Enter stage left: an impeccably dressed, perfumed man with a touch of make-up and overtly effeminate mannerisms who prances across the screen. He’s the sissy and he’s one of Hollywood’s first representations of a gay man. Austin Brown, a junior Integrated Studies major at Northern Kentucky University, seeks to explore this portrayal and others through his capstone project in the Honors Program.
Brown designed his honor’s capstone project intending to study how mainstream American cinema affects and shapes gay culture. As part of the capstone project, Brown is conducting a non-credit film series that allows participants to discuss the role of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community in mainstream films. The film seminar is one of many facets to Brown’s capstone project which includes research, movie viewings and data analysis.
Brown received the Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement/NKU Honors Program Fellowship, which allows recipients to conduct research projects that will benefit the community.
The series opened Sept. 20 with “The Celluloid Closet,” a 1995 documentary directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, based off Vito Russo’s book of the same name. The documentary explores GLBT roles from the 1930s to the early 1990s and how the depictions affect the way straight and gay audiences think about the GLBT community.
Brown has received enthusiasm and support for his project.
“There’s a word that I feel that everyone who hears about it repeats back to me — And it’s need,” said Brown. “So many people say that this is needed. The idea of a need behind the project has been, really, the basis of all the enthusiasm.”
Jodi Ferner, senior lecturer in the Honors Program, is Brown’s capstone adviser.
“The fact that the idea for this project comes from a student and is supported by others on campus speaks volumes for its importance and relevance,” Ferner said.
So far, Brown has not received any negative responses regarding his project — he predicts that some will ignore it.
“Which is a shame because that’s just exploiting your own ignorance. I would rather them say something and try to talk to me than ignore it,” Brown said. “There’s so much going on in our community through the hate crimes in Covington that I feel that this dialogue needs to happen.”
Brown believes that there are many benefits from this type of forum for both NKU students and the public in general. The first benefit involves having a place to discuss these types of topics in a non-judgmental environment.
“It’ll help these students and forum participants to be able to talk about this in a safe environment where they won’t have to worry about any sort of persecution or people attacking them because of their own personal beliefs,” Brown said.
Not only does it create a safe place for discussion, but it also promotes more of these types of forums and encourages others to become involved. Brown also believes that this film series will allow participants to study film and see how it has shaped our lives and attitudes.
“Film is so central to how we perceive ourselves, our environment, our culture and each other,” Brown said. “Film is reflecting and shaping our lives, thus we should be shaping and reflecting it straight back.”
Ferner sees this as possibly a step towards something bigger.
“The opportunity to come together and discuss important issues about who we are, how we come to an understanding of ourselves, others and our roles in life benefits everyone, in ways big and small,” Ferner said. “The long term implications of Austin’s capstone project are yet to be seen, but what matters is that he has begun an important conversation supported by thoughtful research.”
Some of the films shown during the film seminar include: “Philadelphia,” “The Birdcage” and “Paris is Burning.” Brown had certain criteria in mind when he picked the films that are to be screened during the seminar. All of the films are from mainstream cinema, spanning the last 23 years. The films have recognizable actors and actresses, and the films themselves are recognizable to most of the participants so that there is a certain amount of familiarity of content in order to discuss them. Brown has structured the film seminar so that it is a weekly meeting in which the participants watch a movie that coincides with a chosen topic for that week. After the film screening, the floor is open for discussion.
According to Brown, there are many negative consequences of misrepresenting the GLBT community in film: higher levels of suicide among gay couples, an increased prevalence of hate crimes and greater public fear and a lack of acceptance.
“People say it’s getting better, and maybe it’s getting better, but it’s still a problem,” Brown said. “It’s better than it was 20 years ago, but it’s not fixed.”
The portrayal of the GLBT community in film affects how they are seen as a whole by society and themselves.
“The use of the term ‘faggot’ and these ideas of sissies, these constructs of society, affect how when we’re growing up, we think we should treat others and how we should treat ourselves,” Brown said. “In all these films, we’re watching them make fun of more effeminate guys, or weaker guys, or guys who show affection to other men. You get the idea that that’s wrong, that’s gay, that’s not something you need to be a part of. Which means if you’re not gay then you hate gay, or that means if you are gay you hate yourself.”
Brown hopes that this project will open the door for more meaningful discussion and help promote healthier representations of the GLBT community.
“Developing and promoting these healthy images and portrayals of LGBT people and community is going to help people grow into themselves and not be so fearful of things they don’t understand or are ignorant of,” Brown said. “The biggest thing is to at least open yourself to the discussion.”
The Gay and Lesbian Film seminar runs from Sept. 20 through Nov. 22 weekly on Mondays from 3:30 to 6:00 in Landrum. For more information, you can contact Austin Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story by Shawn Buckenmeyer