Ron Nyswaner on the “normalizing” of lesbians in “Freeheld”

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Ron Nyswaner is the out screenwriter behind Philadelphia, Soldier’s Girl and, most recently, Freeheld. All three feature films were based on true stories of real LGBT people, and Philadelphia was, as Ron noted, “the first major studio film made about AIDS and homophobia.” The success of the 1993 movie, starring Tom Hanks in the lead role as a gay man, was both critical and at the box office, and Ron was nominated for an Academy Award.

Twenty-two years later, Ron was honored at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Vanguard Awards for his trailblazing and unwavering commitment to writing the stories of our lives. He was introduced by longtime friend Frances McDormand (they’ve known each other since they met as teenagers at Christian bible camp) and delivered a passionate speech about how Hollywood and mainstream culture has changed since he began writing in the 1980s. And while LGBT people are more palatable now than before, he spoke of wanting to keep the “otherness” in our community and ourselves; to not forget that we are inherently “outlaws and rebels.” “We must resist the tendency to be ‘de-gayed,’” Ron said.

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It was then that Ron shared something about an unnamed project that is most certainly Freeheld, the lesbian-focused drama starring Ellen Page and Julianne Moore that took more than a decade to get made and received mediocre reviews upon its release in October.

“One of my recent gay-themed projects had a lot of potential,” Ron said from the stage at the Hyatt Regency in Los Angeles. “But the producers became fearful, and the gay characters were idealized, their edges were smoothed out, the conflict between them was softened. Over my vigorous objections—by the way, that’s for the record—the main characters were turned into lesbians with a lower-case ‘L,’ because God forbid someone would think we were making a movie about a couple of dykes. Out of fear, they were normalized.”

Normalizing isn’t all bad. There is a certain amount of humanity that we all share; the parts of us as people that can be universally seen and admired or despised, loved or revered on screen. But when it’s done to make two lesbians less off-putting to someone whose homophobia is holding them back from seeing that human connection, that is not the fault of the characters, nor those who have worked so hard to put them into place.

Throughout press for Freeheld, the actors and director often made sure that the world knew Freeheld wasn’t a “gay” movie, but perhaps that was to their detriment. Without knowing what Ron had in the original script, we only have conjecture. Were there more passionate, love-filled scenes for Stacie and Laurel? (The film had one brief sex scene.) Were there more discussions on their sexual identities? Other lesbian friends? We’ll never know. But what’s true is that, despite the actors delivering strong performances and producer Cynthia Wade taking great pains to make sure the story was as relayed as accurately as possible, there was a certain amount of heart lacking; a raison d’être after such a beautiful documentary had been made seven years prior. If the intent was to open more hearts and minds to the idea that same-sex couples deserve the same respect, love and equality that heterosexuals do, then why would changing a script to make them any less who they are be at all beneficial?

“It’s always hard to make a drama,” Ron told us on the carpet. “An adult drama, first of all, and two have two women at the center makes it harder. That’s just a fact. We’ve heard about the glass ceiling in terms of what women are paid, and it’s also about the number of women’s leading roles that there are. So we took it on, and it was a challenge and did the best we could do.”

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Some criticisms of Freeheld and other LGBT-themed films coming out this year were that they focused too much on a straight character that was also part of the story. In Freeheld, that would be Dane Wells, Laurel Hester‘s real life partner and biggest supporter outside of Stacie.

“Dane Wells was central to Laurel and Stacie’s story,” Ron said. “Stacie literally would not have cooperated with us if we had excluded Dane. He was actually their conduit to world, so it wasn’t at all calculated like that at all. I don’t think that way. Sometimes producers think that way, but that’s now how I think when I sit down to write something.”

During his speech, Ron insisted that we honor our “history and our very specific gay culture,” promising that he would never again “work on something which I do not have some measure of artistic authority.” But despite his complaints about the censoring of Freeheld, he is feeling more hopeful than ever.

“I think anytime there’s a movie that has gay main characters, people say, ‘Oh now we’ve broken through. Next year there will be five movies with gay main characters.’ It hasn’t happened yet,” Ron told us. “This year there are a handful–maybe three or four–so I think with television like Transparent and other things, I think it seems to be beginning to happen. Twenty years ago I was there, and we were alone doing it. We’re not alone anymore. I’m in very good company.”

Ron (right) with Lily Tomlin and Frances McDormandLos Angeles LGBT Center 46th Anniversary Gala Vanguard Awards - Inside

The problem is that despite the work of people like Ron or other LGBT writers and directors in Hollywood, it is still very much up to the studios and the straight white men with money who decide what gets made and distributed and how and when. But if those writers succumb to the pressure and start to create work that is sanitized and dishonest and ultimately created for a straight, white, cisgender audience, all of us are losing. As a community, we would suffer the most.

“We must recognize that power, the power of being different,” Ron said in his speech. “We don’t have to be normalized to have all of our rights. And we don’t have to be normalized to be the main characters of film and television shows. We can still be fags and dykes.”

Not only can we be, we should be. We need to be. We have a responsibility to hold ourselves—and our allies—accountable, or else results will be continue to be less than desirable.

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