Headshot of Kyle Turner, author of the Queer Film Guide, beside the book cover's artwork.

Behind the Scenes: Exploring LGBT Cinema with Kyle Turner, author of the Queer Film Guide

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Omaralexis Ochoa: I am thrilled to introduce you to today's guest, Kyle Turner. Kyle is a talented freelance writer and editor who is passionate about queer film. He has been featured in publications like Slate, NPR, GQ, and The New York Times. His work explores the intersections of pop culture, film studies, and queer theory, and he has written extensively about the influence of queer culture in cinema. His new book titled The Queer Film Guide was released just last week and helps us navigate some of the most culturally relevant films in history. Today our conversation will cover some of Kyle's writing career, how the Film Guide came to be, and his vision for what the future of queer film looks like.

I received a copy of The Queer Film Guide, so thanks again for sending that over. I am really looking forward to widening my queer film repertoire using your book. But before getting into those specifics, let's just talk about you. How long have you been a writer?

How long have you been a writer?

Kyle Turner: It depends on how we define that.

The truncated version is that I started a blog when I was 13, and I remember telling a friend that I was complaining about the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean movie at the time. It was the third one "At World's End," and I remember them telling me, "You should start a blog!" Which I do believe was their polite way of getting out of the conversation because I was a very opinionated child.

But I also started writing when I was in middle school. There were some local writing contests that I started submitting pieces to, and I started winning, doing pretty well in those. So I thought that was the thing that I was good at, and that was the thing that I want to cultivate. I had other interests when I was younger, like I was very briefly into forensic psychology and acting, but writing allowed me a level of solitude and control that the other things didn't have for me. So I just became accustomed to being able to sit down and just churn something out.

And then I started writing on the internet when I was a sophomore in high school. There was this now defunct entertainment website that had me on as a news writer. And I found out about there being an opening on Twitter actually. And I sent in some clips and they said, "Yeah, let's have you as a news writer."

And then I started actually freelancing and pitching to other editors when I was a senior in high school, freshman in college, and started really being compensated for my work. And so I've been a writer in a quasi-professional capacity for eight or nine years. 

How did you choose queer film as your career focus?

Omaralexis Ochoa: Wow. Very nice. It sounds like it's something you've been doing for a very long time at an early age as well.

How did you come upon queer film as kind of the niche that you're interested in writing about, and the topic of your book the Queer Film Guide?

Kyle Turner: Yeah, so I have loved film for as long as I can remember. I always tried to insert different film references in my homework, even in middle school.

 And I knew that I wanted to be a film critic when I was in second grade or write about film in some capacity. But around my freshman year of college, senior year of high school, I was starting to have this anxiety that, like I love film and I had like a pretty broad generalist knowledge of it and I was very, very passionate about that. But I didn't have a specific area or a niche as you were saying. And it wasn't until kind of in conjunction with coming out and having these really wonderful and informative and formative conversations with one of my favorite professors at the time, Professor Margot Greenlaw. (Shout out to her!) that I thought queer film could be a way to better understand myself, better understand the world around me. Have like a connection and an access to queer history to queer culture. And so it was around that time that I said queer film can be the thing that I learn about and teach myself about and hopefully can find a little bit of, if not expertise, then at least enough passion to convey my love for it and hopefully help other people explore it as well. 

Omaralexis Ochoa: Yeah, and I definitely think that's one of the powerful things of film generally, in writing, and any sort of media. It's first an outlet for the creator, but also a way of just communicating and expressing ideas and exposing people to new viewpoints.

And I think that's one of the important things, especially in the queer world, that we just don't get enough visibility to. Other lifestyles, people like ourselves in media. So I think it's definitely a very important niche to be working in. 

Kyle Turner: Yeah, absolutely. And I feel that it feels right inasmuch as not only have I been thinking about movies for almost as long as I can remember, but I like to joke that retroactively or retrospectively, my mother sort of like tailored me to be queer in some way because she was showing me a lot of classics within the queer canon. Whether they have explicitly LGBTQ characters, like "Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar," or "Priscilla Queen of the Desert," which is in the book. Or "The Birdcage," and things that are more culturally accepted as having a connection to queerness, like "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" and "The Wizard of Oz" and things like that.

