The Hays Code Nightmare Has Come True. Ain’t That Grand?

The '30s era Hays Code limited significantly what artists could express and what audiences could see. Today's LGBT media has blasted through all that.

Among the albums selected by PopMatters’ staff as one of the best of 2014 was Against Me’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Never heard of it. (That’s not surprising; I usually haven’t heard of most of the albums on the year’s best of list. I’m just uncool, I guess.) Still, it was number six on PopMatters’ list of best albums, and Zach Schonfeld referred to it as a “dizzying gut punch of power-punk bliss and queer rage.” I have heard of Against Me!, of course, and know the story of Laura Jane Grace, the group’s trans lead singer, born Thomas Gabel, but this album slipped past me.

So did a lot of other LGBT related stuff. Granted, I’ve had a maddeningly busy year, but I try to stay a little more informed than the average queer; I do, after all, write a column on LGBT culture. Still, it doesn’t matter the area – movies, books, CD, theater, TV, even sports – a lot happened in 2014 to which I was utterly blind. Most likely, the same is true for you. It’s not that we have lost interest in LGBT news, sports, and arts stories, it’s just that they have become so commonplace that many fail to ignite interest.

To put this in perspective, over 230 movies in all genres were released in December of 2014 – how many can you name? Probably only a few. So it has become with gay culture; there’s so much out there that it’s only natural to miss out on quite a bit of it.

Here’s just a sampling of what the past year brought us that I had no clue existed. (Perhaps much of what is in this sampling is familiar to you and there are other titles or artists that have escaped your notice.)

Book: The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good Business

Author: John Browne

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication date: 2014-06

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/q/queerisntit-glasscloset-cvr-200.jpgJohn Browne, Baron Browne of Maddingly, served as chief executive of British Petroleum (BP) for 12 years during the late ‘90s and the early part of this century. While his tenure as CEO was successful, his personal life was a bit of a mess, culminating in a sex scandal that led to his departure from BP. Browne lived a double life; gay man at home and straight businessman in the boardroom.

His closeted lifestyle is understandable, having grown up in a time when homosexuality was illegal, as well as under the guidance of a mother who had survived a Nazi concentration camp; she warned him to never reveal a secret, as it only led to trouble. Thus, he kept his secret. Now out, Browne has looked at the pressure on LGBT individuals to remain closeted in The Glass Closet (Harper Business). Browne notes:

Despite the context set by significantly improved measures to reduce discrimination, changing attitudes towards gay marriage and the increasing visibility of gay figures in popular culture, it is estimated that 41 percent of LGBT employees in the US remain closeted at work. In the UK, the figure is 34 percent. Those aiming for the top certainly lack role models: at the end of 2013, there was not a single openly gay chief executive in the Fortune 500. (Since the publication of the book, Apple CEO Tim Cook has come out of the closet, however.)

Book: Law and the Gay Rights Story: The Long Search for Equal Justice in a Divided Democracy

Author: Walter Frank

Publisher: Rutgers University Press

Publication date: 2014-08

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/q/queerisntit-lawgayrightsstory-cvr-200.jpgAnother book from 2014 that addresses LGBT issues is Walter Frank’s Law and the Gay Rights Story: The Long Search for Equal Justice in a Divided Democracy. Frank delves into America’s history to examine how anti-gay sentiments rose in the United States and were codified into law, both through legislation and court decision.

It was also a big year in theater for the gay community, not that every year isn’t a big year for the LGBT community in theater. For decades, this is one career where it has been understood that to work steadily means working with a wide variety of sexual orientations. Thus, it’s understandable that LGBT stories have grown in prominence on stage in the last few years, including this year when two such productions found themselves on The New York Times’ list of the ten best theater productions. Bootcandy and Lypsinka: The Trilogy (yes, that Lypsinka, drag queen royalty) might not have received the attention of the umpteenth revival of You Can’t Take It with You, with James Earl Jones!, but they still managed to gain a following. The New York Times’ Ben Brantley said that Lypsinka will be a “viable, compelling, cautionary figure for as long as people paint their faces, compress their bodies into support garments and stuff their feet into high heels,” while Charles Isherwood noted that Bootycandy’s story of a young African-American painted “naturalistic pictures of Sutter’s life as he comes to terms with his sexuality and the damage his culture’s attitude toward it may have inflicted on his psyche.”

Of the 60 films that IMDB lists as LGBT releases in 2014, I have only heard of five, and of those, I’ve only seen one (The Imitation Game). Of those 60, 18 received scores about 7.0, so not only do I need to turn in my Gay Culture Maven card, I need to return my Cinephile t-shirt. I did finally see James Franco’s 2013 venture into gay S&M porn, Interior. Leather Bar, which I can’t really recommend as a date movie unless you plan to end the date in handcuffs and getting your ass paddled, so perhaps this year, I will stumble upon one of 2014’s LGBT films and watch it in another situation that makes me feel totally awkward.

