Communication Gays and Lesbians in the Media
by
David Gudelunas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0068

Introduction

How gay men and lesbians are represented in the media has been one of the most prolific areas of research and analysis within gay and lesbian studies as well as queer theory since the 1970s. Although a relatively recent area of scholarship, this work is considered vital for a better understanding of how a modern gay and lesbian identity was shaped, reflected, and at times ignored by mainstream media. For gay men and lesbians who comprise a type of invisible minority group that is rarely born into gay or lesbian families, communities, or support networks, the importance of mainstream media representations is considered paramount. Because oftentimes an individual’s knowledge of gay life is formed almost exclusively through lessons from the media, how gay men and lesbians are portrayed has been an area of intense scrutiny and criticism. Whereas early studies focused on the complete erasure of gay and lesbian identity and the simple caricatures and stereotypes that populated Hollywood films and to a lesser extent television and other media, more recently research has expanded. New work considers how gay and lesbian audiences are able to reappropriate media images and how new genres and digital technologies are changing the relationships among producers, media texts, and audiences while creating more varied, if not necessarily more positive, representations of sexual minorities. Academic work on gays and lesbians in the media is inherently interdisciplinary, with studies coming from film historians, media theorists, communication scholars, sociologists, psychologists, and a host of other disciplinary and methodological traditions. This broad array of academic work is supplemented by a range of activist and popular accounts of the place of gay men and lesbians in the mainstream media. Not surprisingly, much of the work in this area is critical of the mainstream media and argues that what few representations of sexual minorities do exist in the mainstream media are problematic and should be rectified.

Core Texts

Several books and articles are considered canonical to better understanding how gay men and lesbians are represented in the media. These core texts take into account some of the earliest and most influential contributions to this area of study. Some of the earliest work began with historical understandings of how images of gay men and lesbians were both formally and informally systematically excluded from media images. Work by pioneers in this field, including Larry Gross (Gross and Woods 1999, Gross 2001), Richard Dyer (Dyer 1984, Dyer 2003), and Vito Russo (Russo 1987), was considered groundbreaking and even taboo when first published. Whereas a precedent existed in media studies, with other minorities, including women and racial and ethnic minorities, beginning to examine critically the politics of representation, investigations into sexual minorities and media images were slower to emerge. Part of this has to do with the lack of images available to critique not to mention the general hesitation to do research on a topic like homosexuality, which was still considered very controversial into the 1980s. Some of the earliest work in the field, including Chesebro 1981, came out of discussions in the Caucus on Gay and Lesbian Concerns (now the Caucus on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns), which officially formed within the National Communication Association in 1978 as a means of lobbying for the visibility of gay and lesbian studies (and its practitioners) within the communication discipline. Since then some of the work in this field has been captured in wonderful edited volumes, such as Barnhurst 2007 and Duberman 1997.

  • Barnhurst, Kevin G., ed. 2007. Media q: Media/queered; Visibility and its discontents. New York: Peter Lang.

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    This edited volume is a strong collection of essays from some of the most important thinkers in the area of gay men and lesbians in the media. The book covers a lot of terrain and serves as a strong overview of the topic.

  • Chesebro, James W., ed. 1981. Gayspeak: Gay male and lesbian communication. New York: Pilgrim.

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    One of the earliest texts to move beyond a focus on homosexual behavior or scientific studies of homosexuality, this edited volume focuses on manifestations of homosexual identity and community. A section of the book is devoted to public images of the gay and lesbian community.

  • Duberman, Martin, ed. 1997. Queer representations: Reading lives, reading cultures. New York: New York Univ. Press.

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    Whereas most work on queer representations focuses on film, video, and television, this edited volume delves into some of the lesser-explored areas of representation of homosexuality, including literature and photography and the other visual arts.

  • Dyer, Richard, ed. 1984. Gays and film. Rev. ed. New York: New York Zoetrope.

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    Originally published in 1977. Dyer, a British film theorist, is responsible for some of the earliest and best work on representations of gay men and lesbians in film. This volume is critical, as it argues for a special relationship between gays and the cinema that extends beyond simple representations.

  • Dyer, Richard. 2003. Now you see it: Studies on lesbian and gay film. 2d ed. London: Routledge.

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    As the title implies, this work examines some often-forgotten examples of lesbians and gays in film. More important, Dyer looks at the intricacies of gay and lesbian cultural production.

  • Gross, Larry. 2001. Up from invisibility: Lesbians, gay men, and the media in America. Between Men—between Women. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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    Gross is one of the most well-known scholars studying sexual minorities and the media, and this book is a culmination of his theories and insights on the topic. Easily readable, the book draws on cultivation theory (of which Gross was very involved, alongside George Gerbner) and poses serious questions about just how far images of gay men and lesbians have come since the gay liberation movement of the mid-20th century.

  • Gross, Larry, and James D. Woods, eds. 1999. The Columbia reader on lesbians and gay men in media, society, and politics. Between Men—between Women. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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    Although not focused exclusively on media representations, this sprawling edited volume, with more than one hundred entries, provides excellent historical perspectives on how the media are inseparable from politics, culture, and most other aspects of gay liberation. Excerpts from early news publications are particularly useful in understanding the historical trajectory of gay and lesbian representations.

  • Russo, Vito. 1987. The celluloid closet: Homosexuality in the movies. Rev. ed. New York: Harper and Row.

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    Originally published in 1981. This is probably the most authoritative source on gays and lesbians in film. Russo charts the representation of homosexuals in Hollywood film clearly and concisely. This book served as the basis of a well-known 1995 documentary film of the same name.

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