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Ever since motion pictures have been around, queer stories have been told on screen. You can trace cinema’s presentation of gender fluidity and same-sex relationships back to the 1910s, more than a century before marriage between people of the same sex would be legal across the entire country.
As the movie business became more tightly controlled by large studios and the government exerted more pressure on Hollywood, representation of characters who weren’t heterosexual was reduced to stereotypes — if they were presented on screen at all (see 1995’s “The Celluloid Closet” for a lesson on that long, dark period). When Hollywood finally came around to telling meaningful stories about LGBTQ+ characters, it was usually done with cisgender, heterosexual artists doing the writing, directing and (often) acting, to great acclaim.
But the business has come a long way in the past few decades, and now the stories in LGBTQ+ movies are often being told by people who actually identify with the characters on screen.
“It really is an opportunity to see the world through a slightly different lens,” S.E. Fleenor, a journalist and member of The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics (aka GALECA), recently told “The List,” a daily TV show that covers pop culture and lifestyle topics. (Check “The List”‘s website to find out when the show airs in your area.)
Watch the video below for commentary from “The List” on the new film “Everything, Everywhere All at Once,” HBO series “Gentleman Jack” and Hulu original “Love, Victor.” And keep reading below for other LGBTQ+ films to add to your watchlist this month.
Here are some acclaimed LGBTQ+ movies that are worth celebrating for the authenticity and sheer craftwork behind them.
‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ (2022)
Trying to describe this mind-blowing action-comedy has become one of the toughest things for movie lovers to do in 2022. In a nutshell, it follows a Chinese-American laundromat owner whose relationship with her adult daughter, who is openly lesbian, is frayed as the mother takes steps to hide that part of her daughter’s identity from others that she worries won’t accept her.
“It’s gotten a lot of buzz lately from people who maybe have had hard conversations with their parents about their queerness or any of their other identities,” Fleenor said of the film. “It is a good time for sure but also for that deep heartfelt component that is all throughout.”
‘Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen’ (2020)
Like the aforementioned “Celluloid Closet,” Netflix’s 2020 film “Disclosure” is a documentary that looks at how members of the LGBTQ+ community have been treated terribly by Hollywood. In this case, it’s specifically about the representation of trans people and every person interviewed on screen is trans, including icons like Laverne Cox and Chaz Bono. It won the prizes for best documentary from both the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and GALECA in 2021.
An instant classic in not just the subgenre of LGBTQ+ movies but cinema in general, “Moonlight” made history as the first LGBTQ+ movie to win best picture at the Academy Awards. It follows the life of a gay Black man in three distinct periods, as a child, a teen and a young man. While it was written and directed by Barry Jenkins, a straight Black man, the film’s refusal to adhere to stereotype and its deeply human portrayal of the lead character has been praised across LGBTQ+ media, including by GLAAD, GALECA and Out Magazine.
‘Love, Simon’ (2018)
Teen comedies are a lynchpin of modern Hollywood but one centered on a gay love story had never been done by a big studio until “Love, Simon.” This GLAAD Media Award winner for outstanding film follows a closeted boy who chats anonymously online with another closeted boy at his high school while trying to figure out his identity to take the next step in their relationship. It was followed up with a Hulu series called “Love, Victor,” which Fleenor also recommends, as it dives even deeper into the battle between a family’s religious views and having someone they love who is gay.
“[Victor’s] parents really grapple with, what does their faith mean? How does that connect to the child they see before them?” Fleenor told “The List.”
‘A Fantastic Woman’ (2017)
This Chilean drama won the prestigious Oscar for best foreign language film and won a top prize from the GLAAD Media Awards in 2018 for its intense focus on a trans woman who is repeatedly denied dignity and closure in the wake of her boyfriend’s sudden death. Daniela Vega earned a spot on the Time 100 list after becoming the first openly trans person to appear in an Oscar-winning movie with her searing lead performance that carries the film.
What Vega’s character goes through is similar to what was faced by Shane Bitney Crone in the wake of his longtime partner’s death in the 2013 GLAAD Media Award-winning documentary, “Bridegroom,” which is also an LGBTQ+ movie well worth your time.
Speaking of great LGBTQ+ documentaries, “Flee” was a big winner at GALECA’s 2022 Dorian Awards. This unique nonfiction film is animated and tells the story of a gay Afghan refugee named Amin, who is revealing closely-held secrets about his life to the audience. Media representations of LGBTQ+ people from the Middle East are still far too rare but the success of “Flee” hopefully means these stories will start to be told more often.
While we’re on the topic of rare stories, how many films about openly lesbian African women can you name? “Rafiki” broke ground as the first Kenyan film to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival but it also told a story many moviegoers had never seen on screen. It’s a lively romance about two teenage girls from Nairobi who fall in love. Given that Kenya is a nation that still criminalizes sex between gay people, the mere existence of “Rafiki” is unlikely — but the fact that it’s so full of light makes it closer to a miracle.
‘A Secret Love’ (2020)
Holding a rare 100% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, this Dorian Award-nominated Netflix documentary tells a heartbreaking tale about a great love story that almost nobody was allowed to know about. At its center are two women, Pat and Terry, who kept their relationship a secret from their families for almost 70 years while pretending to simply be good friends. At less than 90 minutes, it’s one you can easily stream in a sitting.
‘We Were Here’ (2011)
If you’re in the mood for a heavier look into a major struggle faced by the LGBTQ+ community, check out this 2011 documentary about the HIV/AIDS epidemic that ravaged San Francisco in the 1980s. “We Were Here” also boasts a 100% rating at Rotten Tomatoes and much of its power comes from the firsthand accounts provided by five different people who were directly involved in the crisis.
‘The Times of Harvey Milk’ (1984)
A true classic in the history of LGBTQ+ movies, this 1984 documentary about legendary San Francisco politician Harvey Milk still packs a major dramatic punch for modern viewers who may take gay rights for granted. It won the Oscar for best documentary upon release and was deemed significant enough to be preserved by the Library of Congress in 2012, making one of the first LGBTQ+ movies to earn that elite distinction.
‘The Watermelon Woman’ (1996)
While filmmakers like Dee Rees, Angela Robinson and Lena Waithe are telling authentic stories as openly lesbian women of color today, those opportunities simply weren’t available as recently as the early 1990s. Director Cheryl Dunye torched that barrier in 1996 with “The Watermelon Woman,” which became the first narrative feature film directed by an openly lesbian Black woman. Dunye also stars in it, playing a filmmaker struggling to produce a movie about a fictional Black actor from the 1930s who was forced into stereotypical roles.
In 2021, “The Watermelon Woman” was added to the list of films preserved by the Library of Congress, further cementing its legacy as an iconic LGBTQ+ movie.
By and large, movies about LGBTQ+ characters, especially real-life figures, have tended to be dour and depressing affairs that focus on the most awful parts of their lives. This Oscar-nominated 2014 British film flips that idea on its head, giving audiences a story that is feel-good despite being based on a true story. It tells the tale of a group of gay and lesbian activists who helped raise money to support British miners who went on strike in 1984. “Pride” won top honors at the Dorian Awards and took home the Queer Palm Award at Cannes.
Do you have any favorite LGBTQ+ movies we didn’t mention? Here’s hoping we’re only at the start of a new wave of great cinema from artists who can tell their own authentic stories for massive audiences worldwide.
Simplemost and “The List” share a parent company, The EW Scripps Company.