Documentary films are a great way to learn about LGBTQ+ history — and be entertained at the same time. We’ve assembled 32 films to recommend, from 1977’s Word Is Out to 2021’s Pieces of Us. They cover subjects including marriage equality, hate crimes, transgender rights, groundbreaking politicians, and how Hollywood has portrayed us. Check your preferred streaming service or DVD source for these films, many of them award-winning, and read on for information about each one.
From left: I Am Divine; Paris Is Burning; Tongues Untied
Word Is Out, directed by Nancy Adair, Andrew Brown, and Rob Epstein, was released in 1977, just eight years after the Stonewall rebellion, and was one of the first documentaries to chronicle the experiences of LGBTQ+ Americans. It features 26 people, representing a diversity of identities.
"We have been made invisible because the word might get out that women can love each other and the word might get out that men can love each other," says one of the subjects, writer and activist Sally Miller Gearhart. She and others helped the word get out.
Before Stonewall, from 1984, offers a look at what came, well, before that momentous event. It tells the stories of activists Barbara Gittings and Harry Hay, writers Allen Ginsberg, Ann Bannon, and Red Jordan Arboteau, singer Gladys Bentley, and many more. It's narrated by Rita Mae Brown and directed by Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg.
Long before Pose, director Jennie Livingston provided a look at the ballroom scene in the groundbreaking 1991 doc Paris Is Burning. In the film, Venus Xtravaganza commented on society's divergent reactions to ballroom participants: "Some of them say that we're sick, we're crazy. And some of them think that we are the most gorgeous, special things on earth."
The team of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman came up with another important documentary in 1996's The Celluloid Closet, based on the classic book by Vito Russo and exploring how Hollywood has portrayed homosexuality. "Hollywood, that great maker of myths, taught straight people what to think about gays and gay people what to think about themselves," says narrator Lily Tomlin.
In an era when right-wingers are pushing "don't say gay" policies in schools, this documentary from 1996 remains as timely as ever. It showed how addressing LGBTQ+ topics in age-appropriate ways, even for the youngest students, can fight bigotry — and it demonstrated that children welcome this information. It was directed by Debra Chasnoff and Helen Cohen.
Chasnoff, a longtime documentary filmmaker, had made history in 1992 when, accepting the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject for her film Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons, and Our Environment, she became the first woman to thank a same-sex partner from the Oscar stage. Chasnoff died in 2017; her final film, Prognosis: Notes on Living, chronicles her experience of cancer. It's been on the film festival circuit since last year and will likely get a theatrical release soon.
The Brandon Teena Story, directed by Susan Muska and Gréta Olafsdóttir, chronicles the life and death of transgender man Brandon Teena, murdered in Nebraska in 1993. It was released in 1998. The story was dramatized in Boys Don't Cry (1999), directed by Kimberly Peirce and starring Oscar winner Hilary Swank as Brandon.
Rustin, a Black gay man, was a key aide to Martin Luther King Jr. and the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But he was often marginalized because of his gayness. This 2003 film from Nancy D. Kates and Bennett Singer gives Rustin his due.
Screaming Queens, released in 2005, is a reminder that Stonewall wasn't the only event that kick-started the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement. Trans women and drag queens rose up against police harassment at Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco in 1966, three years before Stonewall. The documentary is directed by Victor Silverman and Susan Stryker.
Edie & Thea, from 2009, details a fight for marriage equality. Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer had been together for 40 years when they were finally able to marry in Canada in 2007. But because of the Defense of Marriage Act, the U.S. government didn't recognize their union, so when Spyer died in 2009, Windsor owed $363,000 in estate taxes she wouldn't have owed had she been married to a man. Windsor fought DOMA all the way to the Supreme Court, where she won in 2013. Susan Muska and Gréta Olafsdóttir directed the film.
Supplement your viewing (and reading) of The Celluloid Closet by learning about the man behind it. Vito Russo was a pioneer of the modern gay rights movement, a film enthusiast with encyclopedic knowledge, and a key player in ACT UP. Vito has always been a beacon to me,” filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz told The Advocate when Vito premiered on HBO in 2012.
At the height of the AIDS epidemic, ACT UP used direct action to push drug companies, politicians, and others to address the crisis. David Hubbard's 2012 documentary looks at some of the most important participants in ACT UP, including Larry Kramer, Peter Staley, Ann Northrop, Michelangelo Signorile, and, yes, Vito Russo.
