The representation of LGBTQ+ life on-screen has long been a double-edged sword. In the 1980s specifically, wielding that visibility meant bringing attention to the AIDS crisis and, in doing so, fighting the salacious stereotypes that persisted around the gay community. Shining the spotlight on issues, however, has also meant bringing attention to marginalized identities and amplifying their vulnerabilities, possibly leading to derision and even violence.
Despite the numerous risks, queer and transgender people have fought to tell their own stories and empower their communities with real representations that have captured the complexities of lived experiences.
The following list highlights some of the documentaries that have pushed the conversation forward on LGBTQ+ rights. These films, which portray the struggles and the joys of queer life, offer viewers a chance to learn and to empathize with those in the LGBTQ+ community.
Decades before RuPaul’s Drag Race popularized drag queen competitions, 1968's The Queen portrayed a rarely-seen side of New York City’s drag scene. Directed by Frank Simon, the trailblazing film documented the days leading up to the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant. The Queen went behind-the-scenes and introduced viewers to dressing rooms, rehearsals, and most importantly, perspectives during a time when anti-cross-dressing laws made it illegal for men to appear in women’s clothing.
When gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk was elected to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 1977, he became California's first openly gay elected government official. Directed by Rob Epstein, 1984's The Times of Harvey Milk marks Milk's ascent to public office and his assassination, which cut short his career and his life in 1978. The film won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
Where to Watch: The Criterion Channel
Directed by Marlon Riggs, Tongues Untied depicted the intersectional experiences of gay Black men like himself who were caught between the homophobia within the African American community and the racism of the predominantly white LGBTQ+ society at the time. The scene in the film that depicted two men kissing was attacked by conservative viewers who found it inappropriate for PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts to be publicly funding "pornographic" art. Riggs defended the film on the basis that it was shattering the "nation's brutalizing silence on matters of sexual and racial difference." Today, Riggs is regarded as a pioneering activist whose work, among other things, addressed the shame around sex and desire.
Before the popularity of the TV series Pose put a spotlight on the vibrant 1980s ballroom culture of New York City, Jennie Livingston's landmark 1990 documentary Paris is Burning chronicled the city's drag scene, focusing on the ball circuit and voguing, a stylized dance performed by ball-goers.
The film, shot over six years, dives deep into the experiences of those in the ball circuit, portraying everything from the politics of rival houses in competition to the poverty afflicting the gay and transgender people of the city. The film captured both the joys experienced and the hardships endured by its subjects. Some ball-goers are portrayed being rejected by their biological families and finding safety in joining houses under house mothers. They're shown struggling to survive, getting by through sex work and shoplifting. Heartbreaking in parts and exuberant in others, Paris is Burning remains an essential documentary.
David France began his journalism career reporting on the LGBTQ+ community in crisis during the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. in the 1980s. Thirty years later, he pulled together archival footage from that era for this 2012 documentary, which depicts the activism and work of organizations like ACT UP and TAG. France documents the urgency and desperation of gay men and activists who tirelessly searched for medicine for HIV to survive. How to Survive a Plague received critical acclaim and went on to be nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar.
Often credited as resisting police on the front lines of the Stonewall Riots, Marsha P. Johnson lived a storied life as a leading trans activist throughout the '70s. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson takes a closer look at her legacy and her untimely death at the age of 46, her body found in the Hudson River in 1992. The film pays homage to her work to advance the rights of people of color and transgender people in the larger gay rights movement and the suspicion clouding the circumstances of her death. (Many in the LGBTQ+ community continue to believe that she was murdered.)
Howard Ashman was the lyricist mastermind behind the music in Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty in the Beast. He is a two-time Oscar winner for "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid and "Beauty and the Beast," among seven total nominations. The documentary Howard highlights his contributions and achievements as a composer to the Disney franchise and his diagnosis with HIV/AIDS while in production of The Little Mermaid. Ashman died at 40 in 1991.
Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen explores the representation of transgender people in Hollywood and the impact it has had on the industry and LGBTQ+ life as a whole. The film interviews luminaries like Laverne Cox, Angelica Ross, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, and Yance Ford on their work as filmmakers and actors striving to create better and more nuanced portrayals of trans lives beyond stereotypes and fearmongering.
Reminiscent of the fictional baseball drama series A League of Their Own (2022), A Secret Love documents the real life of a lesbian professional baseball player. For nearly seventy years, Pat Henschel and baseball player Terry Donahue kept their lesbian relationship a secret from everyone — including friends and family. Facing ailing health in their old age, the two decide to come out as a couple, sharing stories of what it was like falling in love in 1947 when raids of lesbian bars were common and put their livelihoods at risk.
In the animated documentary Flee, Amin Nawabi is on the verge of entering a marriage with his long-term partner. But there’s still one secret that threatens to unravel his life, the story of how he escaped his war-torn home country, Afghanistan, before arriving as a refugee in Denmark. The film artfully pairs Nawabi’s recountings of his passage with archival footage and animated footage in a gut-wrenching narrative that highlights the plight of Nawabi’s journey and other Afghan refugees.
The film made history by receiving three Oscars nominations; one for Best Animated Feature, another for Best Documentary Feature, and another for Best International Feature Film. No film had ever been nominated in all three categories before.
Framing Agnes brings to life UCLA’s gender clinic in the 1950s by having trans actors perform as the people interviewed and as themselves. The film’s ingenuity lies in its unique portrayal of historical and contemporary trans figures, which is grounded by transgender historian Jules Gill-Peterson who shares how transgender people have always existed, and have sought autonomy and gender-affirming healthcare throughout modern medicine.
Little Richard, The King and Queen of Rock 'n' Roll, broke gender norms and racial segregation at a time when Jim Crow laws still separated white and Black Americans. Little Richard: I Am Everything follows the trajectory of Little Richard's seven-decade career as a seminal musician in the genre of rock and roll and his contradictions as a Black man who struggled with reconciling his Christianity and sexual orientation. We see how his legacy has continued to inspire future generations of artists, including the Beatles, while paving the way for the gender-expansive expression of other singers, including Prince and David Bowie.