Hays Code and its impact on queer representation in mainstream Hollywood.

Did you know that prior to 1930, queer people were present on our big screen? Granted, their representation was usually for comedic purpose and weren’t inclusive of the whole queer, trans and non-binary experience, but it was still there. However, this all changed when the Motion Picture Production Code was sent into motion; this affected the portrayal of queer people in cinema and still affects it today. Cinema is known to depict the mores of any society and this Code made sure that it showed only Christian values and ostracized any marginalized community.

What is the Hays Code?


The Hays Code is a colloquial name for the Motion Picture Production Code, named after Will H. Hays, the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. It is a set of rules and guidelines from the early 1930s to the late 1960s that Hollywood movies had to follow to be shown in cinema, and was set to straighten the curve after the decadence of cinema in the 1920s. This Code was supposed to ensure that these Hollywood movies were ‘safe’ and ‘presentable’ for the public at large. This meant that controversial and highly debated topics were banned, and if these were featured in a couple of rare cases, it was not supposed to be in a positive light. This is a couple of the most poignant don’ts and be carefuls that the Code dictated:

  1. Pointed profanities- including God, Lord, Jesus, Christ, Hell, damn and any other vulgar expression
  2. No nude or licentious scenes
  3. Illegal drugs and their trafficking
  4. Reference to sexual perversion (Queerness, bestiality, etc.)
  5. No White slavery, but black slavery was okay
  6. Miscegenation
  7. Sexual hygiene and STDs
  8. Scene of Childbirth in fact or silhouette
  9. Children’s sexual organs
  10. Ridicule of clergy
  11. Offense to any nation, race, or creed

The Code was very restrictive and gave moviemakers very little leeway in the depiction of any sort of action or marginalized characters.

How the Motion Picture Production Code affected queer portrayal?

Early depictions of homosexuals were mostly as child molesters, victims of violence (starting the bury your gays trope) and drag queens (for example Divine in John Waters’ movies, especially the famed Pink Flamingo). This is because the Hays Code limited the portrayal and normalization of characters and behaviors that they considered unsavory and morally corrupted. One of these is the depiction of sexual perversion, which covertly or not so covertly meant homosexuality and still has a lasting impact on mainstream Hollywood cinema. 


The term sexual perversion referred to anything that went ‘against the natural order of gender, sex, and romance. This is hypocritical if you think about it because homosexuality is found in over 450 species of animals, so how can it be unnatural if it’s found in nature? And don’t get me started with the argument that homosexuality is condemned in the Bible because this is also untrue and was a gross mistranslation; you can learn more about this in the 1946 documentary. This specific ban applied to any and all characters that were attracted to the same gender or who differed in their gender identity or presentation.

Aftermath of the Hays Code

While nudity and violence were integrated into mainstream Cinema after the Code was disbanded, this was not the case with LGBTQIA+ representation; on the contrary, it remained taboo. In the three decades that the Code dictated movie portrayal, villains were coded as queer. They were given more feminine traits, which can be seen in The Maltese Falcon, where Joel Cairo is this over-flamboyant villain who eventually dies in the end to maintain order. Queer coded villains are also plentiful in Disney movies, from my fave like Ursula, whose design was inspired by the drag queen Divine, to Jafar in Aladdin, to Pocahontas’s John Ratcliffe, to Hades, to Tamatoa, I could go on with this list as Disney has a long history of queer coding its villains. This might be one reason why I root for the villains more than the protagonists sometimes; because they are stylish and cunning.


For decades after it was disbanded, queer characters would appear in movies, and their sexuality and gender identity would be shrouded in innuendos and visual cues. Even today, more than 40 years after the Hays Code had been removed, you can see a sparse amount of queer movies that have a happy ending; even Oscar-nominated movies like Milk, Brokeback Mountain and others like Pride still maintain the bury your queer trope. We rarely see queer characters live as full-fledged characters with happy life with romantic partners.

However, though this Code prevents us from having queer movies with good representation, now filmmakers are more open and are showing a wider range of the queer experience with films like Your Name Engraved Herein, Portrait of a lady on Fire, Love, Simon, Moonlight or even Tangerine. We are moving toward a more inclusive world, which is presented in the movies that we actually see on screen. Cinema is supposed to mirror the human experience in all its glory and diversity and we are only now getting to see this. Instead of being comedic side characters or characters with a sad ending, they are the main characters of their own stories.

Sound off in the comment section below if you are like me and are infuriated by the lack of diversity in Hollywood.

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