So having the privilege and honor of being able to explore that section of film history and of broader cultural history is quite a privilege and really exciting to do. 

What was your "big break" as a writer?

Omaralexis Ochoa: Yeah, definitely. And hearkening back to something you mentioned about your history as a writer: you mentioned couple of writing competitions, in middle school and high school as well as the online magazine.

So, looking back on all of these different opportunities, which of these would you consider to be your first break in writing? You know, the one that got you along the path to say, "Hey, this is something I can make my career?" 

Kyle Turner: That's a good question. I would say that one of the earlier examples that I think proved to both myself and to other people that I cared about was a piece that I wrote in 2014, for Indie Wire.

At the time they had a queer vertical called The Bent Blog. It has since folded unfortunately, but I was working with an editor/ writer Peter Connect, who now works at CBC in Canada. (Very lovely person.) And I wrote a piece about the Xavier Dolan film "Mommy," which is kind of included as a sidebar recommendation in the book.

But "Mommy" and my own relationship to my mother -- I have very complicated sort of tumultuous relationship with my mom -- but being able to sort of like weave in a personal perspective in addition to engaging critically with the film itself was, I think, the first big thing that really helped me both imbue myself with a level of confidence to approach bigger and more personal pieces, and also I think helped articulate to editors that I was a good writer. It still feels kind of awkward to say that even though I have a book coming out and I should feel a level of confidence, but you know it's hard to sort of strike the balance of being able to be confident and, and have an assurance about one's writing and skill and craft and not sounding kind of annoying and pretentious about it, right? I think that piece was really important in terms of helping me grow to have that confidence about my work.

How did 'The Queer Film Guide' come to be?

Omaralexis Ochoa: Definitely. And I would say at the end of the day, it really does take, I think, a level of confidence. Where for many people, writing and other creative pursuits end up just being a side gig or a hobby of theirs. To really make it a career I think takes not only skill, but also that confidence in your own skillset as well.

So I think it's incredibly impressive what you've done so far and I'm really looking forward to seeing what more you put together with this queer film guide. So I want to shift gears a little bit into the book itself. Again, I got a copy of this, so thanks very much. It's an excellent piece to have for me to just further explore queer film. Love the illustrations. It's just a beautiful book. 

So how did this book come about? Were you previously already writing about queer film and kind of adapting pieces into the book? How did the Queer Film Guide come to be? 

Kyle Turner: Well, first of all, thank you so much. I'm so glad that you like it. I'm really, really proud of it.

I'm proud of the writing. I'm proud of it as like an object as well. And thanks also to the really wonderful illustrator, Andy Warren. He did such a terrific job in terms of distilling a hundred movies into a one image that's like really gorgeously illustrated and designed. But it came about that the Australian publisher that is putting this together, Smith Street Books, they had done a book previously called "The Feminist Film Guide" and the author of that one, Mallory Andrews, who was the editor of the Cleo Film Journal, (Which was a feminist film journal based in Canada.). She recommended me for the new book that the publisher wanted to do on queer film. And they approached me last year, last May, and they were like, "Would you be interested in doing this?" and I said, "Yes, yes, I would."

And I've been thinking about queer film in particular for at least since college, if not beforehand. And so putting the list together was like not difficult per se. It was really a matter of slimming down and making sure that it fit within the 100, and by design things are excluded.

And so, even though this book is titled The Queer Film Guide, I would like to think it more as a queer film guide. This is an example of a resource that you can use to explore queer film. There are many ways to approach queer film. This is just one example and I'm proud of that. And this book also would not be what it is without like the incredibly generous and wonderful, support and help of other critics who are also very much engaged in film criticism and queer culture and queer film.

Like Juan Barquin, who's a film critic and programmer based in Miami. NG Le, who is a critic based in... She's in Paris, but is also in London sometimes. She travels. She travels. Willow Catelyn Maclay, who is a wonderful trans film critic and examines transness in film as well as Kid Mark Gardner, who's a really great critic.

