Why shared viewing experiences are vital to queer audiences

Public screenings can be a safe space for LGBT+ people. But the uncertain future many cinemas now face could rob us of that.


Hamish Calvert


Queer cinema is in rude health. This year has seen the general release of, among others, Levan Akin’s And Then We Danced, Hong Khaou’s Monsoon and François Ozon’s Summer of 85, with Harry Macqueen’s Supernova and Francis Lee’s Ammonite still to come. However, much like the rest of everyday life, the ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions are bringing about disruptions to cinemas and subsequently the availability of these titles in a shared public space.

These restrictions, along with the closure of major cinema chain Cineworld (and its subsidiary company Picturehouse), have fuelled an industry-wide debate on the future of cinema, with many speculating that the traditional theatrical distribution model is in serious danger of becoming obsolete. One consequence of films being released on digital streaming platforms is the effect on LGBT+ viewers, for whom the shared viewing experience is of paramount importance.

For those queer individuals who grew up closeted, going to see an explicitly queer film openly in a public space would have been out of the question. Instead, we resorted to watching whatever queer content was available on television, or anything we could get hold of on DVD. For those living with family this viewing always happened in secret, after dark and most likely in the privacy of a bedroom.

By contrast, being able to proudly purchase a ticket for a queer film at the cinema and share the experience with a wide range of people is vitally important and often formative for queer individuals. Gone is the shame of having to hide who you are just to see yourself represented on screen.

Of course, as liberating as watching queer films in a shared space can be, it’s naïve to ignore the potential for discomfort. I’ve met a number of fellow cinemagoers whose viewing experience has been tainted by discriminatory reactions, including instances of audible homophobic comments from other audience members, people making vomit noises, tutting, gasps and walkouts. That queer audiences are still being subjected to such discrimination, albeit indirectly, is a disappointing reality. But this further highlights how vital positive screening experiences are for queer audiences, countering any potentially harmful incidents they may encounter.

The potential closure or so-called “death” of cinema robs queer audiences of these positive experiences; something as simple as watching a film with two queer leads and it feeling like nothing out of the ordinary. This needs to become the norm and taking away the opportunity for public screenings is ultimately detrimental to progress.

Shared cinema experiences can also help queer individuals to explore and even discover their sexuality. Seeing an audience react positively to the queer content on screen can be vital to those still wrestling with their identity. There are many queer people whose stories of coming out centre around film, and while these aren’t always viewed in a cinema, this shared experience is no doubt a contributing factor. The recent teen drama Love, Simon is a common example of a film with this power – a power that is only enhanced in a cinema with an open-minded audience.

So while film fans are right to be concerned about the future of cinema, the loss of these essential experiences for queer viewers should not be overlooked. Queer audiences deserve cheers when the boy gets the boy, or the girl marries the girl. It helps to reaffirm the truth that, despite what many of us have grown up with, our sexuality is normal and deserves to be just as much a part of cinematic narratives as heteronormative ones. These should and need to be enjoyed together.

Published 1 Nov 2020

Tags: LGBTQ+ Queer Cinema

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