Paris is Burning

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40 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.

As the LGBTQ+ community now grapples with a changing social and political landscape, wherein trans individuals continue to be targeted with disingenuous fear-mongering rhetoric, discriminatory bills across the United States, and an epidemic of violence that disproportionately affects trans women of color, nonfiction filmmakers have created powerful chronicles that prove the fight for queer liberation is far from over. Projects like Call Her Ganda, Transhood, and Indianara have offered vivid portraits of trans individuals, alongside the towering achievement that is the GLAAD Media Award-winning doc Disclosure: Trans Lives On Screen, stress the urgency of trans liberation politics.

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 40 essential LGBTQ+ documentaries, in order of release. – Manuel Betancourt 

#40

Portrait of Jason (1967)
100%

#40
Adjusted Score: 101859%
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: A black male prostitute and aspiring entertainer recounts his life story for filmmaker Shirley Clarke.... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Shirley Clarke

#39

The Queen (1968)
96%

#39
Adjusted Score: 97168%
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: In 1967, New York City is host to the Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant. This documentary from Frank Simon takes... [More]
Directed By: Frank Simon

#38
Adjusted Score: -1%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Documentary filmmaker Kazuo Hara visits his ex-girlfriend Miyuki in Okinawa and records her new relationships.... [More]
Directed By: Kazuo Hara

#37
Adjusted Score: 100673%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: ... [More]
Starring: Unknown Actor
Directed By: Nancy Adair

#36

Gay USA (1977)

#36
Adjusted Score: -1%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Filmmaker Arthur Bressan commissions filmmakers throughout the country to record lesbian and gay pride parades and marches in June 1977.... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Arthur Bressan

#35
Adjusted Score: -1%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: ... [More]
Starring: John Rechy
Directed By: Rosa von Praunheim

#34

Before Stonewall (1984)
94%

#34
Adjusted Score: 66062%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: The riots that followed the arrests at New York City's Stonewall Inn in 1969 are widely considered to be a... [More]
Directed By: Greta Schiller

#33
#33
Adjusted Score: 97470%
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: Operating from his camera store in San Francisco's Castro district, charismatic Harvey Milk is defeated three times before being elected... [More]
Directed By: Rob Epstein

#32
Adjusted Score: 100164%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: ... [More]
Starring: Unknown Actor
Directed By: Marlon T Riggs

#31
Adjusted Score: 33071%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: On the eve of 1987's Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, surviving families and friends of... [More]
Starring:

#30

Paris Is Burning (1990)
98%

#30
Adjusted Score: 101956%
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: This documentary focuses on drag queens living in New York City and their "house" culture, which provides a sense of... [More]
Directed By: Jennie Livingston

#29
Adjusted Score: 26263%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: This documentary about lesbians in Canada alternates between fiction and non-fiction. Along with interviews of real women who discuss coming... [More]

#28
#28
Adjusted Score: 97281%
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: This documentary highlights the historical contexts that gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders have occupied in cinema history, and shows the... [More]

#27
Adjusted Score: -1%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: The civil-rights leader is one of the people who plans the 1963 March on Washington, D.C.... [More]
Starring:

#26
Adjusted Score: -1%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Transsexuals fight against police harassment at Compton's Cafeteria riot in San Francisco's Tenderloin District in 1966.... [More]
Starring: Susan Stryker

#25

Be Like Others (2008)
100%

#25
Adjusted Score: 35869%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Iranian men undergoing sex-change surgery reveal what life in their country is like for them.... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Tanaz Eshaghian

#24
Adjusted Score: -1%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: As they prepare to travel to Canada to get married, two women share their story of a love that has... [More]
Starring:

#23

Outrage (2009)
77%

#23
Adjusted Score: 77547%
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: Oscar-nominated documentarian Kirby Dick directs this shocking and passionate indictment of the clandestine hypocrisy of many closeted homosexuals in Washington,... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Kirby Dick

#22

We Were Here (2011)
100%

#22
Adjusted Score: 101166%
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: During the 1970s, San Francisco became a safe haven for the gay and lesbian community, providing a place where one... [More]
Directed By: David Weissman, Bill Weber

#21
#21
Adjusted Score: 99582%
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: In the late 1980s, members of Act-Up and other AIDS activists battle indifference and hostility to bring attention to the... [More]
Directed By: David France

#20

The New Black (2013)
85%

#20
Adjusted Score: 48951%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Filmmaker Yoruba Richen examines the reaction of the black community to the debate over legalizing gay marriage.... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Yoruba Richen