Director Raoul Peck uses James Baldwin's own words, from the unfinished book Remember This House, to tell a story about race in America — including the lives of assassinated civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Marting Luther King Jr., all of whom were friends of Baldwin. Samuel L. Jackson narrates the film, which was released in 2016 and was Oscar-nominated.
Jewel's Catch One profiles the legendary Catch One nightclub in Los Angeles and its owner, Jewel Thais-Williams. It was the oldest Black-owned disco in the nation and welcomed people of all races and sexualities. C. Fitz's documentary made the festival rounds beginning in 2016 and got a theatrical release in 2018.
David France's 2017 film follows activist Victoria Cruz as she investigates the mystery surrounding the 1992 death of Johnson, a legendary figure in the LGBTQ+ rights movement and a veteran of Stonewall. The documentary was acclaimed, but activist Reina Gossett accused France of capitalizing on her research to make it — something France denied. Read about the controversy here.
André Leon Talley rose from a childhood in the segregated South to become a leader in the fashion world as an editor of Vogue. He had strong opinions on couture but was hard to pin down about his sexual identity; he's been described as gay, bisexual, or fluid, but he expressed disdain for labels. Kate Novack's documentary was shown at festivals in 2017 and was released theatrically in 2018; it features Talley, Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour, designers Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford, and many more. Talley died in January of this year.
Upstairs Inferno, a 2015 doc from director Robert L. Camina, examines what was the worst mass killing of LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. until the Pulse massacre in 2016. In 1973 at the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans, an arson fire took the lives of 32 people, mostly gay men. Christopher Rice narrates the tale of this unspeakable tragedy.
The brutal murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in 1998 was a hate crime that shocked the world. Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, a 2015 film produced and directed by Matthew’s onetime schoolmate Michele Josue, seeks to let audiences know there were so many things important about Matthew beyond the way he died — and also to make sure that his life and death are not forgotten.
Queer filmmaker Jenni Olson's 2016 release, The Royal Road, examines the Spanish colonization of California along with butch identity, unavailable women, and classic Hollywood movies. “I mainly say I’m an essay filmmaker or experimental filmmaker — I make urban landscape essay films,” Olson told The Advocate in 2021. “They’re unconventional, very digressive, and very queer.”
Director Sara Jordenö's 2016 documentary follows LGBTQ+ youth of color as they create a community and a safe space to gather in New York City. "We try to live in the heteronormative systems," says one of the young people, Gia Marie Love. "And they don't work. And they oppress us. So why we just don't create our own system?"
Matt Tyrnauer's 2018 documentary profiles Scotty Bowers, who claims to have arranged sexual assignations for many of the stars of classic Hollywood. Bowers says he fixed Katharine Hepburn up with 150 women and that her supposed love affair with Spencer Tracy was a cover for the gay tendencies of both. He also talks about arranging a tryst between Cary Grant and Rock Hudson and his own liaisons with both men and women.
In 1959, A Raisin in the Sun became the first play by a Black woman produced on Broadway. Its author, Lorraine Hansberry, was known as a passionate activist for civil rights; less well known in her lifetime was that she was a lesbian. Tracy Heather Strain's 2018 documentary examines all aspects of a gifted writer who left the world too early — Hansberry died of cancer at age 34 in 1965.
The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus went on a journey of reconciliation at a divisive time — during the 2016 presidential campaign — touring the Deep South, considered hostile territory by many LGBTQ+ people. David Charles Rodrigues's 2019 doc details an effort to find common ground.
The 2020 documentary Disclosure details how films and TV shows have so often portrayed transgender people as dishonest and treacherous. Director Sam Feder talked to more than 70 other trans people in the entertainment world about the representation they've seen and how it made them feel. Laverne Cox, Jen Richards, Brian Michael Smith, Susan Stryker, and many others appear.
A Secret Love depicts the decades-long relationship of Terry Donahue, a player in the women's baseball league that inspired A League of Their Own, and Pat Henschel. The two women spent the majority of their 65 years together in the closet. But the 2020 documentary by director Chris Bolan brings their touching story out into the open.
Murray was a person of many talents — a lawyer, priest, and poet whose work on gender and racial issues influenced Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and many others. Murray, who died in 1985, is now seen as nonbinary. The 2021 film from directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West portrays an extraordinary person who lived an extraordinary life.
Director Cheryl Allison's 2021 release profiles the survivors of hate crimes and other horrific instances of bigotry. But it is more about the survival than the hate. “This was about what happens afterwards and how you handle it,” she told The Advocate, adding, “This is a story of hope, this is a story of courage ... no matter how you identify, you can see a piece of yourself in this story.”