. It opened last fall to some of the best reviews of the year, yet mustered only $469,947 in limited release. Director Andrew Haigh recalls how difficult it was to secure financing. “Everyone was reticent about giving us money, because they didn’t think there would be an audience,” he says. “Which I thought was a bit strange. If only gay people saw the movie, there are still a lot of gay people out there! It’s not like there are only three gay people in the world.”

He believes it has to do with a societal reluctance to stories about men falling in love. “I think there’s an idea that people have in their heads, if they are not gay, they are not going to get something out of a story of gay people,” he says. “That’s what I find frustrating. Gay people can see a movie with straight people and that can still resonate with them. It should work the other way around.”

On television, the show that broke all boundaries for gay sex was Queer as Folk. The Showtime series—a remake of a British show—ran from 2000 to 2005, following a group of men in and out of bed, and we saw everything that happened under their sheets. But it was perhaps not without consequences for the cast. “My gay manager told me not to take the show,” says Peter Paige, who played Emmett. “He said, 'We all know you’re going to have a big career, I just want to make sure when we pitch you to ABC, they don’t say we can’t put this guy on our network, we just saw him getting ass-fucked on Showtime.'”

After the show ended, Paige says, he was often turned away in casting. He thinks it has more to do with playing such a flamboyant character, not just the sex. “My particular challenge is I played the gayest character on the gayest show on TV, and being openly gay, I’ve given myself a triple obstacle to overcome.” He’s found that sometimes even for gay roles, casting directors only want to see straight actors.

For Trevor Donovan, his steamy gay kisses as the hunk Teddy on the new 90210 was a chance to stretch. “A lot of producers and directors and studios are scared,” says Donovan, whose character was written off the series last year. “They are scared to take those chances.”

“I had an incident over Thanksgiving, and it was the first time I had any incident outside the show that pertained to me playing a gay character,” says Donovan. He was nursing a beer near his hometown of Mammoth, Calif., when another guy at the dive bar started taunting him—asking, “How do you like playing a fag?”—and tapped his face. “That was the first time I was ever harassed or teased, and it was for playing a gay character,” he says. The exchange finally ended with a fight outside. “I threw him in the snow by the scruff of his neck.”

Real societal change is always the product of the stories we see. In 1967, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner made interracial marriage normal just months after the Supreme Court ruled that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional. That’s why there’s more at stake in this gay-sex debate than just the titillation. If Hollywood refuses to push boundaries, to make more people comfortable with something that a segment of America is still uncomfortable with, gay people remain second-class citizens. “Here’s my thing with gay sex,” Dustin Lance Black says. “In terms of sex, we get plenty of that every day in our own lives and thrown on the Internet. I feel like what I’m really interested in is gay romance.” And that’s the real problem with no gay sex. You can’t tell a real love story if nobody is doing it.