The narrative of the LGBT+ community is bookmarked with icons that catapulted our movement forward.
I’m declaring 2018 the Year of the Queer.
2017 saw some amazing achievements: despite Trump’s attempts, transgendered people will continue to be allowed to enlist in the U.S. military, a film depicting a homosexual romance won the Oscar for best picture and we witnessed Australia legalising marriage equality. This should be a year of celebration, but it should not pass by without reflection on the adversities our community has faced in the past.
The narrative of the LGBT+ community is bookmarked with icons that catapulted our movement forward. Pioneers such as Harvey Milk, Marsha P. Johnson and Barbara Gittings come to mind immediately. These are historical figures that fought against inequality and stood in the way of oppression.
I want to talk about the life of William Haines, an often-forgotten film actor and lesser-known queer icon. Haines was born on the second day of 1900 and quickly claimed the century for himself. He entered the film industry after winning a modelling contest with a studio contract as the prize. He waltzed into the producers’ office declaring “I’m your new prized beauty!”
William Haines cinematic career began in 1922 when he had a bit part in Brothers Under the Skin. His charisma and talents saw him successfully transition from silent films to “talkies” – an achievement almost unknown at the time. By 1929, he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood. He had secured a place in the elite alumni of the industry. Up there on the silver screen he was adored by women and admired by men.
Unbeknownst to most of the public, he was engaged in a long-term relationship with a sailor named Jimmie Shields, who he would remain with until Shields’ death in 1973. When questioned on the issue of his love life, Haines’ skirted the topic with witty remarks and sly innuendos. It only added to the charm and mystery of the performer’s persona.
However at the peak of his career, Hollywood decided to purify its image. Morals were questioned and the content of films was restricted. Contract clauses were introduced to all the major studios’ actors and Haines’ was forced to conceal his sexuality.
In 1934, Louis B. Mayer (one of the most powerful men in the Golden Age of Hollywood) called Haines into his office and told him it was time he got married. If he wanted to continue in the industry fitting the heteronormative norms of society was essential. He pleaded with the actor to marry his long term friend: the incomparable and infamous Joan Crawford. Haines stood up and replied “I am already married.”
The celebrated actor walked out of that office and his cinematic career and never looked back. If Hollywood couldn’t accept his love, he wouldn’t accept Hollywood’s standards.
He didn’t let this set him back, it did not faze him one bit. Within a decade he created William Haines Designs: an interior design company that took the design world by storm with its debut at the 1939 World’s Fair in San Francisco. To this day it continues to be a multimillion dollar design company, exhibiting innovative designs all across the world, including the White House.
Although he may not have picketed the fences of the White House or began riots within the confines of Stonewall, Haines’ civil disobedience was of a more subtle variety, but still essential to the narrative of queer rights. No matter the magnitude of any form of protest against oppression within our community, the ripples are noticeable and should still be celebrated.
The triumphs and trials of queer icons are stories that need to be perpetuated and never forgotten. These are the risk-takers that contributed to our freedom.
They are the reason 2017 saw love win.
Words by Connor Reidy.
Image by Sascha Tan.