And Liz Purchell, who's an archivist, specifically looking at the history of gay porn cinema. So this was not done alone by any means. 

The Wide Variety of Queer Culture Experts

Omaralexis Ochoa: What I'm really intrigued to hear about, it's actually quite impressive and and surprising to learn that there's such a wide ranging variety of queer experts in the space that are really zeroing in on interesting niches throughout queer history.

Kyle Turner: Oh, absolutely. And I think the this book admittedly does have a similar problem in that... It's partially due to the material reality of how films get financed and how films get made. People who are, who have like the most proximity to power, which is predominantly like white, cis people will often have their work supported and financed and made. In a way that queer filmmakers of color, queer female filmmakers, trans filmmakers, et cetera.

They don't have the same leverage or power to do that. So it does skew like pretty white, cis, amero-centric. But I did try to do my due diligence and try to really explore the different vicissitudes and ways of understanding queerness across countries and genres and styles and sensibilities.

But if you can think of a niche within film or within queer film, there's someone who feels passionately about it. And I know that my perspective is very much shaped by the fact that 1) I'm adopted and I was sort of socialized in a very white space and I sort of made due with the fact that most of the representation that I was gonna get across media, queer or otherwise, was gonna be from white people. But I have had the great fortune of being interested in movies enough to like seek things out that were closer to my experiences. But I think the beauty of film is that you can find those things and you can find that intimacy with film without necessarily it having to be explicit and overt. And I hope when people look at this book and continue to explore film outside of the parameters of this book, that they are able to sort of find things that they relate to or that they share with the characters or with the scenario or with the movie.

Omaralexis Ochoa: Yeah, certainly. And I think that's one of the unique aspects of the films you chose for this particular book. A lot of the films that I recognize do seem to have a lot of those universal themes, and also, I guess the timelessness of some of the picks as well, where it's not just localized to contemporary film picks, but there are films dating back to the forties and I think as far back as the thirties, if I'm not mistaken. 

Kyle Turner: As far back as 1919!

How did you decide which films to feature in the Guide?

Omaralexis Ochoa: Right. And so I think it's a very interesting list that really does push on that universality and doesn't require the reader to be a queer person or someone specifically interested in queer film.

In putting this book together, what made you choose some of these films over the other? 

Kyle Turner: The guiding ethos for me in terms of picking these movies was to show as great of a diversity of what queerness could be in film, that it wasn't just about explicitly LGBTQ characters.

I do think representation is important. I do think it is important for there to be a variety of stories and perspectives and identities on screen behind the camera. Absolutely. 

But I think there are ways to engage with the idea of queerness and otherness and difference that articulate themselves or manifest themselves beyond that.

It was really important for me to also find movies where queerness existed as a sensibility or as a formal aspect of the film itself. The way that the movie looks or the way that it is edited or the general aesthetic like Funeral Parade of Roses is yes, explicitly -- the Toshio Matsumoto film from 1969 -- is explicitly a movie about the queer underground scene in Tokyo in the late sixties, predominantly queer and trans sex workers. However, it is queer also because the way that it explodes the cinematic form and challenges a heteronormative or hegemonic idea of how movies are made. It's not just you go from point A to point B.

No, this film really remixes and invents itself and folds in on itself in really interesting ways there. It plays with different styles, it plays with cartoonishness. It really stretches the poppiness and the surrealist quality of what film can be, and I think by experimenting with the grammar of cinematic language that you're getting a movie that is intentionally challenging, a dominant way of making movies. I wanted to include things like that. 

And as well as The Fly, which is a David Cronenberg film from 1985, I believe. That one doesn't have like an explicitly queer character in it, but it is about a scientist who is experimenting with cloning. As the film progresses, he accidentally mixes his DNA with a fly as the title suggests. And you see his body transform. And Dave Cronenberg has long been fascinated with the limitations and the possibilities of the material and corporeal body. And that's something that we're talking about now as far as trans people's rights.

