30 Movies That Explore the Spectrum Queer History

30 Movies That Explore the Spectrum Queer History
Illustration: Vicky Leta

There are as many paths to exploring queer history as there are people who have lived it, and many legends we’ve nearly forgotten about who, in a more just world, would be household names. History can provide inspiration, and can also help us to avoid making the same damn mistakes again and again — mistakes like forgetting that trans people of colour were at the vanguard of gay liberation.

Pride is a time to celebrate, honour, and remember all of it, whether you’re trans, bi, ace, poly, pan, intersex, nonbinary, or anywhere else on the gender and sexual identity and expression spectrum… or just proud to support your queer friends.

These 30 movies reflect elements of modern queer (LBGTQ) history — sometimes dramatized, sometimes documentary, and sometimes because the film itself made history. They reflect decades of love, sex, activism, and artistry. Some call for tolerance, while others throw up a middle finger in response to narrow-minded bigotry. Many ask us to love one another, but others demand that we take up the battle cry: Be gay, do crimes.

Or just put on your cha-cha heels and watch some good movies. You do you. (And feel free to let us know your own favourites in the comments.)

Salomé (1923)

In the roaring ‘20s, the rules governing depicting queerness in film were a bit looser than they would be later on. Germany produced a handful of queer-positive films, even as several American movies played fast and loose with gender and sexual roles. Case in point: Salome, a biblical epic produced by, and starring, queer provocateur Alla Nazimova.

Nazimova (usually referred to as just “Nazimova,” like “Cher”) was one of Hollywood’s early power players, and an accomplished artist with a take on Oscar Wilde’s play that included female characters played by men in drag, overt sexuality, and silver lamé loincloths. It’s all wonderfully campy and stylised, and it didn’t make a penny, but it’s a reminder that there were queer folx making movies that your great-grandparents may have enjoyed.

With the rise of the Hays Production Code in America, and the Nazi party in Germany, it would be decades before movies could again do much more than hint about unsanctioned relationships.

Victim (1961)

It was sometimes called the “blackmailer’s charter.” Since 1885, English law had allowed for the criminal prosecution of homosexual acts, though by the 1960s, it was little enforced. Still, the mere threat of arrest, and the very public proceedings that would follow, made it distressingly common for blackmailers (gay and straight) to take advantage of well-off marks — in this case, a married London lawyer played by Dirk Bogarde. Approaching the social issue by way of neo noir thriller, Victim was an early instance of a major director and star taking a sympathetic approach to portraying gay characters, inevitably shocking audiences and censors by even acknowledging that such people even existed. It wasn’t a huge hit, but it came at a crucial moment: the ‘60s were well and truly underway, and attitudes were beginning to change.

Before Stonewall (1984)

If Stonewall sometimes seems like ancient history, it’s important to remember that queer history didn’t begin there — not even remotely. Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg’s 1984 documentary looks at the earlier part of the 20th century by interviewing activists and writers who help chart the evolution of what would become a movement among people who were fighting to live their lives authentically at a time when the broader culture preferred to pretend they weren’t there.

The film is an important document, having captured so many important voices while they were still with us, but it’s also inspiring, and often joyous. It’s hard not to smile thinking about what these legends were getting up to while the rest of America was sleeping. (It underwent an HD restoration a couple of years ago, so it’s a particularly good time to check it out.)

Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (2005)

Stonewall had been building for a long, long time. It might have been the explosion of the modern queer liberation movement, but there were sparks for decades — one of which was the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in 1966. Transgender people in San Francisco had been largely barred from gay bars (transphobia has never been an exclusively cis, straight phenomenon), and the all-night Compton’s Cafeteria had been a gathering place, a cheap coffee stop, especially for trans sex workers. Their very presence, of course, also made it a convenient for the local police, who found ready targets of harassment among the cafeteria’s trans and cross-dressing patrons. The iconic image of Stonewall remains a brick through a window, and the Compton’s Riot has a similar bit of iconography: a cup of coffee in the face of a cop who grabbed and tried to arrest a patron. What followed was one of the first public queer protests in US history, and the beginning of trans activism in San Francisco.

