rotest and celebration have long been intertwined in LGBTQ+ communities.
While queer representation in film is slowly increasing, these documentaries specifically provide a window into the extraordinary stories of LGBTQ+ individuals who defended queer rights and who moved discussions around queer identity forward: the activists who stood up for trans rights and educated about HIV, night club owners who built spaces where people could be safe and lawyers who continue to challenge minority discrimination.
These films provide insight, encouragement and education – and besides that, are all just a fascinating watch.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)
Trans women of colour led the fight that helped LGBTQ+ people secure rights and an awareness about this history is slowly growing thanks to today’s trans and queer activists. Two trans women who were instrumental in the queer liberation movement were Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera – a monument was erected for them in New York in 2021 in tribute to their pivotal actions at the 1969 Stonewall riots.
Johnson’s death in 1992 was ruled as suicide when her body was discovered in the Hudson River, but those who knew her believe she was murdered. Rivera is among the voices in this documentary, talking about Johnson’s continuing impact on the rights we have today. It’s an essential reminder of a person who gave up everything for her community.
Paris is Burning (1990)
The ballroom scene in Harlem gave black and Latinx queer people a safe place away from the dangers of the outside world. Many were homeless, living in poverty and at risk of being attacked or even murdered in a deeply homophobic and transphobic climate. This landmark documentary goes inside the “houses” that competed in the city’s hidden ballrooms; each overseen by a house mother, the chosen family units served as tight-knit support networks for people who often had nowhere else to go. This influential film follows them as they compete in balls for trophies and glory.
Through candid interviews, Paris Is Burning captured the struggle to survive and the importance of these same chosen families. The culture of modern American drag was born in these rooms: shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race owe everything to the ball scene, from their vernacular (“shade” and “reading”) to voguing.
Portrait of Jason (1967)
This documentary about entertainer Jason Holliday was released the same year that homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK and 36 years before same sex relations became legal in the US. The camera solely focuses on Jason, who answers questions from filmmaker Shirley Clarke and her partner Carl Lee about his difficult life.
Portrait of Jason is now often regarded as one of the first LGBTQ+ films, and has been deemed so culturally important that it was selected to be preserved in the Library of Congress to the National Film Registry in 2015. Ingmar Bergman described it as “the most extraordinary film I’ve seen in my life.”
Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989)
In 1989 the number of HIV/AIDS deaths in the USA hadn’t come close to reaching its peak, but thousands of Americans had already lost their lives to the disease. Common Threads is a documentary about the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt – a giant ‘quilt’ that was made to commemorate those who had died.
The quilt’s panels are 3 by 6 feet, each segment roughly the same dimensions as a coffin. Each personal fabric tribute is dedicated to one or two individuals who had died from an HIV/Aids related illness. With 50,000 panels, the quilt apparently weighs a whopping 54 tons (7714 stone). It was first shown in Washington in 1987 where it was laid out on the National Mall, and its panels have now been archived online. The quilt is ever-expanding and remains open to new contributions.
In Common Threads, Dustin Hoffman narrates the story of how the quilt came to be put together in the first place. Bobby McFerrin composed the film’s score.
A quarter of a century on from Paris Is Burning, a new generation of LGBTQ+ youth created their own subculture in New York’s streets. The Kiki scene, which continues today, draws inspiration from the early ballrooms, and much is still the same: they offer a safe place for young, queer people of colour, battling with homelessness, illness and prejudice. But this film and the characters it follows are also rooted in current issues.
As a minority within a minority, Kiki shows how LGBTQ+ people of colour face police brutality and homophobia, with a disproportionate number living with HIV. It’s co-created by Twiggy Pucci Garçon, founder of the scene’s largest house, and the documentary is intertwined with all the activism and passion that the movement was born from.
Providing a thorough examination into the depiction of transgender people in Hollywood, the documentary directs its audience to reconsider what they know by showing them how the film industry has mocked and been directly harmful to trans people.
Through interviews with leaders in the field such as Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox and The Matrix’s Lilly Wachowski, Disclosure gives power back to trans voices. The documentary directly challenges harmful tropes and offers a solution in the form of representation. “Here we are. We’ve always been here,” says Cox.
Where Have All the Lesbians Gone? (2022)
Channel 4’s new offering is full of wit as it delves into the social history of lesbianism, exploring what being a lesbian means in 2022. Its contributors bring a sense of fun and lightheartedness to sometimes sensitive topics such as coming out, homophobia, and trans issues. It probes the clashes between certain sections of the community without that conversation becoming the central issue of the documentary.
