Looking Through Another Lens: Growing in Empathy by Watching the "Top 40 Gay Films from the 1970s on..."

I recently graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary. I learned a lot through my degree program, but the most important thing I learned, I think, is that you can't discount someone simply because you disagree with them. Theologically, Fuller Seminary is a remarkably diverse place—I once took a worship service planning class with people from over forty different denominations—so you learn, very quickly, to first listen to people, to attempt to understand both what they think about any issue and why they think that, and then to respond with your own thoughts. Discourse must be tempered with empathy. Otherwise, stay silent.

Empathy was at the core of my studies at Fuller as well - popular culture, particularly cinema. The late Roger Ebert once called movies "a machine that generates empathy," and I'd agree. Films attempt to get their audience to identify with characters for the course of the film. A film allows you to see through someone else's lens, to understand things from their perspective. The audience doesn't have to like a character, and it doesn't have to agree with the character's actions—indeed, sometimes its imperative that they do not!—but for the film to be successful, the audience does need to understand the character. Understanding is empathy, and once it's established, there can be true discourse.

Now, I must tell you a quick story about the weekend of my graduation from seminary. My parents came into town and the day after graduation we visited the Hollywood Museum on Hollywood Boulevard, just down the street from tourist central at Graumann's Chinese Theater. The Hollywood Museum is three floors and a basement of costumes, sets, and memorabilia from across Hollywood's history. My mom loves this kind of stuff, and if I'm being honest, I have a weakness for it too. My wife and my father bear with us.

At the time, the top floor of the museum was devoted to a special exhibit entitled "Reel to Real: Portrayals and Perceptions of Gays in Hollywood." We didn't know this exhibit was being featured at the museum before we topped the staircase and walked into the room where it was displayed. My parents would never say a negative thing about a gay person, but they weren't entirely comfortable browsing the exhibits on that floor either. To their credit, they gave the exhibit as much attention as they gave the exhibits on the other floors, even if they're enthusiasm was more reserved.

Around one corner we happened upon a large poster listing the "'Top 40 Gay Films from the 1970s on..." My good-natured yet uncomfortable father made a quick joke, the only joke he made the entire time we were on the floor, "Quick. Take a picture of that poster, so I know what movies not to watch." I took a picture, not, as my father quipped, to avoid the films, but because I thought if these are the films that are particularly important to gay people, a group of people who have been consistently misunderstood by Christians like my parents and like myself, these are precisely the movies I ought to watch.

So, I'm going to watch through the list, and I'm going to blog about the experience here for Level Ground on the first Friday of every month. My goal is to achieve a measure of understanding. I want to empathize with these films and with the people to whom they are important. I invite you to join me. There are forty films on this list, so this is going to take a while, but I think it's worth it. In the end, I hope we'll be better able to talk with one another whatever it is we each believe, and to hold each other close no matter what else we hold dear.


Many of you asked, so here is the list of the 40 films Elijah will be reviewing over the next several months. We hope you'll join us in this journey of looking through another lens!

1.   The Boys in the Band, 1970 2.   Big Eden, 2000 3.   Brokeback Mountain, 2005 4.   Trick, 1999 5.   Beautiful Thing, 1996 6.   Shelter, 2007 7.   Latter Days, 2003 8.   Maurice, 1987 9.   Get Real, 1998 10.  The Broken Hearts Club, 2000 11.  Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, 1994 12.  Longtime Companion, 1990 13.  Torch Song Trilogy, 1988 14.  My Beautiful Launderette, 1985 15.  Parting Glances, 1986 16.  Just A Question of Love, 2000 17.  Mysterious Skin, 2004 18.  The Birdcage, 1996 19.  Sordid Lives, 2000 20.  Hedwig and the Angry Inch, 2001 21.  Philadelphia, 1993 22.  The Wedding Banquet, 1993 23.  The Kids Are Alright, 2010 24.  Edge of Seventeen, 1998 25.  GBF, 2013 26.  Love! Valour! Compassion!, 1997 27.  Transamerica, 2005 28.  Making Love, 1982 29.  Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, 2011 30.  Skyfall, 2012 31.  Boys Don’t Cry, 1999 32.  A Single Man, 2009 33.  Milk, 2008 34.  J. Edgar, 2011 35.  Philomena, 2013 36.  Kill Your Darlings, 2013 37.  Dallas Buyers Club, 2013 38.  The Hours, 2002 39.  Bridegroom, 2013 40.  Swan Lake, 2012