Paris is Burning

(Photo by ©Off White Productions/ Courtesy: Everett Collection.)

30 Essential LGBTQ Documentaries 

Queer cinema hinges on stories about the one and the many. LGBTQ documentary films, though, can only ever offer both: portraits of individuals necessarily speak more broadly about the community they come to represent, while chronicles of a group (or a family, or a segment of the population) can only ever do so through individual testimonials and the singular vision of the filmmaker at hand. Films like Portrait of Jason and Tongues Untied, for instance, tell contemporary viewers as much about the individual stories about gay Black men presented on screen as about the communities (real and imagined) that their respective filmmakers brought to bear on their finished films. The following list of LGBTQ documentaries offers us windows into the past, allowing us glimpses into moments made worthy by their mere documentation.

Yet to say nonfiction filmmaking has merely documented the LGBTQ community is to sell short the work that some of the seminal documentaries listed below have accomplished. Projects like 1977’s Word is Out, which compiled testimonials from men and women about their experiences coming to terms with their sexuality and coming out, began sketching on screen what a community could and did look like. Similarly, aptly-titled works like Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community and Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives offer not just potent history lessons but snapshots of how Americans were conceiving of their own community-building in the years following the 1969 Stonewall riots.

There is also, of course, no way of discussing queer nonfiction cinema without calling up the urgent historiographical work of films like Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, How to Survive a Plague, and We Were Here. These projects remind us that telling the history of the AIDS crisis necessarily inverts ACT UP’s famous Silence=Death rallying cry: to memorialize those lost and to chronicle their activist fights is to refuse the erasure which so drove the early years of the crisis, both in the press and at the White House.

The list below, which reaches back to the late 1960s and includes recent projects from around the globe that have further broadened what kinds of LGBTQ stories get told, is an invitation to see how queer and straight filmmakers alike have made real-life narratives pulsate with meaning. To look at this list of documentaries is to see the commingling of the one and the many. Together they create a kaleidoscopic vision of what the queer community has looked like on the big screen.

Here are our 30 essential LGBTQ documentaries, in order of release. – Manuel Betancourt 

#30

Portrait of Jason (1967)
100%

#30
Adjusted Score: 102.108%
Critics Consensus: Like any great work of art, Portrait of Jason tells a story that reaches far beyond its canvas in the act of illuminating its subject.
Synopsis: Portrait of Jason is a disturbing but fascinating 90-minute exercise in the Avant Garde (earlier prints ran 105 minutes). Experimental... [More]
Starring: Jason Holiday
Directed By: Shirley Clarke

#29

The Queen (1968)
96%

#29
Adjusted Score: 97.721%
Critics Consensus: Celebrating its subjects without ever losing sight of their story, The Queen is a fascinating time capsule that has only gained resonance since its release.
Synopsis: Decades before Paris Is Burning and Rupaul's Drag Race, this ground-breaking documentary about the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant... [More]
Directed By: Frank Simon

#28
Adjusted Score: 0%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Noted Japanese documentary director Kazuo Hara makes an obsessive, compelling film about Takeda Miyuki, his former lover. Drawn by her... [More]
Directed By: Kazuo Hara

#27
Adjusted Score: 100.467%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Twenty-six homosexual men and lesbian women give in-depth interviews to the filmmakers, revealing aspects about gay life which shatter widespread... [More]
Starring:

#26

Gay USA (1977)

#26
Adjusted Score: 0%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: National Gay Freedom Day marches in June 1977 are vibrantly captured across the country in this groundbreaking historical documentary, beautifully... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Arthur J. Bressan Jr.

#25
Adjusted Score: 0%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Before the age of AIDS, the gay-liberation movement, which had demonstrated such unity in the immediate post-Stonewall era, splintered into... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Rosa von Praunheim

#24

Before Stonewall (2019)
94%

#24
Adjusted Score: 74.009%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: This documentary by Greta Schiller takes a look at the sometimes oblique American acknowledgment of homosexuals in the decades before... [More]
Directed By: Greta Schiller

#23
#23
Adjusted Score: 97.398%
Critics Consensus: True to its title, The Times of Harvey Milk looks back on the life of the titular politician and activist -- and the era he helped define with his trailblazing career.
Synopsis: Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in United States history, had been serving on San Francisco's Board of... [More]

#22

Tongues Untied (1989)
100%

#22
Adjusted Score: 90.822%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Marlon Riggs's controversial, brilliant and highly political look at racism and homophobia in the United States. Availing himself of a... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Marlon Riggs

#21
Adjusted Score: 66.452%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: This film, narrated by Dustin Hoffman, won an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1989. Common Threads: Stories From the... [More]
Starring: Dustin Hoffman

#20

Paris Is Burning (1991)
98%

#20
Adjusted Score: 101.777%
Critics Consensus: Paris Is Burning dives into '80s transgender subculture, with the understated camera allowing this world to flourish and the people to speak (and dance) for themselves.
Synopsis: Jennie Livingston's documentary offers a behind-the-scene glimpse at the golden age of New York "Drag Balls" where rival fashion houses... [More]
Directed By: Jennie Livingston

