Documentaries and biopics about decades-old scandals are the next big trend, and we can’t get enough of them. From the Jordan Peele-produced Lorena Bobbitt documentary on Amazon Video to recent films about Monica Lewinsky and Tonya Harding, these movies of the #MeToo era attempt to dig through all the tabloid noise of the 90s and early 2000s and pay attention to the sexism, classism and other abuses of power that may have motivated the people involved.
This got us thinking about scandals involving the queer community over the last 20 years that deserve a closer look, and could make the next viral hit on Netflix or Hulu.
Celebrity coming out stories seem so commonplace these days, it can be easy to forget that a famous actor announcing he is gay felt like scandalous news not that long ago. One perfect example is Rupert Everett, the dashing British actor and friend of Madonna who was building a promising film career until about 1989, which is the year he officially came out. He’s often claimed in interviews that his prospects in Hollywood dried up after that. “I did a couple of films, I was very lucky at the beginning of my career… and then, I never had another job here for ten years probably and I moved to Europe,” he told The Hollywood Reporter.
He’s also had some stern words for straight actors playing gay roles, saying it takes away opportunities for gay actors like himself. It would be interesting to examine Everett’s story today and see how much has changed — if anything has really changed at all.
Pedro Zamora was best known for appearing on MTV’s The Real World: San Francisco in 1994, but the Cuban-American HIV-positive activist had been working as an AIDS educator years before that. He traveled the country speaking at schools and churches, often at the expense of his own health, trying to educate a largely ignorant public about what it meant to live with the disease.
His sexual identity and HIV-positive status were a point of controversy on the show, as some of his housemates felt uncomfortable getting too close to him and even made crude gay jokes about him. His relationship with boyfriend Sean Sasser was also documented on the show, and their same-sex commitment ceremony was the first in television history. Sadly, he passed away in November 1994, hours after the final episode of The Real World: San Francisco aired.
Anyone who watched TV in the 90s will remember Miss Cleo, the woman with the headdress and the heavy Jamaican accent who starred in late-night infomercials inviting people to call a charge-by-the-minute 900 number so she could read their fortunes. She got tangled in controversy and lawsuits when a Florida newspaper revealed she was actually born in Los Angeles and her customers complained of being overcharged and duped by false advertising from the producers who controlled her brand.
What most viewers didn’t know at the time, however, was that Miss Cleo is a lesbian who hid her sexuality from the public and a number of her family members for many years. She told The Advocate in 2006 that she was afraid of wrath and exile from her community, saying, “When I came out to a number of friends in the late ’80s I had a number of friends who turned their backs on me and walked away. That was really intense.”
Versace’s murder at the hands of fame-crazed stalker Andrew Cunanan in 1997 has already been immortalized by American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace; but with true crime stories captivating people’s imaginations, Netflix viewers would be fascinated by a gritty, in-depth look at the fashion icon’s life and death. Oxygen has produced its own documentary called Killing Versace: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, which traces Cunanan’s steps before and after the crime on the steps of Versace’s Miami Beach home, and features expert commentary from investigators on the original case. But if Fyre Festival has taught us anything, it’s that audiences will happily watch a competing documentary that puts a fresh spin on the story.
Larry Craig is a retired Republican senator from Idaho, and also the reason “wide stance” is now such a well-worn, tacky gay joke. In June 2007 he was arrested for lewd conduct in a men’s room at the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport after he reached his foot into the next stall and tapped the shoe of an undercover police officer, a code for hookups in public places. Craig pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct but continued to publicly deny being gay or hooking up with men — which only prompted a number of gay men and male sex workers to come forward with more salacious stories. He eventually resigned from the Senate after Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign threw him under the bus (and then “backed up and ran over me again”) and Washington watchdog groups began to question whether he’d violated the Senate Rules of Conduct.
With the GOP’s culture wars raging more intensely than ever under President Trump’s leadership, it would be fascinating to take another look at this political scandal and how gay politicians are perceived in Washington.
For many people, actress Anne Heche is a footnote and a punchline in the story of Ellen DeGeneres. They began dating in 1997 and seemed interested in a civil union, but they broke up in 2000, at which point Heche went back to relationships with men and famously had an episode of mental illness where she walked more than a mile through the desert, crashed at a stranger’s house, and told authorities called to the scene that she was going to take everyone to Heaven in a spaceship.