Some of My Best Friends Are…(1971)

A fascinating time capsule, and frequently entertaining soap opera about a gay bar on Christmas Eve, filmed and set just a few years after Stonewall. A huge cast of characters wander through, some affecting, some just loosely sketched character types, but representing broad swathes of the community. It was made at a transitional time, when queer activism and visibility were on the rise, but hadn’t yet had the impact that was to come, and so the film gives off a vibe that alternates between joyous and terrified of what’s outside the door of the welcoming space of the bar.

(If all that weren’t enough to secure the movie’s place in queer history, it also features an early screen appearance from Rue McClanahan herself, just a year before she teamed up with Bea Arthur on Maude.)

Female Trouble (1974)

A lot of early queer-positive movies were aimed squarely at a straight audience — depicting gays as angelic figures or as poor victims of society’s cruelty. John Waters skipped all of that well-intentioned nonsense by creating films in which there’s no greater crime than being dull. Though Pink Flamingos (with its memorable climax set to the tune of “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window”) is more famous, Female Trouble refines the Waters style with its story of high school reprobate Dawn Davenport (played by the drag queen Divine), who turns to a life of crime when her totally square parents won’t get her what she really wants for Christmas: “Nice girls don’t wear cha-cha heels!” Their cruel denial of such an essential accessory sends Dawn on a spree of sex and crime that plays a bit like a tribute to Mildred Pierce — if Joan Crawford had conceived her daughter on camera.

On a rotted old mattress.

At the dump.

It’s all appropriately outrageous, and audiences were outraged — but only the dull ones.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

I’ve seen Rocky at least a dozen times, and can recite every line, but I still couldn’t tell you a thing about the plot. (That might have less to do with the movie itself than the state in which one traditionally watches it… but let’s say it’s both.)

On one level, it’s a celebration of many, many forms of queerness. It’s weird, and a little sloppy, and doesn’t make a ton of sense… and more fun for all of that.

Desert Hearts (1985)

By the mid-1980s, the tropes were already beginning to solidify: We were beginning a long run of movies (many of them brilliant) about HIV/AIDS, and square in the middle of an era of major films (Dressed to Kill, Cruising, Silence of the Lambs, Basic Instinct) that associated queer identity with extreme violence. In the middle of all that, Desert Hearts was an absolute breath of fresh air: Vivian, an English professor in the middle of a divorce, meets Cay, an uninhibited sculptor, at a ranch in Reno. The course of true love never did run smooth (or, in this case, straight), and so Vivian struggles a bit with the unexpected lesbian attraction. This romantic drama never veers toward tragedy, and is all the better for it.

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

The best queer-themed movies understand that nobody is all one thing, and that any type of queer identity intersects with all of the other labels that we choose for ourselves (or that others choose for us). That’s why My Beautiful Laundrette isn’s just a great gay film, it’s also a great film about class, racism, and provides a vivid portrait of live in the Thatcher/Reagan-era 1980s.

Paris is Burning (1990)

Like Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It’s especially true when it comes to queer history, as Paris is Burning makes plain. Exploring New York’s drag ball culture in the late 1980s, director Jennie Livingston’s documentary shines a particular spotlight on the black and latino gay, trans, and genderqueer experience, with aspects both joyous and heartbreaking. So much of what was transgressive here has worked its way into pop culture, for better and for worse: Madonna gets credit for voguing, but the style has roots in Harlem ballrooms. Much of the language and culture here will make perfect sense to RuPaul or Pose fans, and many of the doc’s darker elements will also be familiar: racism, poverty, and anti-trans violence are all still very real parts of the queer BIPOC experience. All the more reason to appreciate authenticity and self-expression, and to throw up a middle finger to gender expectations.

