Survey by Qualaroo

Coming out on the Screen, 1977

40 years on from Arnolfini’s first Gay Pride film festival, Phil Owen looks at what was shown.

The art world has long been a refuge for people who don’t conform to the heterosexual standard, a place within which expression of a broader range of sexualities has been tolerated long before wider society. Here in Bristol, Arnolfini has very much fulfilled this role over the years. Our city’s first Gay Pride week took place in the summer of 1977 (it was organised in part as a fundraiser for the blasphemy trial between Mary Whitehouse and Gay News!). To coincide, we co-organised a season of film screenings curated to counter the observation that ‘film is as guilty as all other media for social strategies which create and reinforce the normative status of heterosexuality by rendering all other options either invisible or unacceptable’.

The films were shown at Arnolfini and at the Bristol Arts Centre on Kings Square (at that time, the two organisations’ film programmes were jointly curated as ‘Eye to Eye’, a BFI-funded regional film centre). Our screenings included Victim (a 1961 thriller starring Dirk Bogarde as a barrister being blackmailed for his homosexuality – the Eye to Eye brochure notes it as being ‘unusual for its non-camp realism and the characterisation of the main gay figure without reference to stereotypes’); Queen Christina (the 1930s Hollywood biopic loosely based on the androgynous 17th century Queen Christina of Sweden, ‘the film stimulates a gay sensibility through which an audience may review a number of films where homosexuality is disguised or apparently peripheral’); and Symptoms (a 1974 British horror film directed by José Ramón Larraz, exploring themes of sexual repression and psychosis). We also hosted an open forum discussion event ‘Perspectives on Homosexuality in Film’, led by filmmaker and writer Caroline Sheldon and academic Richard Dyer, while the Arts Centre showed a rare work-in-progress screening of Nighthawks, Ron Peck’s celebrated depiction of a gay teacher’s frustration with the emptiness and anonymity of the gay scene.

Compared to later films like the teenage romance A Beautiful Thing (1996), or the joyously explicit Shortbus (2006), this 1977 selection perhaps seems low-key in its depictions of homosexuality, or somehow rather thwarted. However, the fact that the whole idea of gay-centered cinema was being taken seriously and not seen as controversial by a major publically-funded arts centre (the season gets only a brief mention in passing in the minutes of the meetings of our Council of Management) makes clear how much things were changing just ten years after homosexuality was de-criminalised in Britain, and how the arts were at the forefront of that change.        

For more information about Arnolfini’s LGBT+ heritage, check out our entries on OutStories’ interactive map

All quotes in this article are from the July-August 1977 edition of the Eye-To-Eye Programme. Copies of this are available to view in the Arnolfini collection at Bristol Archives and Arnolfini's Reading Room.

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