12 Pivotal Queer-Coded Moments in Movie History

Film expert Derek Le Beau, who heads up the Queer Cinema Archive, shares the shrouded history of LGBTQ+ representation in movies.

by Derek Le Beau


When Derek Le Beau was a child, picking out a VHS or DVD at the movie store was a major highlight of his week. But if his father spied him choosing a title that was “a little too gay,” he’d try to steer his son in another direction. “‘Here, watch this Mighty Mouse cartoon!’” Le Beau recalls. “Something to butch it up a bit. But it didn’t work.”

Now, many of the DVDs that served as the object of Le Beau’s childhood interest are part of a sprawling project he’s created on TikTok and Instagram titled Queer Cinema Archive (Anderson Cooper is a noted fan and follower of the accounts). Through QCA, Le Beau stitches together moments of LGBTQ+ representation across Hollywood’s history, specializing in moments of “queer coding”—when directors and writers alluded to characters in their projects being queer rather than saying it outright, due to homophobic audiences and movie studios. “I hadn’t seen much until I was able to actively pursue looking up queer movies on my own,” Le Beau says. “The LGBTQ+ community is very underrepresented in mainstream media, but there’s been traces of us from the beginning. My goal is to share films that we’ve been featured in, but also share aspects of history. It’s a way of showing that we’ve always been here.” Below, Le Beau shares the history behind 12 films that feature particularly notable queer-coded moments. —Maxine Wally

The Wizard of Oz

The Cowardly Lion

It’s probably not surprising to learn that in MGM’s classic musical The Wizard of Oz, one of the original “friends of Dorothy” is queer-coded. The Cowardly Lion is a lovable, limp-wristed, self-proclaimed “sissy” who enjoys a good perm and bashfully blushes when receiving a kiss on the cheek from the Wizard.

Actor Bert Lahr’s interpretation of the Cowardly Lion was based on effeminate gay stage and screen characters known as sissies, or pansies. The pansy character originated in the nightclubs of Greenwich Village and Harlem and achieved mainstream popularity around 1930-1933. This happened largely because of prohibition in America, which helped commingle different groups and classes of people. Suddenly there were a lot more queer characters on the big screen—even in children’s cartoons! Despite these characters being removed from mainstream American movies after 1934, the Cowardly Lion slipped by the Hollywood censorship board and managed to skip down that yellow brick road, into the hearts of many.

Dracula’s Daughter

Countess Zaleska

Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula is one of the most iconic movie monsters to ever grace the silver screen—but did you know there was a sequel featuring his queer-coded child? Dracula’s Daughter (1936) continues where the first film left off, but introduces Countess Zaleska (Gloria Holden), who is processing the death of her father and her own growing vampiric urges.

The queer-coding of the Countess is evident through the way she deals with her latent vampirism. She seeks a “cure” through a psychologist, but eventually gives in to her desires and begins to pursue both men and women. There is an especially telling scene in which the Countess has encouraged a beautiful young woman to remove her clothing with the pretext of painting her portrait.

Countess Zaleska is an early example of what has become known as the “lesbian vampire” trope, which really took off in film after censorship loosened in the early 1970s. Prior to that decade, something as subtextually queer as Dracula’s Daughter was generally forbidden by Hollywood’s censorship office. Due to growing conservatism in the U.S. and threats of government censorship, LGBTQ characters were banned from the silver screen with the implementation of the Hays Code in 1934. Interestingly, it never fully succeeded in removing us; we would remain on screen in “coded” terms that often blended stereotypes and subtext. More apparent depictions of same-sex desire, like that of the Countess, were sometimes allowed to squeeze by because the characters were associated with villainy.

The Maltese Falcon

Joel Cairo

Queer-coded villains are fairly common in film noir, but one of the most overt cases is that of Peter Lorre’s character Cairo in The Maltese Falcon. The Hollywood censors were wary of Cairo before the screenplay had even been written because the character’s homosexuality was present in Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel of the same name. (“Don’t try to get a ‘nancy’ quality into him,” the Hays office warned writer/director John Huston.)

It seems as though Huston took this as a challenge. He coded the character as gay by giving Cairo a dandyish appearance, complete with a fancy pair of gloves, a pinkie ring, a cane cleverly used to signify a phallus—and gardenia-scented calling cards (originally lavender, but the Hays office objected). The music takes on a whimsically feminine quality when Cairo enters the office of private investigator Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), and the plot is set in motion.