I haven’t seen a single episode of Transparent, Faking It, or Looking. Likewise, I haven’t heard any of Le1f, Perfume Genius, Big Freedia, or Adore Delano, runner up of season six of RuPaul’s Drag Race who released her first album in 2014. Sam Smith made it big, becoming Grammy’s most honored queer, but to be honest, if I have to hear “Stay with Me” ever again, I may destroy my radio. We are living in a time when LGBT media abounds, quite a contrast from just a few short years ago. In large part, it’s taken us decades to move past the moralistic Hays Code that governed what audiences did — and didn’t — see.

When the Hays Code was adopted in 1930, it noted, “Hence, though regarding motion pictures primarily as entertainment without any explicit purpose of teaching or propaganda, they know that the motion picture within its own field of entertainment may be directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking.” In other words, don’t clutter up our Shirley Temple films with a bunch of social commentary or make Spencer Tracy do the humpty dance with Katherine Hepburn. At least not on screen.

Among the things that the code banned to ensure our spiritual and moral progress was “Sex perversion or any inference to it.” While not explicitly stated, that was a subtle way of saying “no queers or lesbians”. Not that films were overrun with a plethora of same-sex love stories. The flamboyant man was as close as films of the era came to a gay character. If a butch woman appeared, she was either married to Pa on the farm or she was a broken, hard-drinking, one-of-the-guys gal yearning for the man with whom the female lead would end up. No We’re No Angels in America or Bi Bi Birdie or The Captive Desert Hearts.

There were instances of cross-dressing in film, but only by straight characters and only when the cross-dressing served a larger plot point. Charlie Chaplin dressed up as a woman (The Woman), while Katherine Hepburn put on the male persona (Sylvia Scarlett). Even the staid Jack Benny did drag in 1941’s Charley’s Aunt (which had numerous versions filmed around the world), as well as doing drag bits throughout his career. Of course, as far as drag was concerned, no one topped Milton Berle, whose drag routines became one of the favorite segments of his popular ‘50s TV variety show.

Many of the top name stars of the Hays Code era cross-dressed on film, including Marlena Dietrich, Lionel Barrymore, Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Lemmon, Cary Grant, Alec Guinness, Buster Keaton, Greta Garbo, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, William Powell, and Jimmy Durante. While Victor/Victoria was made after the Hays Code had long been abandoned, most are unaware that it was based on a 1933 German film Viktor und Viktoria, which was also made in French the same year, with an English version coming along two years later.

In essence, Hollywood decided that transvestism was acceptable, just not two men holding hands. Certainly, films implied that there were characters who were “that way”, but nothing explicit was ever explained about such characters’ sexual orientation. One actor who often appeared in such roles was Edward Everett Horton, who was gay in real life and partnered with fellow actor Gavin Gordon; despite the effeminate demeanor of his characters, he was typically single and not looking for romance or was paired with a matronly female character actor.

Outside of the United States, films were a little more adventurous, such as Viktor und Viktoria. One of the earliest films to feature two men in love was the 1919 silent film from Germany Different from Others. Director Richard Oswald’s story of two male musicians in love didn’t have a happy ending, but it was nonetheless quite pro-gay, condemning the German law known as Paragraph 175, which outlawed gay behavior.

The Hays Code ensured that no such films would be seen in the United States. Consequently, many stories with gay or lesbian plots were altered to meet the social code of the time. Plays and books dealing with homosexuality were adapted to film, only with the homosexuality aspect of the story taken out. In some cases, this significantly changed the storyline; in other cases, it merely muted the homosexuality just enough that it was implied, buried under dialogue and plot changes that didn’t offend the public’s moral sensibilities.

Among those that underwent such changes were Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, which dealt with rumors of a lesbian love relationship between teachers at a girl’s school. For its first film incarnation, 1934’s These Three, the story revolved around rumors of a heterosexual love triangle. Similarly, many of Tennessee Williams’ plays were sanitized for film, with clear references of gay behavior cleaned out of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly, Last Summer. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 thriller Rope had definite gay undertones between the two killers in the film, both played by gay men in real life (Farley Granger and John Dall). The hints at homosexuality were subtle enough that naïve movie-goers would miss them.

That’s a far cry from today’s movies. One can only imagine the horror Will H. Hays, founder of the Code, would experience if he were sitting in a theater watching two men sucking each other or two women fingering one another. Laura Jane Grace’s declaration of trans power on vinyl would cause him to have an aneurysm. Most likely, he would lead a book burning of The Glass Closet. But he’s dead, so the rest of us can enjoy the stories of LGBT life and experiences without repercussion.

Indeed, there’s so much to choose from that they are commonplace nowadays. We have become more accepting as a society, and our art reflects that. Consequently, the art and work of LGBT artists make our stories more acceptable to formerly closed-minded audiences. Just imagine how much farther we would be in our quest for acceptance if Mr. Hays had just kept his damn mouth shut.

Interior. Leather Bar. (2013)