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New Queer Cinema is a term first coined by the academic B. Ruby Rich in Sight & Sound magazine in 1992 to define and describe a movement in queer-themed independent filmmaking in the early 1990s. The term developed from use of the word queer in academic writing in the 1980s and 1990s as an inclusive way of describing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender identity and experience, and also defining a form of sexuality that was fluid and subversive of traditional understandings of sexuality. Since 1992, the phenomenon has also been described by various other academics and has been used to describe several other films released since the 1990s. Films of the New Queer Cinema movement typically share certain themes, such as the rejection of heteronormativity and the lives of LGBT protagonists living on the fringe of society.
In her 1992 article, Rich commented on the strong gay and lesbian presence on the previous year's film festival circuit, and coined the phrase "New Queer Cinema" to describe a growing movement of similarly themed films being made by gay and lesbian independent filmmakers, chiefly in North America and England. Rich developed her theory in the Village Voice newspaper, describing films that were radical in form, and aggressive in their presentation of sexual identities which challenged both the status quo of heterosexual definition, and resisted promoting "positive" images of lesbians and gay men that had been advocated by the gay liberation movement of the 1970s and 1980s. In the films of New Queer Cinema, the protagonists and narratives were predominantly LGBT, but were presented invariably as outsiders and renegades from the rules of conventional society, and embraced radical and unconventional gender roles and ways of life, frequently casting themselves as outlaws or fugitives.
Drawing on postmodernist and poststructuralist academic theories of the 1980s, the New Queer Cinema presented human identity and sexuality as socially constructed, and therefore fluid and changeable, rather than fixed. In the world of New Queer Cinema, sexuality is often a chaotic and subversive force, which is alienating to and often brutally repressed by dominant heterosexual power structures. Films in the New Queer Cinema movement frequently featured explicit and unapologetic depictions of same-sex sexual activity, and presented same-sex relationships that reconfigured traditional heterosexual notions of family and marriage. While not all identifying with a specific political movement, New Queer Cinema films were invariably radical, as they sought to challenge and subvert assumptions about identity, gender, class, family and society. The 1991 documentary Paris is Burning (see photograph above) introduced audiences to yet another subcultural realm. Director Jennie Livingston innovatively captured the realities of New York's drag balls and houses, and of the non-white people who occupied these spaces. This was an underappreciated and arguably underground world that many Americans were unfamiliar with. Aesthetic excellence and flamboyance were crucial in drag performances and competitions. Stylized vogue dancing was also exhibited as central to the drag experience, notably influencing the artistry of pop icon Madonna. New Queer Cinema figures like Livingston encouraged viewers to suspend their ignorance, and enjoy the diversity of humanity.
The films also frequently referenced the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, often commenting on the failure of the Ronald Reagan administration to respond to the AIDS epidemic and the social stigma experienced by the gay community. Given the relative invisibility of references to AIDS in mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, the work of New Queer Cinema was hailed by the gay community as a welcome correction to a history of under-representation and stereotyping of gay and lesbian people.
Among the films cited by Rich were Todd Haynes's Poison (1991), Isaac Julien's Young Soul Rebels (1991), Derek Jarman's Edward II (1991), Tom Kalin's Swoon (1992), and Gregg Araki's The Living End (1992). All the films feature explicitly gay and lesbian protagonists and subjects; explicit and unapologetic depictions of or references to gay sex; and a confrontational and often antagonistic approach towards heterosexual culture.
These directors were making their films at a time when the gay community was facing new challenges from the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and the conservative political wave brought on by the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the United States and the government of Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. Jarman himself was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, and died in 1994 at the age of 52. Jarman's public promoting of gay rights and equality have established him as an influential activist within the LGBT community.
Queer theory and politics were emerging topics in academic circles, with proponents arguing that gender and sexual categories such as homosexual and heterosexual were historical social constructs, subject to change with cultural attitudes. Rich noted that many films were beginning to represent sexualities which were unashamedly neither fixed nor conventional, and coined the phrase "New Queer Cinema".