Calamity Jane

Calamity “Calam” Jane

“A woman’s touch can weave a spell—the kind of hocus-pocus that she does so well.” Calamity’s roommate Katie sings these lyrics to her in a musical number about domesticity and the touch of a woman, in the classic Hollywood musical Calamity Jane (1953). The film stars Doris Day and is loosely based on the life of the gender-bending frontierswoman Martha Jane Canary. Calamity, or “Calam” as she prefers to be called, is a coach-driving, pants-wearing, androgynous sharpshooter who lives in Deadwood City. Here, she spends the majority of her time spinning tall tales in the local all-male tavern, where she attempts to fit in as one of the guys.

It’s surprising material to come from Hollywood’s heavily censored Hays Code era—Doris Day playing a butch woman fascinated by her ultra-femme roommate. Any speculation about their relationship is supposed to be cleared up by the fact they’re both pursuing the same man romantically, but the most developed connection in the film is between the two women. Despite the fact the film ends in heterosexual coupling, the queer-coding in this film still shines brightly. It stands out so much that Calamity’s song “Secret Love” became a huge hit in 1953—and many queer people embraced it as an anthem.

Bell, Book and Candle

Gillian Holroyd

John Van Druten’s 1950 Broadway play “Bell, Book and Candle” was adapted into a Hollywood romance film starring James Stewart and Kim Novak in 1958. Van Druten himself was a gay man and purposely queer-coded the entire community of witches and warlocks in his play. They live in New York City’s Greenwich Village and have their own hidden, private clubs where they can gather and be more open. They keep their personal lives secret because people outside of their own community do not understand them. It’s all very reminiscent of gay life in the 1950s.

Bell, Book and Candle follows a witch named Gillian (Novak) who is romantically drawn to a mortal man named Shep (Stewart). It is said that if a witch falls in love with a mortal she will lose her powers. Well, Gillian falls in love and is forced to decide if she’ll keep what makes her unique and special—or lose these qualities and become a “regular” person.

Some Like It Hot

Joe and Jerry

Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot is actually quite an important film in the timeline of queer representation in mainstream Hollywood productions. All studio films of the time were supposed to be screened by the Hays censorship office, and receive a seal of approval, but this particular comedy was too gay for them to approve.

Actors Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon spend the majority of their time on screen in drag and occasionally find themselves in some pretty queer situations; Curtis codes himself as gay at one point to woo Marilyn Monroe, while Lemmon begins to fall for the charms (or the money) of a wealthy man and is soon considering marriage.

Despite not attaining the Hays office’s seal of approval, the studio released the film anyway and Some Like it Hot was a huge hit. This act of defiance helped to further loosen queer censorship in Hollywood and allowed future films to more openly explore homosexuality on screen.

A Raisin in the Sun

Beneatha Younger

When Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” opened on Broadway in 1959, it was highly praised by critics and had a successful nineteen-month run. She was the first Black woman to have her play produced on the Broadway stage. Following the success of the play, Hansberry penned the screenplay for the Hollywood production; it was released in 1961 and became one of the first Hollywood films to address racial segregation.

“A Raisin in the Sun” follows the dreams and struggles of a Black American family in Chicago as they determine what to do with an insurance payout after the passing of a family member. While Hansberry was writing the play, she had also joined the first U.S. organization for lesbians, the Daughters of Bilitis, and was writing for their magazine The Ladder. While exploring her own identity, she wrote aspects of herself into the character of Beneatha Younger. The character is very interested in self-discovery, she’s fiercely feminist, and shows little interest in the men she dates—she even announces that she has no intention of marrying.

Now and Then


Many may know out screenwriter I. Marlene King as the executive producer and showrunner for the hit television series Pretty Little Liars (2010), but one of her earliest hits was the 1995 coming-of-age film Now and Then.

Now and Then follows four women as they reminisce about their childhoods in the summer of 1970. King wrote the screenplay and based the story on some of her experiences and friendships growing up. She also originally created the character of Roberta, played by both Christina Ricci and Rosie O’Donnell, as a lesbian. This was an important step for queer representation in the mid ’90s, but unfortunately Roberta’s lesbianism didn’t sit well with homophobic audiences and the studio attempted to alter the character to appear heterosexual.