But with everything society has learned since then about sexuality and mental health, Heche is long overdue for a more sympathetic retelling — particularly in light of her 2001 memoir Call Me Crazy, in which she reveals that her father died from AIDS, her mother is a Christian fundamentalist who believes in conversion therapy, and her brother died in what Heche believes was a suicide.
Long before Jared Polis became the first openly gay man elected as a United States governor in 2018, there was New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey — but his sexuality was not embraced by the public nearly as much. Elected in 2001 while still in the closet, McGreevey drew criticism for appointing his secret lover, Israeli national Golan Cipel, as homeland security adviser despite his lack of experience or qualifications. Reporters covering the controversy began to uncover details of their relationship, forcing McGreevey to publicly come out in August 2004. This made him America’s first openly gay governor, but also caused him to resign his post in disgrace.
This was hardly the only scandal that beseiged his governorship, however — he was also linked to Jared Kushner’s father Charles Kushner, who took revenge on his brother-in-law by paying a prostitute $10,000 to lure him to a hotel room and have sex with him, then sent the tape from a hidden camera to his sister. All the makings of a fantastic political drama.
No list of gay scandals would be complete without Mark Foley, a conservative “family values” politican with a long record of antigay legislation who got caught sending inappropriate messages to teenage boys. In September 2006, it was revealed that the Republican congressman from Florida had been sending suggestive emails and texts to former congressional pages. The scandal spread to another Republican congressman, Jim Kolbe, who had also had improper conduct with two youths. Even worse was the reaction of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who appeared to try to sweep things under the rug.
A few years later, Hastert himself would be accused of sexually abusing three male students when he was a teacher three decades earlier, and would spend 13 months in prison. Considering that Hastert was involved in the impeachment of President Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, a modern documentary on this snowballing controversy would make for extremely interesting viewing.
It’s literally a romantic comedy gone wrong — the 1998 movie How Stella Got Her Groove Back starring Angela Bassett and Taye Diggs, adapted from a novel of the same name, is based on the true story of a 40-something single mother who went on vacation in Jamaica and fell in love with a local man 20 years her junior. But author Terry McMillan’s happily-ever-after took an unexpected turn six years into her marriage when her husband Jonathan Plummer revealed he was gay.
Their subsequent divorce got extremely bitter at times, complete with lawsuits and an explosive confrontation on The Oprah Winfrey Show, but eventually they put aside their differences and became friends. More than 20 years later, it would be interesting to tell Plummer’s story in light of sexual identity in Jamaican culture, and how the media covers complicated family dynamics in the public eye.
Filmmakers interested in shining a light on the conflicted political journey of the Evangelical Christian movement might want to take another look at the Ted Haggard saga. Haggard is the founder and former pastor of New Life Church in Colorado, and spent much of his ministry there advocating against same-sex marriage. But in November 2006, male prostitute and masseur Mike Jones alleged that Haggard paid him for sex and also bought and used crystal meth. Haggard denied everything, then claimed he bought the drugs but threw them away without using them, then resigned from New Life after admitting to drug use, sexual activity with Jones, and an inappropriate relationship with an underage boy at the church.
Haggard has already appeared in the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp, a 2009 HBO film called The Trials of Ted Haggard and even the ABC show Celebrity Wife Swap, securing his reputation as a goofy reality TV personality — but in the #MeToo era, his story feels a bit darker than it used to.
With all the recent stories of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) hijacking Pride parades and heckling trans activists, it’s worth looking back at the story of the Michigan Womyn’s Festival. Called the “Original Womyn’s Woodstock,” MWMF or Michfest was an international music festival held every year from 1976 to 2015, with acts including The Indigo Girls and Tribe 8. The event was completely built, staffed, run and attended by women, which many felt was an empowering, utopian experience — but only for cisgender women.
The festival’s refusal to include trans women boiled over into a boycott in 2014, including pushback from organizations like GLAAD, HRC and the National LGBTQ Task Force; many feel the controversy caused the festival to come to an end in 2015. The often-bitter debate about what counts as “womyn’s experiences” and whether a gathering of exclusively cisgender women is transphobic ripples through the queer community to this day.