Queer Film Representation Through the Ages
Grade Levels: 12TH GRADE
This lesson plan covers queer film representation from the 1920’s to 1970’s, specifically focusing on the impact of the Motion Picture Production Code, otherwise known as the Hays Code. The goal of this lesson is to explain the historical context behind LGBTQ+ stereotypes that still persist today in Western media.
Time: DAY 1 – 60 minutes DAY 2 – 60 minutes
Lesson Plan Resources:
- Learn about the impact of the Production Code on modern LGBTQ stereotypes and discrimination.
- Understand the historical context behind LGBTQ portrayals in film.
- What was the Motion Picture Production Code, otherwise known as the Hays Code?
- How did the guidelines set out in the Hays Code reflect the beliefs about homosexuality embedded in American government and culture from the 1930’s-1970s?
- How did World War II, McCarthyism, the Homophile Movement and the Stonewall Riots affect the portrayal of LGBTQ characters in film?
- Do events in history and portrayals of LGBTQ characters affect how we govern policy or how we treat LGBTQ people?
HSS 12.8: Students evaluate and take and defend positions on the influence of the media on American political life.
CCSS RST 11-12.1: Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on- one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11–12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
CCSS SL 11-12.7: Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
HISTORY FRAMEWORK CH 17 P 449: The Role of Media in American Public Life
The Motion Picture Production Code: The Motion Picture Production Code, otherwise known as the Hays Code, was a set of self-regulating guidelines dictating what was acceptable and unacceptable within United States Motion Pictures from 1934-1968. These regulations were enforced by the Production Code Administration (PCA), headed by Joseph Breen.
Sodomy Laws: Sodomy laws originally derived from church law as a way to prevent nonprocreative sexuality and were primarily used as secondary charges in cases of sexual assault, sex with children, public sex and sex with animals. These laws targeted the LGBTQ+ community through legal justifications for denying gay parents the ability to raise children, firing or denying gay people from jobs and denying gay people equal treatment under the law. By the 1960’s many states began to repeal their sodomy laws and in 2003, the United States Supreme Court ruled that sodomy laws were unconstitutional in the Lawrence v. Texas case.
McCarthyism: Joseph McCarthy, a Republican US Senator from Wisconsin, is known as the symbol of the “Red Scare”. McCarthyism played on White, poorly educated, Republican small business owners nostalgia of the “American Way” of traditional gender roles and sexual orientations. This ignited the “gay purge” of the military and federal government.
The Lavender Scare: The Lavender Scare refers to the mass dismissal of LGBTQ+ employees from the federal government. “Sexual perversion”, or homosexuality, was deemed a security risk to foreign espionage and blackmail. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, thousands of queer folks, or suspected queer folks, were fired from their federal government positions, dismissed from the military, removed from their housing, publicly humiliated and socially ostracized.
The Homophile Movement: The Homophile Movement refers to the local, national and international movement for LGBTQ rights that emerged following World War 2. Prior to the Stonewall Uprising, approximately 60 homophile or gay rights groups existed, including The Mattachine Society, The Daughters of Belitis and ONE Inc. The initial goal of these organizations was to assimilate into straight culture and emulate a “normal” presence by picketing in professional attire as “Annual Reminders”. As younger queer folks joined these activist groups, they slowly shifted to a more radical approach— beginning with notorious Sip-Ins and setting the stage for the Stonewall Uprising.
The Stonewall Uprising: The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village was a safe haven for all queer folk, including transgender people, homeless people, drag queens, sex workers and ostracized members of society. The Stonewall Uprising began around 1:00am on the night of June 27th, 1969, when a routine police raid turned into a days-long riot against discrimination and police brutality. These riots are known today as the turning point for the Gay Liberation Movement.
The teacher should have knowledge about the implementation of the First Amendment, World War 2, The McCarthy Era, The Lavender Scare, The Homophile Movement and The Stonewall Uprising to best teach this lesson.
Introduction (Slides) (5 minutes)
- Introduce “The Celluloid Closet”, a 1996 documentary directed by Rob Epstien and Jeffrey Friedman and written by Vito Russo. The documentary examines Hollywood’s relationship with homosexuality and analyzes depictions of gay and lesbian characters in mainstream American movies.
- Play the first film clip (the clips take a minute to load, so press play while introducing the documentary) (3 minutes)
- Ask students their initial reactions to the clip (1 minute)
The Hays Code (20 minutes)
- Introduce the Hays Code, or Motion Picture Production Code.