The question of what can you do with a body? And how are you defined by your body? And how do other people define you by your body? And so there, there are different ways to engage with movies and how they incorporate queerness within them, whether it's overtly or through some other means.

Omaralexis Ochoa: Definitely and I really love that interpretation of The Fly. That's a very apt comparison to make between what's happening today and what the film is ultimately saying about humanism and the corporality you alluded to earlier.

Kyle Turner: I mean, David Cronenberg, even though he is straight identifying-- his films have long had this cult queer audience because he is interested in those questions. He's interested in questions of the body and desire and how our body changes when we lust after something. How our body changes when we want something or when it's denied to us. Or denied from us. And Videodrome is also a sidebar recommendation, some of his other works, have been heralded by queer critics as being really good examples of not only queer art that's made by an ostensibly straight person, but also just queer art that wants to interrogate these fundamental questions of the body of what it means to be human.

What is your all-time favorite queer film, and why?

Omaralexis Ochoa: So I have to ask, after all of these queer films you've seen, what would you say is your all-time favorite and why?

Kyle Turner: Ooh. That's a hard one. 

Omaralexis Ochoa: Yeah. And I think we need to get some people angry with this answer.

Kyle Turner: Okay. My favorite. Well, what has my favorite currently... can I give you two for different moods?

Omaralexis Ochoa: Sure. Yeah. 

Kyle Turner: Okay. My favorite when I'm being annoying is Cruising by William Freaken from 1980.

It is kind of a bad object in gay film history. It was released in 1980. It's about an undercover cop, or rookie cop played by Al Pacino who goes undercover in the New York leather BDSM gay scene to investigate a series of very savage and vicious murders.

And it was released at a time when it was not necessarily helpful or productive to have a film about murders within the queer community happening. And a particular portrayal or depiction of BDSM and leather culture. However, I think it is a really, really interesting movie about the connection between white supremacy and gay politics because as Pacino gets deeper and deeper into this queer world he has this ambivalence about his identity.

He feels his sense of self shifting and destabilizing in a really profound way. He's also getting closer and closer to like a vision of gayness that is very much attached to like the fetishization of fascist aesthetics because the reality that must be acknowledged is that the leather scene and like a lot of kink stuff has inherited a certain kind of aesthetic that originates or is found in iconography of the Third Reich and of Nazim. The leather boots and chains and the meat hooks and the caps and the leather jackets and whatnot. Those are very much fascistic imagery. And there's a really great essay by Susan Sontang called Fascinating Fascism, which she talks about the way that sexual adventurism is signaled through this iconography and through these fascist aesthetics. 

And I think gay culture in particular has a tendency to sexualize these pieces of iconography. And so the movie makes this connection between that and like the American police state, which I think is fascinating.

It was not necessarily the best to release it in 1980 when there were significantly fewer representations of gayness and queerness. And so having a movie that was so explicitly connecting gayness and fascism was maybe not the move. William Freaken also directed The Boys in the Band, from 1970, which is based on a play from 1968 or 1969.

So he himself, even though he is also straight identifying, has a compelling relationship to queerness and queer culture. So whenever I'm like being annoying and wanna challenge a friend or a viewer or myself, I love watching that movie because it's also just a good slasher movie. It's a good horror movie and suspense movie. 

But when I'm feeling a little bit more in my feelings and feeling a little bit sappier, I really do love, Weekend by Andrew Haigh, which was released in 2011. It's about these two guys in Leeds, in the UK who have this one night stand that then evolves into a a 72 hour dynamic. And they really plumb the depths of their lives and reveal themselves to one another in a way that neither character really has before. And it's very swoony and very romantic. It very well liked, I think within broader gay culture. As a, as a romantic film. 

But I think something that is often lost in the conversation to me is the fact that majority of the dialogue in the movie is about these two guys unpacking their own relationship to their gayness and what it means to be a white working class gay man in 2011 in the UK.

And they talk about the fact that marriage equality is something that United States queer community is actively working towards. And I think it's just really fascinating to have this film that has has such a strong sense of emotion, but also politics. 

