The study of gay and lesbian cinema became a growing concern in the wake of 1970s feminist film theory and the discipline's increasing attention to issues of representation—of women, of racial and ethnic minorities, and eventually of gay and lesbian people. While there had been a few attempts to discuss onscreen homosexuality prior to that period (such as Parker Tyler's Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies ), the seminal text on the subject was Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (first published in 1981, revised and updated in 1987). In it, Russo examined over eighty years of film history, exploring the ways and means in which gay and lesbian people had been portrayed at the movies. Those images carried considerable cultural weight; for many people, these images were all they ever "saw" or "knew" about homosexuality before the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
The so-called Stonewall Riots that occurred in New York City in June 1969 are sometimes said to be the start of the modern gay and lesbian civil rights movement—the fight for civil rights and an end to discrimination. Before that time, gay and lesbian people were routinely fired from their jobs, denied housing, harassed, or arrested simply for being homosexual. They were classified as mentally ill by the psychiatric and military communities, and during the Red Scare of the 1950s they were considered national security risks. Like the struggle for racial or gender equality, the fight for gay and lesbian equality continues to this day, and the images that popular film and television create of homosexual people continue to influence both public perception and governmental policy.
In the last twenty years, the study of gay and lesbian cinema has expanded greatly beyond simplistic image analysis. Within academia, the development of third wave feminism and queer theory across many disciplines in the humanities has sought to rethink basic concepts about human sexuality, demonstrating the complexity of a subject that encompasses not only personal orientation and behavior but also the social, cultural, and historical factors that define and create the conditions of such orientations and behaviors. The term "queer," once a pejorative epithet used to humiliate gay men and women, is now used to describe that broad expanse of sexualities. Queer should thus be understood to describe any sexuality not defined as heterosexual procreative monogamy (once the presumed goal of any Hollywood coupling); queers are people (including heterosexuals) who do not organize their sexuality according to that rubric.
Recently, many of the theoretical issues raised by queer theory have found their way into gay and lesbian independent filmmaking, within a movement known as New Queer Cinema. Queer theory also helps us interrogate and complicate the category "gay and lesbian cinema." For example, the very meaning of the words "gay" and "lesbian"—how they are used and understood—has changed greatly over the decades, as have the conditions of their cinematic representation. There are great cultural and historical differences between films made by queer directors in 1930s Hollywood and those made by early twenty-first-century independent queer filmmakers. The characteristics that mass culture has used to signify homosexuality have also changed. While present-day films can be relatively forthright about sexuality, older films could only hint at it in various ways. Thus, many classical Hollywood performances, directors, and genres might be considered queer rather than gay, in that they do not explicitly acknowledge homosexuality, but nonetheless allow for spaces in which normative heterosexuality is threatened, critiqued, camped up, or shown to be an unstable performative identity.