Edward II (1991)

You want queer history? Fine. Let’s take it back to England in the fourteenth century for the story of Edward II, famously infatuated with courtier Piers Gaveston. Gay filmmaker, provocateur, and activist Derek Jarman removes any historical ambiguity from the relationship between the two and imagines medieval Europe as a postmodern fantasia, rife with intentional anachronisms and Annie Lennox on the soundtrack. Think Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, but much, much gayer. It also made a star of Tilda Swinton, who followed this up as the title character of another queer classic, Orlando.

The Birdcage (1996)

A slick, funny, charming, and quotable bit of Hollywood entertainment starring some of the biggest names of the era, The Birdcage made real money selling a message of acceptance (in spite of a weird and entirely unnecessary R-rating). Unlike many of the earnest queer-adjacent films of the ‘90s, this one actually made it look like being gay could be kinda fun. And funny. And generally not tragic. Though the characters play into particular stereotypes, the movie makes clear that it’s way better (and totally OK) to be an outsized drama queen à la Robin Williams’ Armand than to be tedious and narrow-minded like the senator played by Gene Hackman. It’s all so scrupulously good-natured that it couldn’t help but draw in a broad audience, and thereby help pave the long, winding road to future queer-positive movies.

The Watermelon Woman (1996)

The mid-’90s saw a string of gay-themed Hollywood movies. Movies with good intentions and big-name stars, even if they were largely male, straight, and white: the aforementioned The Birdcage, plus Philadelphia and In & Out, to name the biggies. But, even more significantly, it was a golden age for indie filmmakers who were beginning to make more personal, authentic, and idiosyncratic movies that move rejected heteronormativity what came to be known as New Queer Cinema. Director/actor Cheryl Dunye plays Cheryl, who goes on the hunt for a fictional Black actress from old Hollywood, exploring the life of someone who lived on the margins.

Bound (1996)

Bound announced major new directorial talents in Lily and Lana Wachowski, a pair of siblings who would go on to create The Matrix and other imaginative successes (along with some equally imaginative flops). The noir-inspired thriller mixes violence and humour in a story that also presents a lesbian relationship that feels real, and an unashamed sexuality that never feels gratuitous the chemistry between leads Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly is off the freaking charts.

The directors remain among Hollywood’s highest-profile transgender filmmakers, and it all started with this instant classic.

All About My Mother (1999)

It’s not the queerest film in Pedro Almodóvar’s very queer filmography — that’s probably 1987’s Law of Desire, involving a complex love triangle between two cis gay characters and a trans woman. But All About My Mother solidified Almodóvar’s status as one of the world’s top filmmakers, blending his earlier, campier sensibilities with more dramatic material. When Manuela’s son is killed in a car accident, she sets out on a quest to find his other parent, a transgender woman named Lola whose identity Manuela had kept secret. On the way, she gets involved in the lives of other women, including scene-stealing trans sex worker Agrado and Rosa, and HIV+ nun also carrying Lola’s child. The movie was way, way ahead of its time in depicting queer themes, and it’s still a wildly entertaining and thoughtful movie about motherhood in all its forms.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

Look, we’ve all had those nights. You get down. You feel had. So why not put on some makeup, turn up the tape deck, and pull that wig down from the shelf? There’s a fair chance you’re already singing along, but, if not, Hedwig’s about a musical about a genderqueer German rock singer whose botched gender reassignment surgery left them with the titular angry inch. Anticipating a much-needed cultural conversation about gender binaries by over two decades, it is also an old school rock opera par excellence, of the kind they just don’t make anymore. Based on the stage musical of the same name, the movie made no money whatsoever, but has earned a well-deserved status as a cult classic.

Saving Face (2004)

The success of The Joy Luck Club in 1993 lead to a huge boom in movies with Chinese-American themes. And by “huge boom,” I mean that Hollywood only waited 11 years for the next movie to centre Chinese Americans.

(Sighs audibly.)

