Same-sex marriage: Which films moved the needle?

Sean Penn stars as gay-rights icon in 'Milk.'
(Phil Bray / Focus Features)

Network television had its share of watershed gay-rights moments over the last several decades — “Roseanne,” “Ellen,” “Will and Grace.” All of these sought to integrate gay relationships into mainstream sitcoms, albeit in a soft-pedal, occasionally cartoonish way. On the cable side, meanwhile, shows such as “Queer as Folk” and “Six Feet Under” were picking up where those series left off.

Mainstream film hasn’t necessarily been more vocal than mainstream sitcoms; in fact, in some ways, it’s been more gun shy. But the American art-house, like pay cable — in some ways even more than pay cable — has been willing to tackle these issues head-on.

“Milk” offered a portrait of gay-rights pioneer Harvey Milk just as Proposition 8 was making its way to voters in California. (In fact, two decades before, “Milk’s” director, Gus Van Sant, was starting to move from the margins with gay-themed stories like “My Own Private Idaho.”)


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“The Hours” had several gay characters. “Kissing Jessica Stein” played with sexual identity for laughs, basically TV’s normalization through comedy. And “Brokeback Mountain” merged a gay love story with a Western, that most iconic and mainstream of American storytelling forms.

But perhaps the greatest film triumph for the gay-rights movement came just a few years ago in “The Kids Are all Right,” a hit film that showed a lesbian couple raising two teenagers. It was a big deal precisely because it wasn’t a big deal. (Incidentally, it should not go unnoticed that many of these movies — including “Brokeback,” “Milk” and “Kids” — were released by Focus Features, which has led the way among studio-owned divisions in foregrounding gay themes.)


The Supreme Court’s ruling Wednesday that struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act paves the way for more mainstream entertainment of this ilk: romantic comedies where gay characters are not just best friends, wedding stories that go beyond just the cold-footed groom and starry-eyed bride. We’ll see what all the filmmakers and celebrities, so vocal Wednesday on Twitter, are willing to tackle. In the meantime, which film most helped get us here? Vote in our poll below.



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