Find your tribe: why family is a hot topic in queer cinema

Is the traditional family unit an ideal to aspire to or something to get away from as quickly as you can? Here’s how LGBTQ+ stories on screen have tackled the theme.

• Explore the BFI Flare programme

Alex Davidson
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Terence Stamp as the mysterious family guest in Pasolini’s Theorem (1968)

Terence Stamp as the mysterious family guest in Pasolini’s Theorem (1968)

The theme of family is front and centre at this year’s BFI Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival. The Festival features the world premiere of Jason Barker’s A Deal with the Universe, which follows the journey Barker and his partner Tracey took to conceive, while the sweet, poignant Close-Knit explores the relationship between a girl and her brother’s partner, a trans woman with a deep desire for motherhood.

Good Manners, a jaw-dropping Brazilian tale of the relationship between a maid and her pregnant employer, is one-of-a-kind filmmaking with a wrenching narrative turn at the halfway point (try to avoid reviews that may give away the surprise), and shorts programme Trans Family Matters features films from the UK, Belgium, the US, Canada and Mexico.

A Deal with the Universe (2018)

A Deal with the Universe (2018)

The whole concept of family is one that has been interrogated by queer people for decades. Is the traditional family an archaic, heteronormative construct deserving of rejection, or an ideal unit to which one may aspire?

Much homophobia derives from the assumption that queer people cannot form traditional families (ie a heterosexual couple with children). Many LGBTQ+ people have been rejected by their families, and understandably are wary of any idealisation of a traditional model to which they feel they do not belong. The notion of family has been explored many times in queer cinema, in favourable and critical ways.

The majority of LGBTQ+ films about families focus on how relatives react when one of their number comes out as queer, be it a son (Beautiful Thing, 1996), a daughter (Pariah, 2011), a mother (Carol, 2015) or a father (Beginners, 2010). Too often, the queer characters are defined by how others relate to them. Frequently, they are seen as a threat to the traditional family. In Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Theorem (1968), the mysterious visitor (Terence Stamp) seduces all four members – mother, father, daughter, son, and even the maid – of the family and then vanishes from their lives. The family is destroyed, bourgeois morals are upended, and, for better or worse, each family member is changed forever.

Pariah (2011)

Pariah (2011)

Heavenly Creatures (1994), based on a true story, features two girls who vow to kill one of their mothers. David Hoyle’s provocative Uncle David (a sequel is showing at this year’s Festival) explores the relationship between a gay man and his nephew, in a story that has polarised audiences. Queer characters, even those created by LGBTQ+ directors, are often bad news for existing families.

But often a far more positive depiction emerges. La Cage aux folles (1978), later remade into The Birdcage (1996), still the most financially successful gay-themed film of all time, is often dismissed as a fun, campy slice of frivolity. But the film is surprisingly moving and thoughtful – when the son expresses embarrassment at the notion of introducing his fiancée’s parents to his gay dad and his drag queen partner, the film is very much on the older men’s side, and he is scolded for his homophobia.

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

The Kids Are All Right (2010) offered a provocative angle to the drama, as the relationship between two women, who have raised children together, is threatened when one of them has an affair with a man. Fortunately their deep love is enough to keep them together.

Gayby Baby (2015), one of the most interesting LGBTQ+ documentaries of recent years, followed four Australian gay couples with children. It’s a fascinating, moving and often very funny doc, in which it never feels like the kids are being exploited. Often the children seem more mature and sympathetic than the parents. One boy constantly questions the beliefs of his birth mother, who is a member of a homophobic church, while another has two dads and would rather not reveal that his parents are gay, adding another layer of stress to his life. Director Maya Newell summed it up nicely in an interview: “These kids get it. We just need the rest of the world to catch on.”

Gayby Baby (2015)

Gayby Baby (2015)

Other films focus on a broader, more inclusive interpretation of ‘family’. In one of the more emotional episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the drag queen, moved by the story of a performer with a harrowing family backstory, assured, “as gay people we get to choose our family”, referring to the support networks that queer people may form when they leave the family home.

The trans women in Tangerine (2015), although they often fight with and even betray each other, ultimately are united by a bond as strong as a family by the film’s end. I Am Michael (2015), about a gay man who becomes an anti-gay Christian who marries a woman, shows that he was at his happiest when in a supportive quasi-familial union with two other men. As seen in the landmark documentary Paris is Burning (1990), the LGBTQ+ people who take part in the drag balls belong to ‘houses’, mutually supportive groups where people share the same drag surname, an empowering and very queer take on the idea of family.

LGBTQ+ cinema at its very best often shows the representation of these queer, non-traditional families.

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