The end result is some good, old-fashioned queer-coding. In the scenes taking place in 1970, Roberta (Ricci) is quite the tomboy—taping down her breasts, wearing boys’ clothing, fighting with her brothers and the neighborhood boys. Granted, she does kiss Devon Sawa—but states afterward it was “just okay.”

I don’t think the studio really succeeded in hiding Roberta’s queerness. Her identity may have evaded straight viewers, but if you speak to anyone from the LGBTQ community who grew up with this film, they’ll tell you the same thing: we knew, and we loved her.

The Fifth Element

Ruby Rhod

Effeminate male characters have often been used in Hollywood films to aid in making the male lead appear more masculine. One of the most notable examples of this is in the science fiction classic The Fifth Element. Chris Tucker explodes on the screen as talk show host Ruby Rhod, a gloriously swishy and extremely camp, gender non-conforming, futuristic, celebrity fashionista (dressed in Jean Paul Gaultier!). Ruby’s purpose in the film is to make Bruce Willis appear even more butch and to provide comic relief—but, unlike the queer-coded characters of film’s past, Ruby plays a crucial part in the story and helps the hero save the day (a step forward for queer representation in the ’90s).

What is most interesting about Ruby is that they identify as both “miss” and “mister,” have a duality that moves between masculine and feminine at any given moment, appreciate the male and female form, and are completely accepted and loved by the public.


Li Shang

Mulan is undeniably one of the queerest animated Disney films; it explores gender norms, has a climax featuring multiple characters in drag, an arguably bisexual army captain, and “Reflection”—a song that still resonates with queer and trans people today.

The story is adapted from the ancient Chinese legend of Hua Mulan and follows the title character as she takes her father’s place in the army by disguising herself as a man named Fa Ping. While in the army, Mulan (as Ping) catches the eye of Captain Li Shang as she begins to develop her combat skills.

The queer-coding of Li Shang comes through in the form of subtext. The connection he builds with Ping on their journey leads to the betrayal of discovering Mulan’s identity. He has really only known her as his male companion Ping, and seeks a romantic connection with her at the end of the film despite not actually knowing Mulan as a woman. It seems as though he has fallen in love with Ping and is getting to know Mulan as her true self. Disney may have accidentally created their first bisexual character here, even if that aspect sits beneath the surface.


Matron “Mama” Morton

Chicago is a musical film set in a women’s prison and follows two inmates competing for public attention and sympathy. They are helped, in part, by Matron “Mama” Morton (Queen Latifah). Mama is a butch warden who sings of her love of gifts, cash, and implied sexual favors. “When you're strokin’ Mama, Mama’s strokin’ you!” she belts out to the women in the cellblock.

Generally, Mama’s character is more overtly lesbian in the stage productions of Chicago. Her queerness is downplayed in the film adaptation, leaving her desires to fall into queer-coded subtext. The reasons for the changes probably fall under two categories: the studio likely wanted to avoid making straight audiences uncomfortable; and the film’s gay director, Rob Marshall, probably wanted to avoid the old cinematic stereotype of the predatory butch character in women’s prison films (which dates back to the 1930s).

Despite the issues surrounding this sort of character, Queen Latifah brings a likability to Mama that was missing in many of those older films. She was also nominated for an Academy Award for her iconic performance.


Luca and Alberto

Pixar/Disney’s Luca is the coming-of-age story of two teenage sea monsters, Luca and Alberto, who bond over their mutual interest in the human world. They run away together, moving to a nearby Italian village, but are careful to keep their identities secret because the townsfolk are scared of sea monsters.

For the queer-coded aspect of the story, I could alternately describe the plot as following two misunderstood teenagers, Luca and Alberto, who form a close friendship and run away together. They move into a small town with villagers who aren’t accepting of people like them, so they try their best to stay in the closet. Hollywood has a long history of associating queerness with their movie monsters. Luckily, this is a tale of acceptance and a nice move away from Disney’s infamous queer-coded villains like Scar, Jafar, Ursula, Captain Hook, etc.

Shortly after Luca’s premiere Disney animators fought to keep a lesbian couple in Lightyear and the studio also released Strange World, which featured their first openly gay protagonist in an animated feature. As mainstream representation like this continues to grow, with time, queer-coding will eventually become a thing of the past.