How cinema is giving a voice to queer children

While the lives of queer young people are used as a political football, a wave of films are offering a counter-narrative, giving them agency onscreen while standing up to institutionalised homophobia.

The war against sexuality is being waged in classrooms, playgrounds and politics. Just last week, Rishi Sunak brought forward a review into sex education after Tory MP Miriam Cates incorrectly claimed that schools are providing age-inappropriate, extreme, sexualising and inaccurate” lessons. The move has the tone of similarly regressive policies in the US, but these arguments are nothing new. The fight for the innocence” of our children” has always been used as a thin veil for homophobia, as though young people are in constant danger of being made queer” by their surrounding influences. The sinister suggestion is that children are automatically designated as straight and cis – until they catch” it.

But while all this has been seething in politics, a counter argument has unfolded on screen. In films such as Blue Jean, Close and 20,000 Species of Bees, and TV shows like Heartstopper and Sex Education, queer children and teenagers are depicted authentically: innately curious, questioning gender and sexuality to understand their own identity. Rather than blank canvases who blindly absorb their surroundings, they’re shown to be actively shaping and contributing to new understandings of queer realities.

If you scratch a child, you’ll find a queer,” writes scholar Kathryn Bond Stockton. What she’s getting at here is the fact that children’s imaginations are unrestricted by biases and rules. Lukas Dhont’s critically-acclaimed film Close takes this idea and runs with it, telling the tale of two boys, Lèo (Eden Dambrine) and Rèmi (Gustav De Waele), who grow apart after starting secondary school. When we grow up, we start to understand that the bodies we are born in already have this set of rules designated by others,” says Dhont. I wanted to show a young gaze that stands in conflict with these pressures to conform.”

At the beginning of the film, the pair are inseparable, spending their summer holidays playing in an abandoned bunker near their homes. I wanted to find these boys a space that we’ve linked so long to masculinity and virility and subvert it with their imagination,” Dhont says. Can you hear that?” they whisper, pretending enemies are chasing them as they hold their play-sword-sticks close to their chests. Exchanging a glance, they break into a run, escaping the bunker to leap across fecund flower fields. They shriek, they laugh, they fall into each other’s arms. Their gestures are tender and intimate – as Dhont puts it, an example of pure love that arrives before language.”

The playground is where we are confronted with this group mentality, where we want to belong to many, rather than to ourselves in order to survive”


But everything changes when a classmate questions their sexuality on the first day of secondary school. Lèo starts distancing himself from Rèmi, instead participating in inane football chat with the other boys and throwing himself onto the ice-hockey pitch with painful aggression. Meanwhile, Lèo begins to view their closeness from the eyes of others, triggering shame and self-consciousness that marks the beginning of adulthood.

The playground is where we are confronted with this group mentality, where we want to belong to many, rather than to ourselves in order to survive. I speak from the experience of someone who wanted to belong so much that I betrayed myself,” Dhont says. We often don’t have a vocabulary for the war that happens inside us. What I’ve tried to offer is a way to hopefully help people connect to each other and the language of their hearts.”

The characters’ sexualities are never defined in the film, but the subtext is clear. This is a queer film. It has queer wounds – of betraying love out of fear and shame,” he continues. This is an experience a lot of us had growing up, because of the expectations of the world.” What’s so moving in Close is how Rèmi and Lèo’s intimacy is linked to their childlike sense of freedom and absence of shame. Counter to the arguments of many politicians, it’s precisely the homophobic pressures of the playground that force them to renounce their queer, innocent worldviews.

Similarly, in Blue Jean, director Georgia Oakley reckons with the impact of homophobia in the education system. Set in 1988, the film introduces us to Jean (Rosy McEwen), a PE teacher who leads a carefully separated double life during the nascent days of Section 28, a piece of bigoted but damagingly legislation which was introduced by Thatcher’s Conservative government to prohibit the promotion of homosexuality” in schools. The clause was repealed in Scotland in 2000 and in England and Wales only 20 years ago in 2003.

I wanted to set this film during a time that’s in conversation with the present and examine the erasure of Section 28 from [the viewpoint of] British history,” says Oakley. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t been exposed to the reality of that law until a few years ago. I left school in 2006 and I had a sudden realisation about how much the law would have affected my life without my knowledge. I started to understand why I existed in a culture of silence.”

Jean’s precarious balance between her conflicting lives is upended when new girl Lois (Lucy Halliday) joins her class and is instantly picked on by girls who intuit her queerness. I was interested in the sense of paranoia as a teacher and the isolation of children, who had no role models,” says Oakley. Forced to make a choice between being an ally to Lois or exposing herself, Jean finds herself perpetuating the values of Section 28, a desperate act of self-protection that further damages both her and Lois’ self-worth.

Since the film’s release in February, Oakley has noticed some illuminating misinterpretations of its premise from audiences. People who weren’t queer mistook the magnetism between Jean and Lois as sexual chemistry,” she says. But that’s not it at all.” The fact that people have confused the characters’ anxiety around each other for attraction lays bare the insidious nature of Section 28 and contemporary debate around sex education, exposing how heteronormative people can automatically sexualise a queer encounter, even when it’s between an adult and a teenager. I remember that culture growing up, of parents not wanting to have these conversations,” Oakley continues. In 2018, I became a parent to a six-year-old and I realise that very little has changed.”

But there is hope. Many parents are actively listening to their children, questioning society’s prescribed norms to affirm their children’s gender identity from a young age. For 20,000 Species of Bees, for example, director Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren worked with 20 different families who have trans children to bring to life the story of an eight-year-old trans girl, Lucía (Sofía Otero). Speaking at the film’s premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, Solaguren mentioned how, during interviews with trans kids and their parents, the parents often repeated: We are the ones going through a transformation process, not our kids – they know who they are.”

Instead of focusing on the struggles of discrimination, 20,000 Species of Bees is about Lucía’s attempts to speak for herself and make others see her for who she is. She asks her great-aunt to call her queen bee” with a cheeky smile, demands her mum stop using her male birth name, Aitor, in a flicker of anger, and defines herself as a mermaid while playing on the shore. What the film argues for is Lucía’s self-determination to choose, a right that so many trans children around the world are being denied. Telling children they’re too young or immature to understand their needs inflicts violence against their choices and sense of self. Solaguren’s moving film shows that it doesn’t have to be that way.

As the culture war rages on, these films are fighting back, busting the fear-mongering homophobic, biphobic and transphobic myths that pollute public understanding of queer identities. None of this age-inappropriate”. It’s the truth. On and off screen, queer children are using their voices. It’s time for the adults to listen.

Blue Jean is in cinemas and available on and other digital platforms. Close is in cinemas now and on MUBI from 21 April.

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