Why We Need to Keep the Activism of New Queer Cinema Alive

04/23/2015 05:35 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Gay activism comes in many guises, but we often don't stop to appreciate the role cinema has played in championing queer lives. Films generally reflect the sociocultural milieu of the time in which they are made, but can also think forward and re-imagine society in a progressive way.

In the early 1990s, a handful of queer-themed independent films emerged, a movement coined by the academic B. Ruby Rich as "New Queer Cinema." These films were defined by their radicalism, in that they challenged social norms and actively rejected heteronormativity. Gay sex, non-monogamy and the displacement of gender roles were among the themes that ran through these narratives, creating worlds where alternative sexual identities weren't stigmatized or positioned on the fringes of society.

Growing up in the '90s, the significance of seeing counter-cultural gay representation on the silver screen is not lost on me. At a time when gay men were still dealing with the misled, negative public perceptions of homosexuality brought on by the HIV/AIDS crisis, seeing these films defiantly oppose the status quo, rather than conform to it, would have helped to empower a heavily marginalized community. When I re-visited Gregg Araki's Nowhere recently, aside from my delight at a brief cameo by certified-dreamboat Ryan Phillippe, I was offered a glimpse into the lives of a group of ragtag adolescents for whom sexual and gender expression was as ever-changing as the style of the acid-wash jeans they chose to wear each day.

But that was then, and this is now. With the increase of gay representation in both television and film, the activism of New Queer Cinema has mostly disappeared. Popular gay titles over the past five years including the films Weekend and The Kids Are All Right, as well as television series such as Modern Family and The New Normal, all seem to eschew radical ways of thinking in favor of more traditional, homonormative stories that sit comfortably within society, and provide very limiting views of what it might mean to be a gay man.

Yes, these contemporary films may be brilliant and present a diverse range of multi-layered gay characters, but they often focus on the monogamous, family-oriented love stories we typically see in mainstream heterosexual narratives. The queercore, rebellious spirit of New Queer Cinema films has slowly become overshadowed by the "ideal" of domesticity and conformity.

Cinema is an important and often-overlooked form of social activism. We still need radical stories in our films so that queer people everywhere see their alternative sexual and gender identities accepted on screen. The New Queer Cinema movement worked to achieve this, and is still necessary today as a way to challenge our social norms. Below are five important New Queer Cinema films that helped to re-imagine society as we know it:

This Thelma and Louise-style road movie by Gregg Araki is the first New Queer Cinema film I watched, and as such deserves its spot on top of the list. It follows the story of two HIV-positive men, a hustler and a writer, who decide to reject society and travel cross-country together. The film is as much a nihilistic crime-spree across Central America as it is an expression of the outrage felt by gay men everywhere at society's response to the AIDS crisis.

Three short films are interspersed in this debut feature by Todd Haynes, all inspired by the work of the classic gay novelist Jean Genet. In one of the shorts, a mad scientist manages to distil the essence of the human sex drive into a test tube, but inadvertently drinks it, turning him into a monster that terrorises the city. While the B-grade, black-and-white visual style of this short is campy and humorous, the underlying AIDS allegory is frighteningly powerful. In another short, two men form a relationship in prison, helping the audience to question traditional ideas of masculinity.

Anyone who has seen this film -- fans of RuPaul's Drag Race, I'm looking at you -- will tell you how incredible it is. A documentary about New York's infamous drag scene, this film looks at the balls that brought together this underground group of outcasts who were at the time scorned by the rest of the world. It challenges rigid gender identities, even today, by highlighting the performative aspects of them.

This seminal Bruce LaBruce film follows the life of a male sex worker. Throughout the narrative, the audience watch as he engages in a string of sordid and bizarre encounters, with customers and pornographers alike. This was one of LaBruce's earlier films, and focuses on a profession that was rarely depicted in popular culture at the time, and is still heavily underrepresented in film today.

Aside from starring the inimitable River Phoenix, this film is an important story about the connection developed between two male hustlers; one who is gay, and one whose sexual identity appears to be more fluid. Their rebellious attitude toward society mirrors much of the same sentiments found in other New Queer Cinema films of the time, and is necessary viewing material for fans of the movement.