Gay men have always been a part of comedy, even if at their own expense — prissy sissies, snide queens, and swishy creatives. Portraying male homosexuality on screen as appealing or relatable has been a small part of the long history of film, but only in the last three decades have gay creatives been the ones opening the doors for those ideas. With the release of two gay romantic comedy films last year (Bros and Fire Island), the industry may finally have come out of the closet.
This moment really begins in the 1990s, when mainstream comedy not only included but considered gay men. Called the “golden era” of queer cinema, the swell of gay stories wasn’t just limited to art-house or indie circles, either, as bigger-budget studio projects were greenlit for wide release in order to capitalize on what studios saw as a potential market.
In a newly post-AIDS-crisis America, these mainstream comedies not only let gay men exist joyfully on screen, but also humanized them to straight audiences. The prominent example is The Birdcage, which adapted La Cage aux Folles for American audiences. The 1996 film stars Robin Williams and Nathan Lane (who was closeted at the time) as two gay club owners out to convince their son’s new in-laws that they are in fact a Straight Conservative Family. What was revolutionary at the time was showing that two gay men as not just partners, but as caring parents as well. GLAAD even awarded the film for “going beyond stereotypes to see the characters’ depth and humanity.”
Around the same time, audiences saw To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, as well as In & Out. Wong Foo came out shortly after another drag film (Australian road trip comedy The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) and made a cute if not formulaic story out of drag queens who have to stop in a small backwater village and improve the place over a weekend. Similarly, In & Out elevated the familiarity of small-town life to new heights with a mild-mannered teacher being “falsely” outed at the Oscars several days before his wedding, only to realize he is in fact gay. Interestingly enough, both movies were inspired by real cultural ephemera: an anti-gay propaganda film, as well as Tom Hanks’ awkward Oscar speech for Philadelphia (1993).
All three of these films at the time were highly praised despite being fairly subversive, using comedy to expose different lifestyles to a straight America. The familiar nature of the plots and characters eased audiences into seeing gay men as experiencing the same relatable foibles as everyone else. The trade-off to including homosexuality was that they had to play pretty safe otherwise. While In & Out had a rare kiss between two men, these films didn’t show much sexual or physical intimacy in male characters. Homophobia is similarly toned down, and also played for uneasy laughs.
Media and culture have moved forward since the ’90s, but gay men didn’t seem to earn much more momentum. Comedy films in the 2000s and 2010s largely turned them into schticky sidekicks, and relegated more nuanced fare to smaller budgets and being categorized as the “LGBT” genre. This is what made 2022 such a banner year; Bros and Fire Island are not just fun rom-coms, but also make gay men a normal part of these genres without being seen as niche.
Bros is an Apatow-esque approach to the pitfalls of dating in New York City as a 40-year-old gay man (Billy Eichner) with commitment issues. While it is yet another Austen adaptation, Fire Island uses Pride and Prejudice’s politics and drama as a starting point for its funny and thoughtful working-class gays-of-color characters (including Joel Kim Booster) by setting it on, you guessed it, the popular gay summer vacation destination.
There’s a sense that a weight is taken off both of these film’s shoulders; what had to be softened and hidden to make queer forebears palatable to studios can now be shown in full. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be for everyone, but it does create an opportunity for the story to be more earnest despite being marketed to a mainstream audience.
Times have changed — the 12-second kiss in In & Out being considered notable at the time would be antiquated for romantic comedies now. Even between gay men, it would be weird for films to shy away from the particular mechanics of intimacy — physical or otherwise. Men’s bodies and physical interactions of both a sweet and sensual nature are on full display here. But by not having to play to heteronormative conventions, gay men can earnestly express what love and sex look like to them, underneath the jokes. There are undercurrents of joy, but also anxiety about things like commitment and masculinity.
This also allows the comedy to be couched in specific cultural frictions while gesturing at relatable interpersonal struggles. Jokes about hookup apps, gym culture, and affluent white gays are abundant, and the tension around addressing systemic issues like racism is used for laughs. It speaks to the quality of the comedy that it can translate the specific into something more universal; even if you have never specifically looked for a friend in a dark backroom orgy, we have all been in that type of situation.
Both eras of films have overlap due to the flaws of comedic writing; what starts off sharp can become mean, and being looked down upon by society doesn’t prevent you from doing the same to someone else. There are jokes in Wong Foo and The Birdcage that play around with homophobic and racist language to make a point, only to use racial and ethnic stereotypes in their humor that do not. Bros dabbles in the same smarmy disdain for millennial and zoomer politics in a lot of visibly progressive media these days, despite being deeply aware of how much gay men have dealt with similar scoffing. This is the cyclical and imperfect nature of progress; few things age well.
Beyond what the films are doing in terms of inclusion on the page, it feels notable to mention that both are productions with queer people above the line. Both have scripts penned (or co-written) by their out gay stars, have casts dominated by queer actors, and in the case of Fire Island, is directed by Andrew Ahn, whose previous films, like Spa Night, explore homosexuality. This is not an insignificant change in Hollywood, which has historically made gay men write for mainstream straight audiences while simultaneously keeping many gay men in the closet for fear of losing their careers.
While 2023 might not be serving up as many laughs in the theater as last year, there’s a few films from 2022 that might fit the bill if you’re looking to keep your streaming queue full, like My Fake Boyfriend or Spoiler Alert. It seems like romantic comedies for adult gay men are still few and far between, relative to the already excellent coming-of-age and dramatic genres. As more projects become greenlit, there’s additional chances for the genre niche to catch on with audiences.
Representation has always had stumbling blocks, and in the past, much of the inclusion of male homosexuality was a choice between negativity or invisibility. This is why even sanitized attempts have been so useful. When an industry has historically made gay romance end in yearning or death, there’s a relief in the indulgent escapism of happy endings. When an industry has sidelined you as a sassy cliche, being able to take the center stage is powerful. We may have taken too long to get the joke, but gay men have always found ways to make audiences laugh with them, instead of at them.