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You know those movies where the main character is obsessed with romantic-comedies, and it’s given them an unrealistic view of love and relationships? Welcome to my life. For as long as I can remember, rom-coms have been a source of comfort. I even tried my hand at writing one. But for all the love I have for the genre, I'm still waiting for a love story that speaks to my own experience as a gay man. Yup—still waiting, in 2020. Hollywood is long overdue for a big-budget, splashy gay romantic comedy.
My obsession with the romance genre started with an early fairy tale fixation. Around age five, the same time most kids glom onto Disney, I got hooked on Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theater (shoutout to my fellow FTT fans!). Every trip to the video store (RIP Blockbuster) resulted in me renting another one of the theater company's live-action story adaptations of classic tales.
By the time I reached the age when most kids outgrow fairy tales (truth time: I never really did), I moved onto 1999's trifecta of high school rom-coms. Drive Me Crazy, Never Been Kissed, 10 Things I Hate About You...it was a good time to be a young romantic, even if that meant I had to see myself through the eyes of Drew Barrymore. It wasn't until I was 16 that I finally discovered two rom-coms that helped me realize my own gay identity.
First was the British film Get Real, and then there was the conversion therapy comedy But I’m a Cheerleader. Both involve teens coming to terms with their same-sex attraction in ways that I found relatable. Get Real plays off of every queer high school fantasy (or maybe even every high school fantasy) where a boy who feels like an outsider suddenly gets attention from one of the popular kids. That desire to be seen weighed heavily on me at the time when I was starting to figure out who I was.
Cheerleader is about a girl who initially tries to resist her homosexual urges after falling for a girl at conversion camp. Although I thankfully eventually came out to an accepting family and social circle, I knew the feeling of wanting to be "normal" all too well.
I stumbled across both of these movies after spending most of my Friday night perusing the aisles of the video store. These gems were hidden way in the back, somewhere among all those National Lampoon's comedies and other direct-to-video releases. Fast forward two decades, and most LGBTQ romantic comedies are still hidden—except instead of being relegated to the back of a video shelf, they're buried deep in the archives of digital streaming services—without homepage promos or major marketing efforts behind them.
I'm constantly perplexed. With all of the progress the gay community has (finally!) made, we still don't have a major big budget gay rom-com to call our own. As a man who's spent years navigating the queer dating scene in New York City, it's very easy to lose hope that true love is in the cards—or that it exists at all.
It's hard to find that spark in a seemingly endless cycle of swipe matches and casual coffee or cocktail dates. That's why romantic comedies are more important than ever, because they keep romance alive. They inspire you to hold out hope for someone worthy of a grand romantic gesture (though slightly less creepy than standing outside their window with a boombox). Seeing those scenarios play out exclusively in heterosexual relationships can make a gay person question whether they're worthy of that kind of earth-shattering Say Anything-style love. Where's our John Hughes movie?
To get to the bottom of that, first, we need to understand where we started in Hollywood.
From 1930 to 1968, the depiction of homosexuality was banned from films under the Hays Code—a set of moral guidelines that all major studies had to follow. If a movie did include a queer character, it was mostly just alluded to. In the late '60s and early '70s, we finally started to see a little more representation...but not exactly in the way many of us would’ve liked.
The 1970s film adaptation of the off-Broadway play Boys in the Band is considered one of the first mainstream Hollywood movies to target a gay audience by depicting the gay male experience. While certainly a benchmark in gay cinema, it was widely criticized for reinforcing the idea that we’re all bitter, lonely people who rely on bitchy clapbacks as a defense mechanism.
Hollywood’s attempt to address the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s only furthered these depictions of LGTBQ people as tragic figures—take Longtime Companion and Philadelphia, for example. Later, the ‘90s and '00s introduced audiences to the concept of the GBF (gay best friend). Just look at how Mean Girls relies on the trope of the gay man as the wise-cracking voice of reason, always second to female pals prone to bad decision-making.
