A Brief History of Queer Coding in Film: Part 1

I was recently asked to put together a short primer about the history of queer coding. This is nowhere near exhaustive, and though chapters 5 and 6 are less egregiously white, it’s still a very pale overview; if you have film suggestions, additional thoughts and specifics, etc., would love to hear from you in the comments.

WATCHLIST: Double Indemnity (1944), The Exorcist (1970), Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) Bend It Like Beckham (2002)


  1. Introduction
    – Thesis
    – Terms
    – About Me
  2. Pre-Hays
  3. During Hays 1934 – 1968
  4. Post-Hays
  5. 80s-00s
  6. Current Films
  7. Causes and Effects
    – Blockbusters and Us
    – Unintended Consequences, or Seeing Ships Where They Ain’t
    – When Reality and Fiction Collide
    – Queerbaiting
    – Queerness and Villainy
  8. Links and Resources

1. Introduction

THESIS: Queer characters have been part of cinema since its inception. Sometimes their presence has been veiled, sometimes punished, sometimes projected because true representation is lacking, sometimes promoted though it’s tokenistic.

TERMS: while a lot of coding has to do with gay or lesbian relationships, sometimes because of the coding, there are multiple interpretations; IE some will say a character is a lesbian, but it’s never confirmed so she may be bi, pan, etc. An androgynous character played by a woman can be read as fluid, NB, a trans woman, etc. I’ll mostly use the umbrella term of Queer, though in some instances it’s been clarified by author/creator, and in some instances I may use interchangeable terms. Queer is the term I use for myself; I acknowledge there is sometimes a fraught history associated with it, particularly in the times many of these films were made, but even partly because of that, I find it has inherent value and meaning.

In real life queer folks have often had to use codes: secret words; terms mainstream society doesn’t understand; which ear a man wears an earring in or what colour his handkerchief is. We still look at a woman and assign not just ‘gay,’ but ‘type of gay’ based on haircut, tattoo type and placement, the way she looks at her fingernails, and definitely the type of car she drives. (I saw Happiest Season at a drive-through where the park was 90% Subarus.) We thus become well versed in reading codes (even if they weren’t put there by the writers – we’ll talk about apophenia).

ABOUT ME: Being not only a writer but also director, I like talking about the technical stuff, the shots, the blocking, the techniques, and that’s mostly what this blog does. But this is a deeply personal topic; I was raised in a cult which allowed for neither movies nor queerness. I rarely heard the words “gay” or “homosexual”, and never without them attached to the concept of hell, sickness, or violence. Being a sneaky lil bastard, I did manage to watch some TV and movies, which in large part is how I found my way out, and figured out a lot about myself and my queerness . . . even if I didn’t recognise it at the time. 

The way queer characters in cinema I watched were coded spoke to me partly because I was not able to understand, hear about, or vocalise my thoughts and feelings about sex, queerness, or myself until I was in my mid-20s. Having to read into absolutely everything, discover my feelings in secret and confusion, then hide everything I knew or thought I knew, is exactly what many of these movie characters had to do – and what plenty of their actors and writers had to do in real life – to varying extents of comedy and drama.

So, why did they have to hide, and what exactly were the signals they developed to get around the social and political repression? Actually, it didn’t always start as quite so stringent . . .


Early film had plenty of queerness, including one of the biggest, most famous, technical masterpieces: Wings, the only fully silent film to win Best Picture. Wings is about two men who love the same woman, and also each other. They make out on-screen, and it’s both sexy and played for pathos. Though that was a wartime drama, there were similar sexy comedies such as Design for Living directed by Ernst Lubitsch, who made other films with queer themes (see I Don’t Want to Be a Man in the list by Marya Gates, below). Though Tom and George aren’t shown kissing, they’re very clearly as into each other as they are into the Gilda as she is into them, and though they all say “no sex” a few times, it’s all for the sheerest curtain of plausible deniability: shots of six feet being propped up on benches, two men sitting down simultaneously side by side backs-to-camera and whispering in each others’ ears, casual intimacy around laundry and jealousy, several spent cigarettes as though three were post-coital smoking, and the men smiling in their sleep while holding what they think are each others’ hands, are more than clear. They all admit they love all of each other, the boys run off together when Gilda breaks up with them each, and at one point George tells Gilda “I forgot to kiss you. You can blame him [Tom].” (They also cheekily insinuate that the Three Musketeers were gay for each other, which: I mean, yeah.)

We’ll cover a 60s film with similar thruple setup but much more vaguery in the next section.

The wonderful Marya Gates has made a wonderful rundown of queer films of this era, and queer artists such as actress Marlene Dietrich, performer extraordinaire Josephine Baker and director Dorothy Arzner were quite active in this time.

There’s a lot to be said about how women and Black artists were able to make headway in the industry until it was considered lucrative and ‘respectable,’ but this is beyond the scope of these posts at the moment.