#19

Call Me Kuchu (2012)
98%

#19
Adjusted Score: 99284%
Critics Consensus: Alternately horrific and uplifting, Call Me Kuchu exposes heinous systematic brutality with a clear eye and admirable precision.
Synopsis: In Uganda, openly gay David Kato and his fellow activists work to defeat new legislation in their country that would... [More]
Starring: David Bahati

#18

Kumu Hina (2014)

#18
Adjusted Score: -1%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: A transgender Hawaiian teacher inspires a girl to lead the school's male hula troupe.... [More]
Directed By: Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson

#17

Mala Mala (2014)
95%

#17
Adjusted Score: 79958%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: The diverse and vibrant transgender community in Puerto Rico.... [More]
Starring: Jason Carrion

#16

Gayby Baby (2015)
89%

#16
Adjusted Score: 52673%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Observes the lives of four children -- Gus, Ebony, Matt and Graham -- whose parents are either gay or lesbian,... [More]
Starring: Matt Young
Directed By: Maya Newell

#15
Adjusted Score: -1%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Twenty-five years after her uncle died of AIDS, a woman tracks down his lover and opens a Pandora's box of... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Cecilia Aldarondo

#14

Of Love & Law (2017)
100%

#14
Adjusted Score: 55009%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: ... [More]
Starring: Unknown Actor
Directed By: Hikaru Toda

#13
Adjusted Score: 97358%
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: Filmmakers re-examine the 1992 death of transgender legend Marsha P. Johnson, who was found floating in the Hudson River. Originally... [More]
Directed By: David France

#12

Kiki (2016)
83%

#12
Adjusted Score: 83277%
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: In New York City, LGBTQ youth-of-color gather on the Christopher Street Pier to practice the performance-based art form Ballroom, which... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Sara Jordenö

#11
Adjusted Score: 89690%
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: The deliciously scandalous story of Scotty Bowers, a former Marine who lands in Hollywood after World War II and becomes... [More]
Directed By: Matt Tyrnauer

#10

Tranny F... (2018)
100%

#10
Adjusted Score: 53114%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Charismatic transgender performer Linn da Quebrada espouses her convictions about feminism and her transsexuality.... [More]

#9

Call Her Ganda (2018)
100%

#9
Adjusted Score: 83519%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: When a transgender Filipina woman is found dead in a motel room and the leading suspect is a U.S. Marine,... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: PJ Raval

#8

Queer Japan (2019)
100%

#8
Adjusted Score: 100781%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Trailblazing artists, activists, and everyday people from across the spectrum of gender and sexuality defy social norms and dare to... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Graham Kolbeins

#7

Indianara (2019)

#7
Adjusted Score: -1%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: The revolutionary Indianara fights with her gang for the survival of transgender people in Brazil, striving to put into practice... [More]

#6

Circus of Books (2019)
98%

#6
Adjusted Score: 101380%
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: In 1976 a couple take over an adult book store, and the store becomes the biggest distributor of gay porn... [More]
Directed By: Rachel Mason

#5

A Secret Love (2020)
100%

#5
Adjusted Score: 103006%
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 former baseball player keeps her lesbian relationship a secret from her family for seven decades.... [More]
Starring: Pat Henschel
Directed By: Chris Bolan

#4

Disclosure (2020)
98%

#4
Adjusted Score: 101007%
Critics Consensus: Disclosure engrossingly illuminates the history and effects of the way transgender lives are depicted onscreen -- and outlines how much progress still needs to be made.
Synopsis: A look at Hollywood's depiction of transgender people and the impact of this on American culture.... [More]
Directed By: Sam Feder

#3

Transhood (2020)
86%

#3
Adjusted Score: 44127%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Four kids and their families unmask the intimate realities of how gender fluidity is reshaping the family next door, especially... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Sharon Liese

#2
Adjusted Score: 76251%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: A box of letters, held in secret for nearly 60 years, ignites a five-year exploration into a part of LGBTQ+... [More]
Starring: Joe E. Jeffreys

#1
#1
Adjusted Score: 104340%
Critics Consensus: An illuminating and urgent call to action, Welcome to Chechnya portrays the horrors of the mass persecution of the LGBTQ+ community in the Chechen Republic with tenacity and tenderness.
Synopsis: Activists risk their lives to confront Russian leader Ramzan Kadyrov and his government-directed campaign to detain, torture and execute LGBTQ... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: David France


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