And also I love Spa Night by Andrew Ahn, which is about this young man who is a second generation Korean. His parents have to sell their restaurant and in he's failing the SATs and he wants to go to college, but in order to help his family, he gets a job at a local Korean spa where he finds it to be a local cruising area, and he has to really confront his own sense of masculinity and sense of queerness. And that one's really beautiful. So those three are my favorite. Sorry, I gave you a three. 

Discussing Weekend

Omaralexis Ochoa: Yeah, I have some watching to do. I had not heard of Cruising or Spa Night but Weekend was actually I think one of the first queer films I ever saw kind of coming out of high school.

When I saw that movie, that was definitely, a film that I always think of and go back to because it was kind of a keystone moment for me, just growing up, coming into my own identity and seeing it on screen and seeing what other gay people are like. It sort of gave me a view into a world that I wasn't yet a part of.

I mean, I was a freshman or sophomore in college hadn't really met or knew any gay people really and if I did, they were around my own age. And so seeing two working class men just living their lives, I guess in some ways it reflected to me what life might be like or could be like. And that movie always comes to mind anytime I think of gay film. 

Kyle Turner: Have you revisited it since you first saw it, of how has your relationship changed with it? 

Omaralexis Ochoa: , I actually, I think I've only seen it maybe once or twice. It was years ago, so I'll have to watch it again and see what I think now. Since then I've seen very much more queer film. In terms of maybe how it stacks up, I'll have to think about that. 

Kyle Turner: You know, I love a movie about longing and yearning, transient relationships. Those always really satisfy me because they're so ineffable and they almost disappear when you try to catch them. Whether it's through a creative expression or just through memory. I think there's a real beauty to that. Weekend is able to really convey that in an eloquent way. 


Omaralexis Ochoa: So now I have some weekend watching to do. Typically I'll watch any movie and will have to sit with it for a little bit to see what I take away.

And I love just sort of dissecting the takeaways and like you mentioned it changes over time. But I love a good mystery when it comes to film, why certain scenes or interactions were made a certain way and what it's meant to convey. Very many queer films do a great job at that because I think, especially for many of the older ones, you can't be so overt with the message you're trying to get across or you're symbolizing it through analogy or metaphor.

Kyle Turner: Yes. I don't disagree, but I think there's a lot of pleasure to be had in analogy, metaphor, in coding, even though it was by necessity quite often. Filmmakers and artists found ways to express queerness or express parts of their themselves and express their desires through those methods is beautiful in its own right.

Obviously the, the oppressive aspect is not good, but having parameters. Having creative parameters always forces an artist to be more inventive and more innovative. 

From queer coding, to out-and-proud; how will queer film evolve?

Omaralexis Ochoa: On that same note, with regards to coding, you mentioned the oppressive environment requires queer filmmakers, in a previous time, when it wasn't acceptable to be writing a film about queer characters, but coding them to be queer.

To now today, where we do have queer characters on screen who are overt about their identities and who are being represented fully and openly, how do you think, or how would you like queer film to evolve next? 

Kyle Turner: Well, first of all, I want more people to just have the opportunities and resources to make their films.

It's interesting that you're asking me this now because the writer's strike is happening as we're recording. Solidarity. And the way that film distribution has changed so dramatically in the past decade, even like five or six years, there are just more avenues to distribute your film. But that means that we also live in such a segmented culture. There's no real zeitgeist anymore. There's no monoculture, but it does make it harder to either get distributed or to find an audience. A smaller queer film may get picked up by Sundance Selects or your A24 and whatnot. But then those distribution companies, even though they've been in the game long, they have to deal with all these other hurdles.

And so I really hope that the way that queer film evolves has a lot to do with like the way that it is funded and distributed. As far as the stories that are told, I hope these filmmakers feel empowered to continue to experiment and challenge themselves and challenge viewers. My own tastes are such that I don't love films that need to telegraph to the audience super explicitly that this is a form of positive representation. That's not as interesting to me. I'm much more compelled by things that are complicated and naughty and weighty and really deal with human experience as it is because people are so incredibly flawed. I'm incredibly flawed. People and characters in the book I think are really good examples of characters who are not perfect, whose otherness or queerness is not incidental per se, but who have a lot more going on.