But all this sexual liberation and queerness was an affront to certain [mostly-straight-white-men] people who – among other things – saw it as threatening their power, so they decided to make a strict set of rules about what you could and couldn’t do in the movies.

3. DURING HAYS – 1934 – 1968

The Hays code was a Motion Picture Production Code which set out clear rules to govern movies. Though it applied only to American distribution, the US was one of the biggest producers and markets of film, so the Code impacted moviemaking worldwide. While the Code covered everything from swearing to safe-cracking, one of the big no-no-s was “any inference of sex perversion” meaning:

  1. sex outside of marriage, unless it was 
    1. not explicitly shown
    2. punished by the film’s end (usually by death)
  2. any and everything even remotely gay

As in society, a whole slew of signs and intimations arose to signal both sex and queerness. Some queer stories co-opted ‘straight’ code for sex, such as lighting each others’s cigarettes or putting a pair of shoes under a bed. (some of these signals are still used today, for example in K-Dramas; we’ll cover some in the ‘current’ section).

Others coded messages explicitly refer to queer people, such ‘friend of Dorothy’, coloured handkerchiefs, or soft, pastel, violet clothing. Because film at the time was black and white, colour coding was either referred to, or often the handkerchief would be ‘perfumed.’ In The Maltese Falcon (1941) a character sends in his business card and Sam Spade’s secretary notes it smells of “gardenias”. A few minutes later, Spade smells the man’s handkerchief and doesn’t say anything but does raise an eyebrow high, clearly telling the audience ‘this fellow is queer.’ 

Many writers directors worked to subvert every part of the Hays code, notably Mae West, Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, and Billy Wilder; though not all of that subversion was queer or positive, some was either, and much was both.

Otto Preminger’s Laura overtly coded Waldo Lydecker as queer: shooting him in a bathtub with plenty of suggestion he was interested in McPherson; playing up his impeccably dressed dandy-ness; clearly portraying him as the sharp-tongued gay-best-friend type. (Of course, he was also the villain, a trope we’ll definitely address in Part 3.) It only adds to the in-joke that the audience of the day would have understood Lydecker was played by “confirmed bachelor” Clifton Webb (we’ll also talk about the way queer actors were used both as only-straight characters, or only-queer ones, in Part 3).

Wilder made the drag-iconic Some Like It Hot, which ends with two men riding off into the moonlit ocean on a speedboat together. One of the men has been in drag the entirety of their knowing each other, and when he finally pulls of his wig and declares “I’m a man,” the other shrugs and responds “nobody’s perfect.”

Wilder’s most overt never-acknowledged coded relationship is in dark noir Double Indemnity. Throughout the film insurance salesman Walter Neff and his co-worker Barton Keys have deep discussions about human nature and life goals, and Neff has a pattern of sparking a match with his thumb and lighting Keys’s cigarette. Their co-dependency is strong, neither are partnered, though Neff’s strong pull to Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson leads him to murder and his eventual death. Their final scenes include Neff saying Keys missed the signs of Neff’s indiscretions because they were “too close . . . right across the desk” and Keys retorting “closer than that, Walter” to which Walter responds with his dying last words “I love you, too” before trying and failing to light a match for his last cigarette, leading to Neff lighting it for him with the same gesture of iconic thumb-strike.* 

*I stole this move for my first ever noir (see here at 1:40) and thank the gods for an actor who could pull it off; it ain’t easy. Yet Edward G Robinson pulls it off in the middle of a long, single take. What a legend.

French classic Jules and Jim was made during this time. There’s not explicit consummation between the two men who sleep with, form a love triangle with, and eventually settle into a poly living situation with, Catherine, carefully portrayed as more ‘bohemian’ than poly. Jules and Jim would have been less able than Wings to show its titular men kissing or having sex . . . at least if it wanted distribution in one of cinema’s largest markets.* But there are many queer readings of the film – from a thruple to the men using Catherine as a lynchpin to hold together their own romantic love while standing in for their sexual lust – and it’s one of the great joys of art but frustrations of art made under heavy limitations that the full subtext is difficult to parse with surety.

*If you think that’s fucked, we’re STILL HAVING THIS PROBLEM TODAY. But more on that in Posts 2 and 3. If you want a similar setup with much less anguish and coding, may I suggest Trigonometry.

On that happy note, we end Part 1.

2 Responses to “A Brief History of Queer Coding in Film: Part 1”
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  1. […] Part 1 covered how queer cinema was before the Hays code, then how its queerness was made more subtle and subversive by necessity through the 60s. As mentioned in that post, this is the faintest of overviews, but there will be plenty of links to other topics in the third/final post, and I’d love to hear your additions and/or arguments in the comments. […]

  2. […] Part 1 was thesis, introduction of queerness in film pre-Hays, exploration of what the Hays Code was and its broad impact on the film industry. Part 2 covered what ‘queer coding’ looked like in films post-Hays to today. […]

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