Although there is a thriving subculture of gay and lesbian cinema in the film industry around the world, it is a genre that seldom makes the mainstream and still has the potential to shock. To this day, homosexual actors are still afraid to come out as gay in fear it will have a negative impact on their career. Historians argue that the homosexual identity culture we recognize today began to appear alongside capitalist culture. In the early days of film, gays and lesbians found their cultural experience and participation constrained, ignored, mocked or oppressed by the dominant culture, as with all marginalized subcultures. From the 1930s to the 1950s, religious organizations and women's groups criticized Hollywood movies in general for their immorality. This resulted in the film industry affecting a self-censorship code, the Hays Code, which among many other things banned overtly homosexual characters – although scriptwriters were learning to "write movies between the lines."
The 1950s was a time of sexual conformity; men were portrayed in film as tough, masculine, the breadwinners. It was suggested that lesbian characters were represented as tough butch females, or troublesome and neurotic. This reflected the culture and attitudes of the age. Screenwriter Jay Presson Allen explained the portrayal of lesbian figures, such as Lauren Bacall in Young Man With a Horn, served as a warning to women, famously, to "watch it and get back to the kitchen." The women's and gay rights movements saw the loosening of this code through the 1960s and 1970s. Although homosexuality was becoming more visible in public life, their portrayal in movies was as dangerous, violent or murderous characters – they were villains.
Hollywood's contemporary depiction of homosexuality can still be controversial. It is argued that films such as Basic Instinct and The Silence of the Lambs demonize gays and lesbians by portraying them as psychopaths. At the other end of the spectrum, Oscar-winner Brokeback Mountain, a gay love story, received wide acclaim. The metaphorical term being ‘in the closet' is made in reference to a homosexual person who does not feel ready to present themselves as gay in public. Vito Russo's analysis of homosexuality in film in his seminal book The Celluloid Closet reflects a cultural history of homophobia, arguing that the portrayal of gay and lesbian characters over the decades has been cruel and often homophobic. He suggests that characters have been defined by their sexual orientation, and lacking in any complex character development. "I think the fate of gay characters in American literature, plays, films, is really the same as the fate of all characters who are sexually free," said West Side Story playwright Arthur Laurents. "You must pay. You must suffer. If you're a woman who commits adultery you're only put out in the storm. If you're a woman who has another woman, you better go hang yourself. It's a question of degree. And certainly if you're gay, you have to do real penance — die." Although the 1970 movie Boys in the Band hasn't stood the test of time it is considered a "milestone" of gay cinema for avoiding these pitfalls and portraying everyday gay life.
The suppression of positive gay and lesbian images in mainstream film history is apparent. Lesbians were practically invisible unless they were depicted as evil or negative characters. It is suggested by feminist critics this was not only a matter of homophobia, but also reflected a containment of women's sexuality and independence. The 1982 film Making Love focused on a married, thirty-something doctor acknowledging his homosexuality and the psychological effects of coming out. It broke a lot of film taboos and caused a storm of controversy. Certainly before the 1980s it was considered hazardous to an actor's career to play a gay character, however, being a gay actor was considered even more problematic to mainstream sensibilities. Although gay cinema has become a relatively commercial zone over the years, much of it still derives from the context of independent film making. Still, this distinction is becoming increasingly blurred, for example with the 2010 Oscar nominee The Kids are Alright. Hollywood is cautiously engaging ‘queer' themes to varying degrees, but as ever there is another prime motivation – reflecting hard economic times, they fear too much focus on gay and lesbian themes will risk offending or alienating a large portion of the audience.