LGBT+ History Month, "Behind the Lens"
LGBT+ History Month 2023 has begun with a theme celebrating LGBT+ people “Behind the Lens” who have contributed to cinema; honouring directors, animators, costume designers, make-up artists, musicians and beyond. We’ve highlighted just a few of our favourite people within this field.
The selection that follows is by no means comprehensive of the great talents who have contributed to the cinema and art industry. Nevertheless, below are 8 excellent and essential queer artists and game-changers.
Dorothy Arzner (January 3, 1897 – October 1, 1979)
Dorothy Arzner was the only female director that had a successful career during the late 1920’s to mid-1940’s. The first woman admitted into the directors Guild of America and the first woman to direct a sound film, this was a great achievement as a female working in a male dominated field. She showed that the conventions of Hollywood can be critiqued and subversive.
She never hid her sexual orientation, nor her identity; her clothing was unconventional, “tomboyish” for a woman of that time, she wore suits or straight dresses. Arzner had a forty-year relationship with Marion Morgan, a dancer and choreographer who was sixteen years older than Arzner.
At the beginning of 1920, she was recalled to Paramount to edit the Rudolph Valentino movie “Blood and Sand”. This was her first opportunity to direct some scenes. She shot some of the bull-fighting scenes and edited the footage, intercutting it with stock footage, a bold decision that saved Paramount thousands of dollars.
Her first picture as a director happened in 1927. The story was based on a comedy play, “The Best Dressed Woman in Paris”, which would later be titled “Fashions for Women”. A characteristic of Arzer’s style is that she portrays a very unusual kind of romance: a college student who is attracted to one of her teachers (“The Wild Party”), a love triangle (“Honor among lovers”), an illicit love among the English aristocracy and another woman (“Christopher Strong”).
In 1943 she retired from Hollywood, likely due to systemic sexism and homophobia after the implementation of the Hays Code (the industry guidelines which banned certain themes or topics from being shown through film, including queerness). In the late fifties, she became the entertainment and publicity consultant at the Pepsi company, where she met the boss's wife, Joan Crawford, with whom Arzner had a close relationship. Arzner made a series of successful commercials for Pepsi, most of them with Crawford.
Kevyn Aucoin (February 14, 1962 – May 7, 2002)
Kevyn Aucoin was an American make-up artist, photographer and author. He is better known for his sculpted look, which was extremely popular between pop stars like Whitney Huston, Madonna Cher and top models like Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell etc. in the 90’s. His contouring technique was quite unknown for the time, but used in drag culture for decades prior.
In his young age he was quite bullied and abused at school, but that did not stop his passion for cosmetics. He decided to move to New York where he started doing free makeup tests on models, allowing his name and skills to circulate in the industry. He was contacted by Vogue and started to work daily with the photographer Steven Meisel.
In 1986 his work was on the cover page of Vogue with a picture of an emerging Cindy Crawford. His career exploded and he became one of the highest paid makeup artists (his session could cost $6000). He collaborated as creative director with Revlon and launched The New Nakeds line. This line was revolutionary, using yellow undertone foundations instead of pink and peach, brown based and natural tones for eyeshadows, blushes and lipstick.
In 2000 he married Jeremy Antunes in an unofficial ceremony in Hawaii (same sex marriage was not legally recognized at the time). Director Tiffany Bartok in her 2017 docu-movie Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story, focused on the rise of Aucoin's career as well as his activism in the LGBTQ+ community.
Cheryl Dunye (born May 13, 1966)
Cheryl Dunye is a director, screenwriter and film producer. Her work is focused on topics such as race, sexuality and gender, particularly related to Black lesbians.
She is well known for her 1996 movie “The watermelon woman”. The faux documentary follows a fictional version of Dunye dealing with a new relationship and her obsession for “The watermelon woman”, a Black actress forgotten by history. This movie earned a place in cinematic history as the first feature narrative movie written and directed by a Black lesbian about Black lesbians. One of the main topics within the movie is to portray how Black queer women were (and still are) excluded by Hollywood.
She also directed TV shows such as, “Dear White People”, “The Umbrella Academy” and “Y: the last man”. Dunye also created her own production company, Jingletown FIlms, in Oakland with the goal to provide a platform for Queer and/or People of Colour storytellers and filmmakers to give them the space where their voices will be heard.
