When In & Out arrived in theaters twenty years ago, the state of LGBTQ+ representation in cinema was only starting to take shape in the form we know it today. Frank Oz‘s 1997 comedy starred Kevin Kline as a high school teacher whose life turns upside down when a former student outs him during his Oscar acceptance speech. There’s just one problem: Kline’s character has no idea he’s gay. What follows next is largely a fish out of water comedy with broad, inoffensive undertones of inclusion that also manages to miss almost every aspect of what it means to be an LGBT person beyond the spectrum of amusing a traditional audience. It’s stereotypical and reductive, but it is also very much a product of its times and a fascinating moment in the history of queer representation to ruminate on two decades later.
Rebounding from the cultural conservatism of the 80s and reacting to the burgeoning acceptance of gay lifestyles, the Hollywood studio system dipped a toe in the realm of queer diversity with a series of films centered around innocuous gay leads. Even if these films have aged poorly in a number of regards, they were groundbreaking at the time and in order to fully appreciate their impact and shortcomings, it’s interesting to look at them in the light of how the matter of homosexuality in film was handled up to that point.
In the earliest days of Hollywood, films were generally less stringent about depictions of same-sex affection — just take a look at the famous kiss between two World War I soldiers in the very first Best Picture winner, the 1927 drama Wings. That’s not to say homosexuality was openly welcomed on film, but the stigma toward on-screen affection between two members of the same gender was less stigmatized than depictions of men and women who acted without the confines of their gender roles.
Following the great depression, studios turned up the sex and scandal factor to sell more tickets, including salacious (for the time) portrayals of homosexuality — a decision that pissed off a whole lot of religious groups, who boycotted the morally bankrupt institution of Hollywood and their scandalous, sinful films. The blowback from religious groups led to the ideation and institution of the Production Code in 1934; a means by which studio films were subject to the rules and standards of religious groups.
See, in 1915 the Supreme court ruled that free speech did not apply to motion pictures, which they considered a business, and while the Production Code was never law, it was effectively an arrangement that saw studios self-censor to follow the word of a Catholic-based code of conduct. The point of the Production Code was to enforce traditional values, so along with things you’d expect like nudity, there were a bounty of other restrictions like ridicule of the clergy, interracial marriage, and of course, homosexuality. Queer narratives were famously erased from a number of film adaptations during this era, including The Children’s Hour and The Maltese Falcon, and if LGBT heroes were written out of the action, homosexual characters were almost universally portrayed as villains, and they pretty much always died.
The first progress toward better representation came after the Supreme Court overruled that decision in 1952, giving films the right to free speech. After that, the Production Code was torn down in favor of the MPAA as studios realized they could get away with more and make more money in the process. Of course, the portrayals of homosexuality didn’t immediately right ship and new, harmful tropes evolved with the new freedoms, most notably the dejected, often suicidal queer whose entire existence was based in self-loathing.