(Pop Culture)

Queer Rom-Coms Are Finally Getting Their Due

Move over, Pretty Woman.

by Leigh Ann Carey
TZR/Netflix; Universal Studios; Hulu

As one of Hollywood's brightest up and coming stars, actor, producer, and writer Joel Kim Booster is in the midst of a very busy summer. The only caveat is that his schedule will keep him from a visit to the “gay Disneyland” that is Fire Island, a place near and dear to his heart. In fact, his 2022 romantic comedy (literally titled Fire Island), is set in the New York vacation hot spot. The modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice explores the romantic and sexual entanglements a group of queer friends experience over one week while on vacation. Premiered a year ago, Fire Island is part of a recent slate of LGBTQ+ romantic comedies released, such as Bros, Single All the Way, The Half of It, and The Merriest Season. Not since the rom-com boom in the ’90s and early aughts has the genre seen so much success — and scrutiny — in celebrating queer joy and romance on screen.

These films are fun and breezy, and show characters enjoying the pursuit and attainment of love and pleasure — a welcome shift from the heavy, somber, and tragic motifs often explored in LGBTQ+ storylines. (To date, the highest grossing LGBTQ+ films include Bohemian Rhapsody, Philadelphia, and Brokeback Mountain — all of which featured established straight actors playing the roles of queer characters). Whereas romantic comedies have historically skewed toward stories of cis (often white) men and women, the fresh crop of films in the classic genre are seeing queer actors placed front and center, as opposed to playing more secondary roles like a sibling or wise-cracking best friend.

Booster’s own life is a testament to the power media representation can have. While in high school, he had a part-time job working at a video store. In between helping customers check out and stocking shelves, he made his way through the store’s independent gay films. “I knew a movie was gay if our store only received one copy,” Booster noted. Joy-filled storylines and plots were limited — for decades, Hollywood depicted LGBTQ+ characters as tragic or dangerous. Growing up in a Southern Baptist family in the Midwest, it was those few precious gay romantic comedies like Trick and Big Eden, he says, that “shaped my perception of what was possible in life for a gay man.”

Ronald Siemoneit/Sygma/Getty Images

Today’s queer romantic comedies are operating on a scale previously unimaginable from Booster’s one-copy video-store days. For example, Trick premiered in 1999 in three cities and did so with a budget of $450,000. Comparatively, Booster’s Fire Island, considered a modern equivalent to Trick, operated with a $10 million budget. Another point of reference is Jamie Babbitt’s But! I’m a Cheerleader, which premiered in 2000 in four theaters and earned just over $60,000 in its opening weekend. When Bros premiered in late September 2022, it became the first gay romantic comedy to be released by a major studio (Universal) with industry heavyweights Judd Apatow and Nick Stoller championing the film. The studio invested a previously unimaginable $30 million-plus in marketing. Although the film’s $4.9 million opening weekend was considered disappointing by current industry standards, it shows tremendous improvement overall from the box office numbers of its predecessors.

LGBTQ+ romantic comedies initially found their roots in the experimental arthouse film scene catering to niche audiences craving provocative and edgier movies. Bros took a big swing at seeing an LGBTQ+ romantic comedy marry the indie vibe with the accessibility of an opposites-attract love story. The movie’s plot centers on the sophisticated urban New Yorker Bobby, played by Billy Eichner, and his muscled paramour, Aaron, as they conquer their emotional hang-ups about commitment.

“We have a history of fitting into smaller films and telling cheeky stories on a small budget,” Guy Branum, a co-producer on Bros, says of the evolving genre. “Bros was an attempt to understand how gay stories can be incorporated into studio movies with a larger production behind them. We’re navigating the dynamics of different elements in a world where we are gradually being more included.”

The essence of the best rom-coms lies in complex characters who keep the audience guessing. At the core, Branum thinks rom-coms are about “watching interesting people get to know each other,” especially when those individuals are unlikely to cross paths. Casting decisions in Bros reflected this ethos, hiring fully LGBTQ+ cast and newcomers, including Black trans stars Ts Madison and Miss Lawrence.

Despite receiving critical acclaim, the film struggled at the box office, and within two days of opening, media outlets dubbed it a failure. Many gay men and queer women of color found the title itself off-putting. While the film humorously skewers beauty and fitness standards among gay men, the posters and online ads predominantly showcased two conventionally attractive white men failing to foreground the diversity represented in the film.