But! On the bright side, Alice Wu’s Saving Face is a charming triumph, telling a love story between a closeted surgeon and her boss’s daughter. The backdrop is the traditional families and community of the two women, but ultimately it’s one of those romantic comedies where you can’t help but cheer on the leads.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

There are several films on this list that involve a bunch of straight people making queer-themed movies… with mixed results. While Brokeback Mountain leans a bit too heavily on tragic tropes (by 2005, we’d seen more than enough movies about gays doomed to die), there’s an undeniable well of talent both behind and in front of the camera — more than enough to make for an affecting experience. The movie’s place in queer history, though, rests as much on the backlash it inspired as on the acclaim it received. By the time the movie lost Best Picture at the Oscars to Crash (her?), the discussion was more about homophobia in Hollywood’s old guard and among movie audiences in general than about either film’s virtues. Brokeback started a discussion, and, just as significantly, reminded studio bosses that queer content could get mainstream attention and make major bank.

Pariah (2011)

It didn’t break out in a big big way, but Pariah still feels like the start of a new, more assured era in queer cinema. For one thing, it’s absolutely gorgeous, with stunning, expressionistic cinematography and confident, assured direction from Dee Rees. It’s a world you can get lost in. Pariah manages to tell a coming-of-age, coming out story that’s so deeply personal that it never feels like a queer message movie, even though it has plenty to say about identity through the journey of its young, black, lesbian lead Alike.

Pride (2014)

During the British mineworkers strike in the ‘80s, activist Mark Ashton and others realised that there existed a real opportunity to forge an alliance between the miners and the queer community, both of which had found themselves shafted (ahem) by Margaret Thatcher’s government. Pride reworks the story of the resulting movement (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) into a genuinely delightful comedy-drama (think The Full Monty) about the personalities behind the unlikely team-up that would ultimately bring queer issues to the forefront of British politics.

Drunktown’s Finest (2014)

There’s much about Drunktown’s Finest that we’ve seen before: Set around a Navajo community near Gallup, New Mexico, it foregrounds poverty, alcoholism, and clashes between tradition and modern life. Rather than do away with those stereotypical themes, trans Navajo filmmaker Sydney Freeland explores their reality as part of the broader scope of the lives of three young Native Americans, including a transgender woman who dreams of becoming a model. It’s one of several successful films of the last few years to approach characters at the intersection of queer and Native identities.

Out in the Night (2014)

In 2006, seven out black lesbian women were harassed and violently threatened in Greenwich Village. When they fought back, the ensuing brawl led to years-long prison sentences for four of the women, who were charged as though they were gang members. The press called them the “New Jersey Four,” and a “lesbian wolf pack.” One headline warned of an “Attack of the Killer Lesbians,” though, of course, no one was killed. The queer community has always had a fraught relationship with the American judicial system, as have women and people of colour. The documentary speaks to the ways in which that long history lives on, especially where identities intersect.

Tab Hunter Confidential (2015)

He was the absolute epitome of mid-century, mid-American ideals of masculinity and good looks: a slightly bland but undeniable hotness. With his blond hair, killer smile, and chiselled features (as well as a voice that landed him a couple of hit pop singles), he was a movie star deliberately branded to make suburban teenage girls go nuts. His public romances with stars like Debbie Reynolds and Natalie Wood gave fans something to fantasize about when they weren’t actively swooning. Of course, even then there was gossip about Hunter’s sexuality, and he confirmed those rumours in the 2005 memoir upon which this award-winning doc is based. It’s a very personal look into the actor’s life in Hollywood, and at the lengths to which the studio system went to keep some of its biggest stars hidden in the closet.

Tangerine (2015)

Modern tech has opened up opportunities for filmmakers that they could only dream of back in the day. Imagine if queer directors of earlier generations had been able to shoot a movie on their phones with professional-looking results? The stories that could have been told? Director Sean Baker and company make a virtue of the intimacy and immediacy of that shooting on a couple of iPhones brings, and the results don’t feel shoddy nor cheap. It’s a girlfriend/buddy/revenge comedy about Sin-Dee Rella and Alexandra, two trans sex workers on the hunt for the man who did Sin-Dee wrong. It’s a ton of fun.

