When director Kimberly Peirce was preparing to walk the Academy Awards red carpet in 2000, her most immediate fear was not whether the nominated stars of her film Boys Don’t Cry, Hillary Swank and Chloë Sevigny, would walk away with Oscars gold. It was her outfit.
The self-described “old-school butch” had been given “nothing but dresses and gowns” to choose from by the designers who offered to clothe her for the occasion. “Butches that I know don’t wear heels,” she told the audience at the 2013 Outfest Film Festival, where she was being honored. “And we sure as hell don’t wear open-toed shoes.”
After struggling to move in the apparel provided for her, even her designer agreed that a dress wasn’t an option. They tried to outfit her in a tuxedo. But at the time, there were no options available in women’s sizes. Ultimately, Peirce would walk the carpet in a sartorial compromise: men’s tuxedo pants coupled with a sleeveless sequined shirt, lipstick, smoky eye makeup, and high-heeled boots. Don’t Google it, she joked to the crowd.
Of course, most directors — LGBT or otherwise — could only dream of being in Peirce’s boots. She had successfully directed and cowritten a film. It was made, distributed, and celebrated for bringing the real-life story of the murder of a trans man, Brandon Teena, to the public’s attention. In light of the subject matter of Boys Don’t Cry, the irony of worrying about something like a dress was not lost on Peirce.
“I had just made a movie about a female-bodied person who lived and died for dressing as a man, and here I was a queer-bodied person used to dressing queer, trying to fit into this crazy, mainstream event to represent my queer movie,” she said. “I felt like the poor kid coming to the table hoping I had picked the right fork.”
This story highlights how the machine of Hollywood, even when it strives to showcase the stories of LGBT lives, can be exclusionary and downright uncomfortable for the LGBT people who tell these stories. It’s worth noting that Peirce, in addition to enduring the gender politics of Hollywood’s red carpet, was also not nominated for either directing or cowriting Boys Don’t Cry, despite the nominations of her straight female leads.
Unfortunately, this occurrence is not unique. The snub mirrors the Oscars earlier this year, in which actresses Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, who portray lovers in the much-acclaimed film Carol, were nominated. However, the film’s gay director and screenwriter, Todd Haynes and Phyllis Nagy, respectively, were not. This was one of the grievances, in addition to the absence of nominated out actors, which contributed to an #OscarsSoStraight backlash on social media.
Much has been made of the ways Hollywood can be a pernicious place for LGBT actors, who are often forced to hide their identities in order to make a living. (Indeed, of the dozens of actors who received Oscar nominations for playing gay roles, only one, Ian McKellen, has been out.) But in a shared but more silent fight, many LGBT filmmakers also face hurdles. However, unlike an awkward red-carpet outfit, these hurdles — an Oscars snub, a forgotten invitation, an unreturned phone call from an investor or a production company — are often invisible to even the players themselves.
“I think that when it does happen, it’s so unspoken and it’s so under the radar that it’s hard to call it out,” said Clea DuVall, who made her directorial debut with The Intervention, shown at this year’s Outfest Film Festival. Previously, DuVall had said she wrote The Intervention in order to play “the gay that I feel like I am.” She initially didn’t intend to direct it, until she realized “it just didn’t feel like anybody would be able to tell that story the way I wanted it told.”
DuVall, who observed that the culture is “getting better,” pointed to Jill Soloway, the out showrunner of Transparent, as an example of this shift and a possible model for others in positions of power. “The amount of trans actors and directors that she’s bringing to the show is so huge, and I think they’re enough people who are making noise that people are listening,” she added.
Peirce, a longtime friend of DuVall’s who stood beside her on The Intervention’s pink carpet, is one of those people continuing to make noise.
“We are all in a multifront war in order to overcome discrimination against people of color, against women, against anybody who is not getting their fair representation in our business, whether it’s behind the camera or its in front of the camera,” said Peirce, who sported a leather jacket and pants at the Outfest event. She said she still encounters sexism regarding her appearance.
“I still get told by the occasional male producer or executive, ‘You’re really an attractive woman. I think you’re suppressing your femininity. You really should embrace it,” she said in 2013 and reaffirmed last week. “To which I can only say, ‘Wow, no feminity is being repressed here. Everything is on display.'”
But Peirce also does not see these issues as insurmountable.
“Being queer can give you a difficult time sometimes in this sort of heteronormative world. I’ve seen a lot of it,” she said. “I’m a big believer in, if there’s an obstacle, work five times as hard. Be twice as nice. I do believe that we can overcome all of this. And we just need to work a little bit harder.”
This work includes looking at LGBT discrimination in Hollywood as an intersectional issue, a fight that is tied with the struggles of women and people of color. Data proves it. For example, female directors tend to hire more diversity in behind-the-scenes roles, one study shows, although women only helmed a small percentage of films released in theaters last year.
Outfest, whose mission is to promote LGBT stories through film, is working hard to promote representation across gender and race. This year, its centerpieces include The Intervention, Spa Night, Esteros, and Kiki, which all showcase (and are helmed by) women and people of color. In fact, the festival boasts 62 female-directed productions in its lineup. One of these directors, Marina Rice Bader, founded a production company, Soul Kiss Films, for this very purpose. She wrote about the need to dismantle Hollywood’s boys’ club in a recent commentary for The Advocate.
“The only way things are going to change is if each woman takes matters into her own hands and wields her mighty sword of power (once she finds it),” she wrote, before encouraging empowered women and their allies to help them find this sword.
The call to intersectionality was clear from Outfest’s onset. After the recent shooting in Orlando, which took the lives of dozens of queer people of color, the festival gave a platform to a gay man of color, Wilson Cruz. The My So-Called Life actor took the stage on opening night to recount the stories of the dead and challenge the LGBT filmmakers present to do the same.
“I hope that upon this scorched earth we have planted the seeds of ideas that will bear the fruit of more diverse and inclusive stories that include people of color in the LGBT community,” he said. “If you do that, their lives will not have been lost in vain.”
Although not every Hollywood door is open to LGBT people, there is no shortage of gay people in Hollywood, as humorously noted by Go Fish director Rose Troche later in the evening. Perhaps, as Glinda the Good Witch once told Dorothy, “You had the power all along.”
Surveying the crowd at Los Angeles’s Orpheum Theatre, where Judy Garland herself once performed, that night’s Outfest honoree, John Cooper — who is the festival director of the Sundance Film Festival — said it is the responsibility of all people with a platform to extend it to others whose voices still need to be heard. And that inward eye must look within the LGBT community itself.
“This is no time for us to fall out of the diversity conversation happening in our industry,” Cooper said. “This is a time we join the ‘other’ others, and we take our place with them. Because I think, and we all know this, the world is ready for more of us. And together, we can make that happen.”