And so I hope queer film evolves. In terms of like constantly challenging what a queer film even is. 

What do you think about "easy-viewing" queer media?

Omaralexis Ochoa: Yeah, definitely. And I think the experimentation and playing with these stories in ways that are more complex turn our characters into less myopic caricatures of gay people and into more realistic, humanized gay characters. But in the other direction, what I sort of call "easy viewing", things you'll watch on the Disney Channel or things that are targeted towards a younger audience. How would you say the two sort of reconcile? Recently I've seen a larger influx of more "easy viewing" queer films.

Do you think that also has a place in the world of queer film in the future? 

Kyle Turner: Sure. Absolutely. I would never argue for less representation in any form. But I think equality really means having mediocre things to choose from. That was sort of humorous for the record. I think I have little bit of an ambivalence or mixed feelings about certain examples like Heartstopper or Love, Victor --not that these shouldn't be examples or cultural artifacts that should be available to especially younger people. I absolutely think that younger people should have a easily accessible selection of things to experience and to watch and engage with. However, the thing that I am always looking for in queer media is something that both challenges the viewers as well as the creators themselves, things that are ultimately complicated and have a distinctive point of view.

I think a lot of the problems with these examples is that they don't really have a distinctive point of view. They are aiming so hard for a universality that it sort of flattens it into like kind of a generic version of gayness. That that's what I find to be sometimes frustrating. 

Or Bros. Bros is not a very good movie. It's not inherently that it is a bad movie. It's that it spends the entire movie trying to prove to you that it's a good, history-making piece as opposed to being straightforward and telling the romantic comedy movie that it wants to be. Audiences are way smarter than a lot of executives give them credit for.

Audiences were smart enough to read queerness into things where other people didn't realize it was there.

Omaralexis Ochoa: No, I think that makes total sense. I think as queer film develops and queer media becomes available to all ages and all kinds of people from around the world, having that accessibility becomes important but to your point, it doesn't need to be handheld.

It doesn't really need to be spoonfed, and so long as there are still complex stories being told, or perspectives being shared, I think at the end of the day, the easy viewing films make sense. I mean I personally loved Heartstopper. 

Kyle Turner: I'm sorry. Sorry for bashing. 

Omaralexis Ochoa: No, no. I thought it was great.

But I do also love, what I refer to as "high-brow", I'm not sure if that's an offensive word in the film world, but... 

Kyle Turner: The only "brows" I believe in are "unibrows." 

Signing Off

Omaralexis Ochoa: So before signing off, any final notes to share just on the Queer Film Guide? Where can people find it? What do you hope they take away from it? And anything else you wanna share about your new book? 

Kyle Turner: Well, thank you so much for having me on. This has been a lot of fun. The Queer Film Guide comes out May 16th, 2023 from Smith Street Books and Rizzoli.

I hope that people take away that as queer people have always in some form existed, so has queer film. There have always been artists and filmmakers that have wanted to explore different parts of themselves and different aspects of their desire in cinema, and I hope that this is a useful resource, a fun resource to get your journey into queer film started. I'm really proud of it and I hope people like it. I hope it's fun and useful. That's my takeaway. I hope, I hope it is fun and useful. And they also understand that queerness and cinema can exist in a litany and a melange of ways. 

Omaralexis Ochoa: Awesome. Well, I will drop some links in the description once they're available, but it's been really incredible having you on Kyle. I really appreciated this. 

Kyle Turner: It's been so much fun talking to you, Lex. Thank you so much for having me.

Photo of Omaralexis Ochoa, host of The Gay Pro, and author of this blog post.

Omaralexis Ochoa

Data analyst, podcaster, pasta-lover... I'm many things, but above all, I'm a creator. I created The Gay Pro because I love sharing stories of queer success, with the intention of empowering and inspiring other queer leaders.