Moonlight (2014)

Two words: Best Picture. Moonlight actually won a ton of awards, but the most groundbreaking by far was that Oscar. And, yes, they did accidentally read the wrong card and make everyone think that La La Land won… but after 89 years of Academy Awards, it was worth an extra few seconds to learn that the first film with a lead queer character (as well as an all-black cast) had claimed Hollywood’s biggest prize. Good movies don’t always make history (and this is a great one), but Oscar winners sure do.

Kiki (2016)

Picking up where Paris is Burning left off, Kiki looks at the current state of the drag ball scene. It’s not a sequel, but in examining kiki culture in New York City more than a quarter century after that earlier doc, it provides a fascinating glimpse of everything that has, and hasn’t, changed for a community whose influence has only grown. Many of the same struggles remain: HIV/AIDS hasn’t gone away, especially for those without the money to pay for treatment, nor have over-policing and discrimination. But a broader cultural acceptance of queerness and the mainstreaming (to some extent) of drag have opened doors for many of the young, often trans people of colour the film focuses on, who also manifest a fierce and inspiring strain of activism.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)

There are as many perspectives on the Stonewall uprising as there were people who were there, but if you’re looking to educate yourself on those events, you could do worse than to start with a close look at Marsha P. Johnson. Coming into the spotlight during an era when labels were very much in flux, Johnson self-identified as gay and as a transvestite who generally used female pronouns. She was also a sex worker and a drag queen, as well as an activist, model, and mentor — a generally fascinating person who was on the frontline when Stonewall went up in flames in 1969. Director David France’s film explores not just Johnson’s life, but also a recent investigation into her tragic and mysterious death in 1992, which the NYPD ruled a suicide without much examination.

120 Beats per Minute (2017)

Director and screenwriter Robin Campillo, alongside co-screenwriter Philippe Mangeot, used some of their own experiences with the grassroots ACT UP organisation in crafting this 2017 film. It’s a fictionalized exploration of an era of activism that’s alternately joyous and harrowing, capturing some of the electric energy of the members of a movement who were literally fighting for their lives.

Happiest Season (2020)

They crank these things out by the dozens. There’s an entire, year-round industry dedicated to feeding an entire nation’s insatiable appetite for schmaltzy, made-for-TV holiday movies, very frequently involving a hard-driving career woman who discovers the true meaning of the season while visiting her hometown for Christmas. There’s comfort in conformity, and so there’s been surprisingly little variety to the form in spite of the sheer volume of these movies — at least until the last couple of years. Non-white faces have become just a bit more common, and 2020 saw the sudden appearance of not just one, but at least seven holiday movies centering queer romances (and queer actors). Which only makes sense — is there a better audience for campy, cheesy, over-the-top love stories than gay people? Hulu’s Happiest Season had better marketing, slightly bigger stars, and an overall better pedigree than some of the others, and therefore became the biggest focus of attention. If you’re asking if it’s any good, you’re missing the point entirely: It’s dorky TV comfort food, sure, but it’s dorky TV comfort food with and about lesbians — and damned if that doesn’t feel like progress.

Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen (2020)

Representation on screen isn’t everything… but it matters. For most Americans, everything they know about transgender people comes from media representations, and that’s also true for trans youth, who may have no other role models than those they get from TV. Disclosure takes a look at over a century of transgender stories in film and on TV (going way back to A Florida Enchantment in 1914), an era of very, very, very slow progress that’s taken a giant leap forward in just the last few years with the rise of popular trans celebrities, many of whom are interviewed here. While focusing on celebrities, the film also acknowledges that added visibility carries dangers as well, and that the spotlight hasn’t necessarily made life safer. Disclosure investigates those generally problematic, often quite hurtful old movies and shows to figure out how they’ve tracked with the realities of trans lives, and how far we’ve come.

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