How Awards Season Movies Break Out of the Celluloid Closet With More Stories About LGBTQ+ Characters

When non-binary actor August Winter read Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking,” they were really excited about the prospect of playing the transgender character Melvin, who finds his identity in a specific, unfamiliar environment — in this case, amid a Mennonite community fighting toxic masculinity. Like most characters in the film, Melvin was a survivor of sexual assault, and Winter responded to the integrity in which Polley navigated his trauma.

“His [gender] identity was always a part of him,” they explain. “Especially because he doesn’t speak for much of the film, it was important to me to capture that feeling of somebody finding who they are through an event, not because of it.”

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To understand Melvin, Winter pondered the meaning of knowing one’s identity but not being ready to be out yet. “I have never had the experience of choosing not to speak, but I’ve been through periods where I was not ready to talk about my identity,” they say. “[I thought of it] like chrysalis and butterfly. In this particular context, Melvin has to figure out what it means to be a man in a new way because [the old way] is tied up in violence. He has this opportunity to choose.”

They continue, “What I immediately look for [in a script] is, ‘Is this person a human being?’ I see a lot more roles for trans and non-binary folks, and that’s awesome. [But I want] the industry to just normalize that we are a part of every single story.”

The intricacy of the human experience that Winter looks for in stories was ingrained in numerous richly layered features in the past year, ones that were either led by or prominently featuring complex LGBTQ+ characters.

“I wanted to tell a story where the fact that the [lead] character was a lesbian was simply a given,” says Todd Field, the writer-director “Tár,” in which Cate Blanchett portrays Lydia Tár, a celebrated yet deeply problematic maestro who falls from grace. “Realistically, having a lesbian character in this position is a fairy tale. A woman, gay or straight, has never been the principal conductor of a major German orchestra.”

But in his narrative world, Field just wanted to imagine a reality where that was just how things were. He wanted his gay female protagonist to operate within the same parameters as those of the patriarchy that came before her.

“We all wrestle with the question of why humans are addicted to hierarchical structures,” he says. “It’s the age-old question about power: who has it, feeds it and benefits [from it]. From the beginning of time, those individuals have been male and we’re attenuated to how we’re supposed to feel about that. So by inverting this reality and having Lydia Tár hold this kind of power, the viewer may possibly see things through a slightly different lens when examining the character’s actions, without being burdened by an almost impossible-to-avoid knee-jerk bias.”

Elsewhere, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” writer-director duo Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert wanted to tell a story of generational struggle. “We knew from experience how hard it is for our parents’ generation to fully accept queerness,” they say. “Our writing process was very experimental as we searched for a story that would allow us to explore this tension.”

With each draft, the collaborators came closer to something that felt truthful and specific to how Asian American immigrant parents non-confrontationally deal with conflict, and how that process could often painfully erase their children’s identities. Throughout, they landed on more homophobic versions of Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), and more closeted iterations of her openly gay daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), but mitigated those instincts. Meanwhile they approached Joy’s alter ego Jobu as Evelyn’s nightmare: “The worst-case scenario for her daughter. We do not envy our parents for having to carry the burden of telling their co-workers that their sons made the ‘Harry Potter farting corpse movie’ or that ‘Alabama horse bestiality movie.’ And yet, these films were expressions of the most vulnerable and strange parts of our subconscious that were incredibly healing for us. And so Jobu is an expression of everything Joy has been actively suppressing.”

Eventually, they acknowledged their own blind spots and invited queer and Asian American communities to chime in on the nuances of their story about good intentions falling short in the chaos of modern life. “We invited Stephanie and Michelle into the conversation as early as possible, so they could breathe life into our words. Stephanie’s perspective on being a daughter, growing up in SoCal, queerness and mental health were invaluable.”

Michael Showalter, director of “Spoiler Alert” — which joins “Bros” and “Fire Island” in the year’s heartening slate of queer rom-coms — has always been interested in stories about people that are a little bit “off to the side,” with protagonists including Kumail Nanjiani in “The Big Sick” and Tammy Faye Bakker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”

“I’m interested in people that don’t quite fit in,” he says. “But I think what I’m interested in is showing [that] these different characters are all [still] the same like everyone.”