Why do some people choose to call themselves queer or gay rather than a lesbian? How has pop culture and representation affected how people define a lesbian and vice versa? The documentary uses nostalgia to paint a portrait of modern lesbian culture and where it goes from here.
Dykes, Camera, Action! (2018)
Just as there aren’t many documentaries focusing on queer women’s experiences, representation in the rest of the media isn’t too great either. The trope is all too real – queer women in film and TV tend to wind up dead or with men.
Dykes, Camera, Action! looks at the ways in which women behind the camera have contributed to queer cinema over the years. It features filmmakers such as Desiree Akhavan, the creative force behind Appropriate Behaviour, The Bisexual and The Miseducation of Cameron Post, as well as Rose Troche, writer and director of The L Word.
Before Stonewall: The Making of Gay and a Lesbian Community (1984)
The Stonewall riots in 1969 were a turning point in queer history, but what came before is less talked about. In Before Stonewall, interviews with the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Audre Lorde help to trace stories over the 20th century, from the Harlem clubs in the Twenties, through World War II to the founding of queer neighbourhoods. It also gives a good insight into how wider societal attitudes evolved over time. The filmmaker later produced a follow-up film, After Stonewall, which was released in 1999, detailing the thirty years that came next.
Of Love and Law (2018)
Japan may have a seemingly progressive position on queer rights but, as Of Love and Law demonstrates, there’s still a lot to be desired. Gay couple Fumi and Kazu run Japan’s first LGBTQ+ law firm. Their clients include an artist Rokudenashiko, whose vagina-inspired art led to her being sued for obscenity by the police. The two men are an endearing presence, exuding a contagious love for each other and their cobbled together family, as well as an intense dedication to their work.
Welcome to Chechnya (2020)
This HBO documentary film from award-winning journalist David France investigates the anti-gay purges in Russian republic Chechnya in the 2010s. Gay men (and women, though gay men were particularly targeted) were detained, imprisoned, secretly abducted, tortured, raped and killed. It has been widely reported and alleged that similar anti-gay purges continue to take place in the region into the present.
David France compiles interviews and secretly filmed footage to create a picture of the work of the impossibly brave activists trying to rescue some of the men who were tortured. The documentary was reportedly a task to make as it was the top priority of France and his team to protect the identity of the people involved. Welcome to Chechnya won U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Editing at Sundance Festival in 2020, and was nominated for an Emmy.
Trembling Before G-d (2001)
Trembling Before G-d shows a group of people who find themselves trying to reconcile their orthodox Jewish beliefs with the biblical prohibition of homosexuality. The film took six years to make and director Sandi Simcha DuBowski met hundreds of people, but only a handful agreed to be featured out of fear of being ostracised. The world’s first openly gay rabbi, a psychotherapist who ran a support group for other gay Jewish men, and a lesbian orthodox couple who have been together for ten years are just some of the people we meet along the way.
We Were Here (2011)
San Francisco was a relatively safe haven for the queer community in the Seventies. But in the decade that followed, everything changed when a man was diagnosed with AIDS, marking the start of an epidemic across the country. We Were Here traces the effect of this on the community and the fear of a “mysterious gay cancer” that meant sex could kill.
The documentary revolves around five main interviews including an HIV positive artist who lost two partners to AIDS and a florist who supplied flowers to many funerals of people who died from the illness. As well as being a heartbreaking history, David Weissman’s film shows the strength of the queer community in a time of crisis and how a few individuals managed to change the course of treatment for so many.
Mala Mala (2014)
The lives of Puerto Rican trans and gender non-conforming people and drag queens come into the spotlight in Mala Mala. Addressing the overlap between gender identity and cultural identity, the film features drag queen April Carrión, well-known for participating in RuPaul’s Drag Race, alongside hair salon owner Soraya, who talks about her struggle with gender dysphoria, and Samantha, who resorted to taking black market hormones with debilitating side effects.
The film becomes all the more poignant with the chronicling of the Butterfly Trans Foundation’s activism, which influenced the passage of a law banning employment discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation.
Jewel’s Catch One
The “unofficial Studio 54” of the West Coast, Jewel’s Catch One was a gay disco club that opened in the Seventies that played host to Madonna, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, and Donna Summer. Its owner Jewel Thais-Willliams ran the club for 42 years, fending off armed police raids and suffering prejudice as a black lesbian. The documentary features interviews with Sharon Stone, Thelma Houston and more, all talking about Jewel’s efforts to provide spaces for queer and black people and how she has become a model of how to deal with discrimination and help others.