It's been said to know who you are, you must know where you've come from. To get a true sense of queer history and identity, you need look no further than these outstanding documentaries.
Because of the vastly different topics they cover, there's no way to rank them according to quality, so we present them here in chronological order of the historical periods that they explore and helped define.
The Celluloid Closet (1995): Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's wildly entertaining film, based on Vito Russo's groundbreaking book, explores a century of depictions of LGBT people on film, from the silent era to the modern day. Narrated by Lily Tomlin, it features interviews with movie A-listers including Tony Curtis, Whoopi Goldberg, Shirley MacLaine, Tom Hanks, and Susan Sarandon.
Before Stonewall (1984): This fine film reveals the closeted, persecuted experience of gays and lesbians from the 1920s until the historic Stonewall Riots of 1969, which triggered the gay liberation movement.
After Stonewall (1999): Picking up where Before Stonewall left off, this film capture the struggles, defeats, and victories of the gay liberation movement from the late 1960s -- through the eras of political action, AIDS, and acceptance -- to the end of the 20th century.
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984): Twenty-four years before Sean Penn's Oscar-winning performance as gay activist and icon Harvey Milk, Rob Epstein's Oscar-winning documentary movingly told Milk's story through the eyes of his friends and contemporaries.
We Were Here (2011): The AIDS epidemic has been explored in dramatic films including Longtime Companion, And the Band Played On, Angels in America, and The Normal Heart. But David Weissman and Bill Weber's documentary, told by those who were there, puts the crisis in even more powerful perspective.
Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt (1989): Rob Epstein, working again with Jeffrey Friedman, won his second Oscar for this moving, Dustin Hoffman-narrated story about five people who died of AIDS complications and were commemorated in the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
How to Survive a Plague (2012): David France's powerful film documents the activists who formed ACT UP and fought back against government and drug company indifference to AIDS -- and won.
Paris Is Burning (1990) Jennie Livingston's film sheds light on New York's drag scene in the 1980s, focusing on balls, vogueing (later appropriated by Madonna), and the ambitions and dreams of those who were a part of it.
Wigstock: The Movie (1995): Girl, this film is a drag. For real! The documentary-concert film celebrates the annual New York City Drag Festival, presided over by (who else?) a pre-Drag Race RuPaul.
TransGeneration (2005): This eight-part documentary series follows a year in the life of four transgender college students as they transition in the midst of a grueling school year.
For the Bible Tells Me So (2007): Daniel Karslake's magnificent film sheds light on the religious roots of homophobia, with commentary by the most notable theological scholars of our time, as it follows five deeply religious families who must come to terms with having a gay child. Not to be missed.
Outrage (2009): Ever wonder why many antigay public figures are regularly revealed as closet cases? Kirby Dick's eye-opening film explores how the most virulently homophobic politicians are secretly self-loathing gays themselves.
The Adonis Factor (2010): Christopher Hines's film exposes the gay male obsession with physical perfection by exploring those whose self-esteem is based on their outward attractiveness. Circuit party boys, take note.
The Strange History of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (2011): Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's HBO film explores the history of the ban on gays and lesbians in the U.S. military -- and the nail-biting behind-the-scenes drama that led to DADT's 2011 repeal.
The Case Against 8 (2014): Ben Cotner and Ryan White's moving film takes you behind the scenes of the court challenge to California's anti-marriage equality Proposition 8. The valiant efforts of attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies -- and the courageous love of plaintiffs Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo, and Kris Perry and Sandy Stier -- are incredibly inspiring.