- What is the Code?
- This code was a set of self-regulating guidelines dictating the content allowed in United States Motion Pictures from 1934-1968.
- What are the General guidelines?
- No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin.
- Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
- Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
- Freedom of Speech
- Discuss the 1915 Supreme Court Case, Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio that ruled that films did not have freedom of speech
- Facilitate a class discussion about the importance of Freedom of Speech.
- Why did the Code come about?
- The impact of 1915 Supreme Court Case, Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio
- Pressure from religious groups in the 1920’s to censor what can be portrayed in films
- Hollywood scandals resulting in critics of the industry
- What is the Code?
Introduce the historical context of each decade (35 minutes)
- 1920’s: The “Pansy Craze”
- Discuss the impact of the Prohibition on LGBTQ+ culture
- Discuss the 1927 New York legislature’s public obscenity code’s ban on “depicting or dealing with the subject of sex degeneracy or sex perversion”
- 1930’s: The Beginning of the Hays Code
- Discuss the impact of the end of the Prohibition, the onset of the Great Depression and the upcoming World War on LGBTQ+ culture
- Discuss the notion of “subtext” within early Hays Code films (Can you think of examples of films/TV shows or novels that use subtext today?)
- 1940’s: McCarthyism
- Discuss the 1943 ban on homosexuals in the military and psychiatric screening
- Discuss how McCarthyism reinforced traditional gender roles and heterosexuality
- Discuss how McCarthy’s House of Un-American Activities Committee influenced the publics perception of homosexuality
- 1950’s: The Lavender Scare
- Discuss the 1952 Joseph Burstyn Inc. v. Wilson case that granted films First Amendment protections
- Discuss how Eisenhower’s Executive Oder 10450 fueled the gay purge
- Emphasize the impact that this time period had on perceptions of LGBTQ folks
- Discuss the increased sense of community among LGBTQ folks and the start of the Homophile Movement
- The Mattachine Society
- The Daughters of Bilitis
- 1960’s: The Gay Liberation Movement
- Discuss the rise of the New Left and the shift in activist tactics from assimilationist to radical
- Discuss sodomy laws and the first removal of such laws in 1961 (by 2003 The United States Supreme Court ruled that these laws were unconstitutional)
- Discuss the effect of the repeal of the Hays Code and the Stone Wall Uprising on queer films and perceptions of the LGBTQ community
- 1970’s: The Post-Stonewall Era
- Discuss the rise first commemorations of the Stonewall Uprising
- Discuss the removal of homosexuality from the DSM (and how it exemplifies assimilationist approaches– being gay is no longer considered a mental illness but being transgender is)
- Introduce the first queer elected public officials (Kathy Kozachenko and Harvey Milk— touch on his assassination and impact on LGTBQ+ rights)
- Discuss Hollywood’s discovery of the LGBTQ+ community as a profitable consumer market (How does Hollywood continue to appease both the LGBTQ community and their wider audience base? Ex: “The Bury Your Gays” Trope)
Distribute the handout for homework and explain the assignment. Ensure that students know what group they are in and have access to the film clips.
Introduction (5 minutes)
Explain the requirements for the class discussion and state your expectations.
Class Group Discussions (45 minutes)
Allow 5-10 minutes for each group to facilitate their discussion with the class.
Essential Questions Discussion (10 minutes)
Put the essential questions on the board and allow students to answer and discuss the questions.
Barnes, Rebecca. “Daughters of Bilitis.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica,
Bays, Rachel. “The Complicated History of Queer Representation in Film: The Advance.” Titan,
13 Nov. 2019, advancetitan.com/opinion/2019/11/13/the-complicated-history-of-queer-representation-in-film.
“LGBTQ+ Studies: A Resource Guide: Before Stonewall: The Homophile Movement.” Research
Pruitt, Sarah. “How Gay Culture Blossomed During the Roaring Twenties.” History.com, 10 June
Skelton, Chris. “Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Comm’n of Ohio, 236 U.S. 230 (1915).” Justia
“Why Sodomy Laws Matter.” American Civil Liberties Union,
“Will H. Hays.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 3 Mar. 2021,
Amanda Hurwitz is an Education Intern at Our Family Coalition and a recent graduate of American University with a BA in International Relations and a minor in Women’s, Gender and Sexualities Studies.