Sure, it's nice to have some representation, but the GBF doesn't lend itself to character development or fleshed out storylines. Even in The Birdcage, the beloved gay characters drove most of the jokes home, and the story involved one guy pretending to be a woman and another having to "butch" it up for their heterosexual house guests.
Don’t get me wrong: I have a sense of humor, and I love The Birdcage. But that movie was released over 20 years ago, and the film often felt like it was mocking the queerness of the gay characters, rather than attempting to normalize them. We needed films that treated homosexuality as a matter of fact rather than a comedic aside.
After discovering the existence of Get Real and But I’m a Cheerleader, I learned there was a whole universe of gay films that weren’t getting wide releases at the big multiplexes. I spent my closeted years exploring this hidden treasure trove of gay entertainment with movies like Trick and The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green.
They exposed me to a world that (at the time) I longed to be a part of, although I wasn’t quite ready to admit that to anyone else. In this story, there wasn't just a token gay in the group. In fact, Tori Spelling played a token straight. (You guys should really see Trick!) These people weren't figuring out who they were. They knew who they were, and lived their best (sometimes) gay lives in ways that gave me hope that my own prince or manic pixie dream boy would someday come along. It eased the idea of coming out seeing that life doesn't necessarily come crashing down around you; sometimes it offers you a whole new beginning.
When I graduated college and finally found the courage to come out to my friends and family, I started to explore the community around me with an arsenal of low-budget gay rom-com knowledge to guide me. I’m probably a bit biased, since these were my gay formative years, but the 00’s was a prime decade for those kinds of films. We got the Eating Out series, Latter Days, Another Gay Movie, and many more guilty pleasures.
The rise of streaming services has made movies like these accessible. But the more of them you watch, the same thoughts cross your mind: They have so much heart, and the stories are there. But too often, the execution is lacking. You're left imagining how much better some of them would be with a higher production budget and a little more star power. Those issues add an extra camp factor to the films, which is a problem itself. We've had enough camp. And we're bigger than just a sub-category on Netflix.
I mean no disrespect to the movies that have kept me entertained for years, or the people who made them. But as a culture, I strongly believe it's time we take Hollywood to task for not shelling out the money to properly produce or market gay love stories. By not investing in them, it's sending the message that the gay community is not worth investing in. In the day of remakes and reboots, we could use a Sleepless in Seattle with a modern gay twist. I mean, you can't tell me Andrew Rannells or Todrick Hall wouldn't make for amazing rom-com leads!
We're slowly getting there, however. 18 years after Greg Berlanti wrote and directed the severely under-appreciated The Broken Hearts Club, he directed 2018's groundbreaking Love, Simon based on Becky Albertalli's novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. It's a funny and romantic coming out story that everyone should see—but I'm still holding out for something with an adult protagonist.
We had I Love You Phillip Morris, but the main character also happened to be a sociopath. 2018's Ideal Home, starring my number one, Paul Rudd, and Steve Coogan as a couple, was one of the more recent movies to deliver that. But—who actually saw it? It flew completely under the radar. A film with two fairly big names in it barely got any promotion. Hollywood, if you need more ideas on movies that would draw in audiences, here's one taken right from my own life: Two guys meet on a cosplay-themed dinner cruise set during Pride Weekend and fall madly in love. Paul Rudd can play me. You're welcome.
In more hopeful news, Billy Eichner and Judd Apatow recently announced plans for a film that's shaping up to deliver the type of sparkly rom-com so many people like me have been waiting for. Specific details are scarce, but it involves two commitment-phobic men attempting to start a relationship.
Finally, a buzzy project with gay couples on-screen who are more than just tragic figures haunted by our differentness (hello, Brokeback Mountain). It's time for movies to be greenlit by major studios showing us in every shape, color, gender, ethnicity, and type of relationship—especially in the throes of the kind of ebullient love that gives gay people hope.
And who knows? Maybe one day, Disney will even give us a gay prince.
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