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Milk‘s Sean Penn Isn’t the Only Gay Movie Hero at the Party

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Thirty years before Proposition 8 became the hot-button issue of the day, Harvey Milk, the charismatic and likable “Mayor of Castro Street,” was preaching the importance of gay rights to anyone who would listen — including San Francisco’s gay community itself. Now he’s the subject of Gus Van Sant’s new Milk, which is generating Oscar buzz for star Sean Penn. Milk, who became the country’s first openly gay man in a high-profile public office when he ran for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 1977, was killed just a year later at the hands of a deranged fellow civil servant, Dan White (played by Josh Brolin). Dying young is an all too common theme among gay movie characters — but fictional or true, funny or sad (most often, a good deal of both), these stories prove that heroes can take many different forms.

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Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Certainly the most celebrated gay movie in recent memory — if not of all time — Brokeback Mountain depicts the complicated love story of cowboys Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal). Though they never escape the constraints of their early ’60s Montana-Texas lives, their romance lasts another 20 years, even through Jack’s murder. With its wrenching, burned-in-your-brain ending (who could forget the shirt?), Brokeback proves that true love endures, no matter what the odds.

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Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
Hedwig — the brainchild of writer-director-star John Cameron Mitchell — brings to life both a rockin’ score and an unforgettable character. Hansel is a young man escaping East Germany by marrying an American soldier, but only after a botched sex-change operation that leaves him with the aforementioned “inch.” His transformation into Hedwig, the glorious rock-star queen, is an unapologetic example of learning to live with what you’ve got.

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But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)
In this cult favorite satire, Megan (Natasha Lyonne), a church-going,
football player-dating cheerleader, is sent off to a “sexual
redirection” school after her friends and family decide she’s secretly
a lesbian. There she meets out-and-proud Graham (Clea DuVall),
falls for her and embraces who she is. It’s an over-the-top romantic comedy (the efforts to
make the teens straight are cringe-inducing), but Cheerleader is also a scathing indictment of those who claim they can “fix” what ain’t broke.

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Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
This movie, which made Hilary Swank a household name and earned her an Oscar, came out the same year as Cheerleader but couldn’t be more different. Based on a true story, Boys Don’t Cry
depicts the tragic story of Brandon Teena, a Nebraska teen who was
beaten and killed by his friends after they learned that Brandon — who
was dating a girl in their crowd, Lana — was anatomically female.
Released shortly after the gruesome death of gay Wyoming teen Matthew
Shepard, Boys shone a spotlight on the consequences of intolerance.

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The Birdcage (1996)
Granted, The Birdcage is a slight, sight-gag-filled comedy (it does star Robin Williams, after all), but this redo of La Cage aux Folles
is full of heart. Gay night-club owners Armand (Williams) and Albert
(Nathan Lane) go to extraordinary lengths to play it straight for the
sake of their son’s upcoming marriage to a right-wing politician’s
daughter. Their surprising response to the charade — and its eventual
reveal — showed that you shouldn’t underestimate anyone.

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Philadelphia (1993)
Another movie inspired by a true story, Philadelphia
addresses the issues of AIDS discrimination and the heroic efforts of a
man trying to prove what’s right. Hanks’ portrayal of Andrew (real-life
Philadelphia attorney Geoffrey Bowers, who sued his law firm for
wrongful termination) won him his first Oscar — as well as backlash
when he inadvertently outed his high school drama teacher in his
acceptance speech. Hanks may not have been a hero to the gay community,
but Bowers sure was.

These are some of our favorite gay movie heroes, but who are yours? Let us know in the comments.

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