#19
Adjusted Score: 34.425%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: This Canadian documentary chronicles the heyday of Lesbian-oriented pulp romantic fiction in the 1950s, an era when titles such as... [More]

#18
#18
Adjusted Score: 98.16%
Critics Consensus: The Celluloid Closet takes a thought-provoking look at the decades of omission and misrepresentation endured by the gay community in mainstream cinema.
Synopsis: Documentary directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, already well-established for bringing gay issues to a mainstream film audience, examined the... [More]

#17

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#17

#16
Adjusted Score: 34.173%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Filmmaker Tanaz Eshaghian explores the proliferation of gender reassignment surgery in a society where homosexuality is punishable by death in... [More]
Directed By: Tanaz Eshaghian

#15
Adjusted Score: 0%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer met in New York City's West Village in 1965, and for both of them, it... [More]
Starring:

#14

Outrage (2009)
77%

#14
Adjusted Score: 78.213%
Critics Consensus: Outrage walks a difficult moral and ethical line -- and not always successfully -- but despite its flaws, it's a fascinating, provocative look at homosexuality in American politics.
Synopsis: Kirby Dick, the Academy Award-nominated director of This Film Is Not Yet Rated, exposes the hypocrisy of closeted politicians who... [More]
Directed By: Kirby Dick

#13

We Were Here (2011)
100%

#13
Adjusted Score: 100.648%
Critics Consensus: We Were Here revisits the crises facing the gay community in the early 1980s -- and offers a powerful tribute to the inspiring resolve shown at a time of turmoil.
Synopsis: We Were Here documents the coming of what was called the "Gay Plague" in the early 1980s. It illuminates the... [More]
Directed By: David Weissman, Bill Weber

#12
#12
Adjusted Score: 100.343%
Critics Consensus: Angry, powerful, and stirring, How to Survive a Plague is a brilliantly constructed documentary about the activists who pushed for action to combat the AIDS epidemic.
Synopsis: How to Survive a Plague is the story of two coalitions-ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group)-whose activism and innovation... [More]
Directed By: David France

#11

Call Me Kuchu (2013)
98%

#11
Adjusted Score: 99.2%
Critics Consensus: Alternately horrific and uplifting, Call Me Kuchu exposes heinous systematic brutality with a clear eye and admirable precision.
Synopsis: In Uganda, a new bill threatens to make homosexuality punishable by death. With unprecedented access, the filmmakers follow David Kato... [More]

#10

Mala Mala (2015)
95%

#10
Adjusted Score: 76.236%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: A documentary that tells the story of nine non-binary individuals living in Puerto Rico.... [More]

#9
Adjusted Score: 0%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Director Cecilia Aldarondo investigates the life of her late uncle Miguel who moved from Puerto Rico to New York in... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Cecilia Aldarondo

#8

Of Love & Law (2017)
100%

#8
Adjusted Score: 31.994%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Fumi and Kazu are partners in love and law; they run the first law firm in Japan set up by... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Hikaru Toda

#7
Adjusted Score: 96.28%
Critics Consensus: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson uses its belated investigation into an activist's murder as the framework for a sobering look at the ongoing battle for equal rights.
Synopsis: Who killed Marsha P. Johnson? When the beloved, self-described "street queen" of NY's gay ghetto was found floating in the... [More]
Directed By: David France

#6

Kiki (2017)
83%

#6
Adjusted Score: 83.325%
Critics Consensus: Kiki compassionately captures a scene on the social margins, offering -- and demanding -- respect and empathy for people to whom it's too often denied.
Synopsis: Sundance Selects will release the documentary KIKI, a dynamic coming of age story about resilience and the transformative art form... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Sara Jordenö

#5
Adjusted Score: 88.366%
Critics Consensus: Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood offers plenty of prurient thrills for film fans, but beyond the gossip lies a poignantly illuminating look at decades of sexual mores.
Synopsis: Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood is the deliciously scandalous story of Scotty Bowers, a handsome ex-Marine who landed... [More]
Directed By: Matt Tyrnauer

#4
Adjusted Score: 41.495%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Black, transgender, Brazilian performer and activist Linn da Quebrada uses her work to deconstruct how machismo alpha males conceive of... [More]

#3

Call Her Ganda (2018)
100%

#3
Adjusted Score: 59.938%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: When Jennifer Laude, a Filipina transwoman, is brutally murdered by a U.S. Marine, three women intimately invested in the case--Virgie... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: PJ Raval

#2

Circus of Books (2020)
98%

#2
Adjusted Score: 99.699%
Critics Consensus: Like the cheekily named store at this documentary's center, Circus of Books proves there are countless stories below the surface if we're only willing to look.
Synopsis: For over 35 years, the gay porn shop, Circus of Books, served as the epicenter for LGBT life and culture... [More]
Directed By: Rachel Mason

#1

A Secret Love (2020)
100%

#1
Adjusted Score: 101.036%
Critics Consensus: In telling one couple's story, A Secret Love pays understated yet powerful tribute to a lifetime of choices and sacrifices made in the name of enduring devotion.
Synopsis: A Secret Love tells an incredible love story between Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, whose relationship spans nearly seven decades.... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Chris Bolan

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