“One of the things that is so hard about queer romantic comedies is that it’s hard to speak to an audience when they feel like what they’re receiving is inauthentic. There was a real fear from the audience that because of the nature of the marketing it did not reflect actual queer lives,” says Branum. He pointed out that queer voices on staff are sometimes diminished by executives with good intentions who restrict what can and can’t be said. “When we compose or suggest humor from our own group, there is this phenomenon of being told by a straight executive or company not to speak about certain matters as they may be deemed offensive or strange,” he says.

In many ways, the entertainment industry is still getting to know how wildly diverse the LGBTQ+ community is and how to effectively make and market movies reflective of that diversity. Straight people are unaccustomed to seeing LGBTQ+ people in romantic comedies or thinking those comedies could be for them, too. According to GLAAD’s latest Accelerating Acceptance Report, 55% of straight Americans polled reported they did not have familiarity with or an understanding of the nuances in identity and experiences among LGBTQ+ people. Less than 30% have yet to meet a transgender person, and half agreed that nonbinary and transgender people are new to them.

A direct-to-stream Hulu film, Fire Island was relieved of some pressure from appealing to as broad a market as possible. However, according to Booster, the industry is still risk-averse and concerned about how relatable films like this can be. Among LGBTQ+ people, he thinks the film was well-received because it “felt like it was for our community by our community.” While he says of straight audiences, “they are still learning how to watch and find themselves in stories that do not center their experience, but it’s through the particular we find ourselves and the universal.”

Courtesy of Hulu

Also breaking ground last year was the 2021 Single All the Way, Netflix’s first gay holiday movie. The film was successful by streaming standards, racking up 13.82 million hours watched by viewers and listed as one of the Top 10 Netflix ratings in 42 countries when it premiered. But it was criticized for being too vanilla and sanitized — essentially a Hallmark movie for straight female audiences, but with gay people.

More revealing of actual progress, perhaps, is that even as LGBTQ+ movies are succeeding within greater industry standards, they can underperform expectations — and yet money and opportunities do not dry up. In the coming months, a number of new LGBTQ+ romantic comedies are being released and in various stages of production including Prime’s Red, White, and Blue, a fictional love story between the prince of England and the son of a U.S. president. Then there’s Bottoms, an Orion- and MGM-backed movie, about lesbian high schoolers who start a fight club to score with cheerleaders.

Transgender directors and creatives are starting to see their projects in the spotlight as well. In mid-July, the Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival will open and close with films by transgender directors Aitch Alberto and Sav Rodgers. Big buzz has been surrounding Rain Valdez’s script Re-Live: A Tale of An American Island Cheerleader, the story following a transgender Hollywood actor who returns to her home island of Guam to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a cheerleader during a “do-over” week. GLAAD identified it as one of the most promising unmade LGBTQ+ inclusive film scripts, prompting support from Rosario Dawson, who has joined as an executive producer on the film alongside Tony Award-winning producer Jhett Tolentino.

When considering the future of LGBTQ+ representation in Hollywood, Philemon Chambers, who broke ground as the first Black queer lead for his portrayal of Nick in the aforementioned Single All the Way, is excited about the ways, he says, “spaces are opening up in television.” He’s looking forward to the reboot of dramedy Noah’s Arc, which first aired on the Logo Network in the late-aughts. The show’s portrayal of Black queer men was groundbreaking and is the first show Chambers recalls feeling resonant. He spent hours in his room watching the show, looking for cues about himself.

Courtesy of Netflix

As a kid, Chambers struggled with gender expectations, wanting to be seen by those around him as masculine. Though he says with a smile, “It wasn’t panning out to be all that believable.” He speculates he could have arrived at his truth more quickly and with less turmoil had Black queer characters been portrayed in a positive way. “When it came to labels and how I self-identify, I teeter-tottered. I never felt I could give myself the label of gay or bisexual,” he says. He struggled with his masculinity, or rather, what it means to be masculine. Hollywood often paints gay men as catty, frivolous, shallow — and not central to the storyline.

Fittingly, Chambers is pursuing roles that subvert on-screen expectations. Fans can find him playing Deputy Augustus in CW’s American Western series Walker: Independence. His character is straight, and having a Black queer man cast in a role typically reserved for white men is a win. Chambers neither wants to be pigeonholed in roles solely because of his sexuality, nor refused parts for the same reason. In regard to the latter, he says he’s lost parts because of his role in the rom-com Single All the Way. “I have been in rooms and judged where the casting made clear that the romantic lead in the production was heterosexual. They expressed concern that having me in the role would be a hard sell. ... When it comes to queer actors, [they should be given the] right and the space to not only play queer characters. We should be able to play whatever.”