Janet Mock - (born March 10, 1983)
Janet Mock is an American writer, director, producer and transgender rights activist. Assigned male at birth, Janet Mock began her transition during high school and funded her medical transition by earning money as a sex worker in her teens.
She worked as staff editor for People for five years and then in 2011, when she came out publicly as a trans woman, her career in journalism shifted to media advocate.
Mock is also a contributing editor at MarieClaire, where her articles highlight racial representation in film and television as well as trans women’s presence in the beauty industry.
Mock also worked as writer, director and producer for the Tv show “Pose”, and is the first trans woman of colour hired as a writer for a Tv series. She received the Primetime Emmy award in 2019 for her work. Pose is set in 1987 and it follows the lives of five trans women in the New York ballroom scene. The series features transgender women playing trans roles (something rarely seen in the industry), portraying queer subculture.
Adrian (March 3, 1903 – September 13, 1959)
Adrian Adolph Greenburg, better known as Adrian, was an American costume designer. He predominantly worked for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer between 1928 and 1941. He worked with the biggest female actresses of his time: Katherine Hepburn, Hedy Lamarr, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford mention just a few names.
Adrian was a trend setter; he designed outfits with shoulder pads to empathise Crawford’s shoulders, leading to a big trend in fashion. His best known film is The wizard of Oz, for which he designed the red-sequined ruby shoes worn by Judy Garland.
He was usually credited on screen as “Gowns by Adrian”, because he did not create traditional costumes, he made high fashion evening gowns.
In 1942 Adrian established his own fashion brand in Beverly Hills. His fashion creations filled up the gap left by Paris couture that could not export during the German occupation.
Although Adrian was openly gay amongst friends, he was in a lavender marriage with Janet Gaynor, who was rumoured to be gay or bisexual. This arrangement protected both of them from the homophobic attitudes of Hollywood movie producers and press.
Frieda Belifante (May 10, 1904 – March 5, 1995)
Frieda Belifante was a Dutch cellist, philharmonic conductor and a member of the Dutch resistance during World War II. She was the first woman in Europe to be an artistic director and conductor of an ongoing professional orchestral ensemble from 1937 to 1941.
She was in a long-term relationship with the pianist Henriette Bosmans, when she met the man who would become her husband. He pursued her until his behaviour escalated and he brought a gun to her home threatening to shoot himself if she didn’t marry him. Sadly, she married him, but the marriage did not last long (thankfully).
During the Nazi occupation her musical career was interrupted and she did not resume until after the war. She joined the Dutch resistance, actively assisting in operations, mainly creating personal documents for Jewish people and others who were wanted by the Gestapo. She was forced to leave the country and after many dangerous situations, she reached freedom in Switzerland.
In 1947 she moved to the United States where she could re-start her career as a conductor. Under the direction of Belinfante, the Orange County Philharmonic Society was formed. But the rumour about her sexuality started to circulate in the group as well as being discriminated against because she was a woman; her contract was not renewed in 1962. She was the subject for the movie “But I was a Girl”, a film about the queer experience in the Second World War, funded by the Dutch government.
Rebecca Sugar (born July 9, 1987)
Rebecca Sugar is an American animator and screenwriter well known for being the creator of the series Steven Universe for Cartoon Network.
She is the first non-binary person to independently create a series for a network. She identifies herself as bisexual, non-binary, and gender queer using both the pronouns she/her and they/them. Her aim with her work is to show LGBT representation especially in children’s entertainment.
In one interview Rebecca Sugar said that she created the series' Gems in Steven Universe as non-binary women in order to express herself, as a non-binary woman, through them.
Jin Xing (born August 13, 1967)
Jin Xing is a Chinese choreographer, ballerina and founder and artistic director of the contemporary dance company Shanghai.
Born in 1967 in Shenyang, China, Jin has been passionate about dancing since her early childhood. At the age of nine, she was accepted into the People’s Liberation Army to train in the dance troupe and the military.
She moved to New York in 1984 on a dance scholarship. During this time, far from China and her strict military regiment, she started to consider her sexuality for the first time. She underwent sexual reassignment surgery in 1995 in China.
This practice was widely considered a taboo and perceived as negative. She was already a prominent figure in the art scene and her SRS became a national sensation. Her transition was documented by the press and Jin was the first openly transgender person in China.
She founded China’s first private dance troupe in Shanghai and became a public figure thanks to her appearance in tv shows. Among them is the Chinese version of So you think you can dance and her own talk show The Jin Xing Show.