Showalter was drawn to directing “Spoiler Alert” — an adaptation of Michael Ausiello’s memoir that focuses on him and his partner, Kit — partly because it wasn’t a story about a straight couple. “I don’t know that I would have wanted to tell this story if this was a heterosexual couple. What I love about the movie is that it assumes the audience has no issue with them being gay.”

In that regard, Showalter and the screenwriters were not trying to be didactic or educational. “It’s literally just: these are two people and I don’t [even] want to say ‘who happened to be gay’ because it’s more than that. We are assuming that our audience doesn’t need any help getting on board with that. We can just get past that part and get into [their] love story.”

With “Inspection,” writer-director Elegance Bratton wanted to revisit his memories of joining the Marine Corps at a critical time in his life. “It was after being homeless around the East Coast. Being kicked out of my house for being gay, the reality of being a young Black man without an education or a stable place to live, I felt worthless. I truly believed that I was headed to an early grave. But [the Marine Corps] were heroes to somebody and that’s all I had to get out of my life.”

Ultimately, it was a drill instructor who told Bratton that his life was meaningful and valuable. So Bratton poured all of that experience into his movie at a trying political time across the globe. “We need to learn again how to listen across our differences. And the place I learned that was the Marine Corps.”

In writing Jeremy Pope’s character Ellis French, a stand-in for himself, Bratton mirrored the spirit of his truth even though he fictionalized certain events. “The movie is 100% autobiographical in terms of the primary motivations of the character. Everything between French and his mother is out of my life. But I mixed and remixed things. It’s more about the essence of emotional truth than the recollection and chronology of specific events.”

When it comes to the depiction of masculinity in his film, “There’s this great quote in ‘Paris Is Burning’: ‘Being a Black gay man is the greatest social behavioral experiment of all time,’” he says. “We don’t get to be the heroes of our stories very often. So the intention [is] seeing the world through the eyes of [a] Black gay man: very arthouse, very handheld.”

One of the writers of “Causeway,” Elizabeth Sanders, has been researching characters such as the injured veteran Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence) since 2012. It was around the time when IEDs had changed the landscape of war and redefined the meaning of being on the frontline. “Women couldn’t even serve in combat roles until 2013 and yet they were coming home with [traumatic brain injuries]. I was really fascinated with these female soldiers and how hard it was for them to reenter civilian life as they were coming home with vision problems, memory problems and psychological issues.”

Sanders considered Lynsey as someone with cumulative trauma, being isolated and alone for most her life while coming to terms with both her family dynamics and her sexuality. “The explosion is what brings it all to a head. All of a sudden she had to deal with her past, her life. I wanted to explore the life of a gay woman moving through the world without her armor on.”

She also imagined a backstory for Lynsey — that she was in love with a female soldier who died in the same explosion — one that she shared with Lawrence. It was important to Sanders and her co-writers that the audience would learn about Lynsey’s sexual identity in a casual way.

“She isn’t coming out or wrestling with it. It’s just who she is. And it immediately changes the nature of the potential for what is shared between her and Aucoin [Brian Tyree Henry]. At the end of the day, it’s empathy and connection that moves us through grief and heals our trauma.”

Meanwhile, “The Whale” came from various personal touchpoints for writer Sam Hunter, being a story set in an unidentified Idaho town where he grew up in the 1990s as an isolated gay kid. Hunter adapted the screenplay for his stage play.

“I went to a fundamental Christian school that I eventually had to leave when it was discovered that I was gay. I fell into depression for many years and self-medicated with food for a really long time,” he says.

Still, Hunter considered himself lucky having the love of his family and his then-boyfriend, now husband. So with Brendan Fraser’s Charlie, he wanted to tell the story of someone who didn’t have the same good fortune. “I frequently write gay characters in my plays and the majority are set in Idaho. From early on, I was really interested in telling stories of gay people who didn’t leave these rural communities. We see so many great stories of gay urban life, but I think there’s a real dearth of non-urban LGBTQ characters. They have very fascinating and complex lives,” he says.

As a screenwriter and playwright, Hunter values seeing three-dimensional human beings in a story through which the writer disappears.

“I [don’t want to] think about the pen that wrote it. I write characters who are gay a lot of the time. But it’s not a genre. I’m not making any decisions [based on] what their demographic is. He’s a human being who is also gay. And real human beings are incredibly complicated. We’re all a mess of things. That’s something that shows up so beautifully in Brendan’s performance: joy and despair live right next to one another, as well as love and anger.”

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