The struggle for our community is going on for a long time. We still think a lot of queer history remains hushed up, there are stories that no one knows of. While queer representation in the film remains, let’s say, in development, these documentaries provide a window into the extraordinary stories of LGBTQ+ individuals who made a huge change. This includes 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.
Regardless, however much you know about queer life around the world, there’s always room to learn more. These films provide insight, encouragement, and education – and besides that, they are all just a great watch.
Paris Is Burning (1990)
Jennie Livingston‘s landmark 1990 documentary about the African-American and Latinx drag ball scene in the late 1980s New York City is no short of a gem. Seen through modern eyes, “Paris is Burning” is remarkable in how it reveals the underground roots of so many terms and concepts that are prominent in our current lexicon. Throwing shade, reading and gagging were all part of the vibrant, DIY world of pageantry and competition between voguers, drag queens and transgender women of Harlem 30 or so years ago – and Livingston’s seven years of work on “Paris” captured the pioneering art and stories of people like Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija, Venus Xtravaganza, and Dorian Corey for all time. The people and practices it depicts have influenced more of modern mainstream popular culture than many people realize: there’d be no Yas queen, no shade, and no Drag Race without the ballroom.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)
Trans women of color were the ones to lead the fight that helped LGBTQ+ people secure rights, even if this has been forgotten by many in the decades since. Awareness is returning thanks to today’s trans and queer activists and two trans women, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera will soon have a monument in New York. Both were at the forefront of the queer liberation movement for most of their lives and played an integral part in the Stonewall uprising. Johnson’s death in 1992 was ruled as a suicide when her body was pulled from 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.
We Were Here(2011)
Director David Weissman’s second feature documentary follows the moving and intimate stories of five San Franciscans who experienced the epidemic from its onset to the present. A survivor of the epidemic himself, Weissman looked to his community for interviewees. “I knew I would need characters audiences couldn’t help but love,” he said in a post-screening Q&A at Outfest. The main focus of this film is on the social rather than the scientific ramifications of the disease. Nevertheless, Weissman shows how residents of San Francisco’s Castro district renegotiated the community. This fight for sexual freedom and intimacy brought them to the Bay Area in the first place. He also lovingly shares the significant contributions lesbians made to the health of gay men, despite the fact that the gay community often elevates masculinity and tacitly accepts misogyny. This is one of the must-watch documentaries of all time.
Inside China’s Thriving Drag Queen Culture
VICE makes a wide range of documentaries. However, this one stands out because of the topic of the film. The film follows Neil, who grew up in a small, rural city in northeast China. He was always obsessed with dressing himself in bedsheets and playing with dolls. It wasn’t until he got older that he embraced his sexuality. He cultivated a hobby for designing glamorous, handmade outfits from his home out onto the streets of China. Neil eventually linked up with the country’s thriving drag scene. Neil finds solidarity among a group of queens embracing their creativity. This is achieved by designing and performing in lavish outfits. This documentary follows Neil and his friend Kris, as they geared up for a major drag competition in Shanghai. Later, they hit the stage for a wild night out with dozens of other queens.
Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community (1984)
Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community is one of the finest documentaries to date. The film earned widespread critical acclaim at the time of its release. It is one of the most integral historical documents about gay and lesbian rights in America during the pre-Stonewall period. The Emmy-winning documentary Before Stonewall explores the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community prior to Stonewall. It also analyzes the beginnings of an era of activism. Moreover, this film features interviews with Allen Ginsberg and Audre Lorde. Before Stonewall traces this history back to Harlem clubs in the 1920s through post-World War II America. This is one of the documentaries to present some lesser-known moments from history while demonstrating how American attitudes towards homosexuality evolved leading up to and after Stonewall.