The outside of the Stonewall Inn, a prominent location in some of the films on this list and in LGBTQ+ history, after the announcement of the Stonewall National Monument in 2016. Photo by Rhododendrites, Stonewall Inn 10 pride weekend 2016, CC BY-SA 4.0
Though much of our history has been erased over the course of centuries of repression and persecution, LGBTQ+ people have always existed and, even during those periods of erasure, have made important contributions to human history.
From statistics, archives, and oral histories, documentarists have sought to draw out those stories of humanity and resistance, sharing who we are and who we can be in a wide array of films over the past few decades. Though definitely not an exhaustive list, the LGBTQ+ documentaries below provide a glimpse into our shared history, as well as the ongoing fight to be ourselves and to love each other.
P.S. Burn This Letter Please (2020)
History is useful for discovering oneself, but what if you don’t see yourself in it? This is the central question explored in Michael Seligman & Jennifer Tiexiera’s P.S. Burn This Letter Please, in which they unpack a secret 60-year-old box of letters for and by men who dressed as women in New York City long before big drag balls and families were a thing.
Driven by a fascinating collection of intimate anecdotes and photographs, the resulting documentary is a love letter to the indomitable spirit of queer people — both those like Daphne, whose records have survived and the millions whom we may never know.
Paris Is Burning (1990)
Cited by the National Film Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” the critically acclaimed Paris is Burning chronicles the lives and ambitions of Black and Latin LGBTQ+ people in New York’s drag scene in the 1980s.
Set against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic, the documentary explores race, class, and sexuality, as director Jennie Livingston allows people to speak — and dance — for themselves with intercuts of interviews and drag performances.
Three decades after its release, the film’s lasting impact is clear in shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, as well as succeeding documentaries like Sara Jordenö and Twiggy Pucci Garçon’s Kiki (2016), which is widely considered to be its unofficial sequel.
A Secret Love (2020)
Netflix’s A Secret Love tells the story of Pat Henschel and Terry Donahue, whose love was hidden from friends and family for the better part of seven decades. That the documentary was directed by Chris Bolan, Terry’s nephew, makes this film all the more poignant as it charts a lifetime of deep devotion — from falling in love in their early 20s, to growing old together and finally coming out to their families. Their semi-closeted life is a bit different from those depicted by other films on this list, but it’s no less powerful and stands as a testament to enduring love.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)
Arguably one of Netflix’s best documentaries, David France’s The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson focuses on the trans legend known as “the Rosa Parks of the LGBTQ movement,” and the lingering questions about her death in 1992.
Though it was originally ruled a suicide by police, the search for justice for Marsha P. Johnson and so many other murdered trans women continues. Both a heartbreaking investigation into her death and a celebration of her wonderful and too-short life, it’s a sobering look at the ongoing struggle for equal rights.
How to Survive a Plague (2012)
Before The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, director David France made his directorial debut with How to Survive a Plague. Before that, he was a journalist covering the start of the AIDS epidemic, during which he met many of the people featured in this extraordinary documentary.
Compelling and ultimately hopeful, it tells the story of Act Up and TAG (Treatment Action Group), groups of first-generation AIDS activists who took it upon themselves to care and advocate for HIV-positive folks when the government and drug companies simply would not. The documentary is dedicated to France’s late partner, Doug Gould, who succumbed to AIDS-related pneumonia in 1992.
Before Stonewall (1984)
The Stonewall Riots of 1969 are often considered a turning point for LGBTQ+ rights in America. But Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg’s Before Stonewall traces the history of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community back all the way to the Harlem clubs of the 1920s.
Also recognized by the National Film Registry, this Emmy-awarded documentary sheds light on lesser-known parts of history, and is a lovingly researched tribute to our queer forebears who thrived in the face of censorship and discrimination.
Silverlake Life: The View from Here (1993)
Silverlake Life: The View from Here won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival before winning a Peabody Award in 1994, but it remains a relatively unknown film. By and about long-time partners Tom Joslin and Mark Massi, the documentary is an unflinchingly honest look at life with AIDS.
It’s also a moving account of two people who’ve chosen to brave their illness together. As subject and filmmaker, Tom documents their lives post-diagnosis — endless doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, dancing in the living room — with an obsession that sometimes upsets Mark, who takes on the camera in an act of love and of grief later on in the film, before Tom’s friend and former student, Peter Friedman, finishes it.
The result is an uncompromising and sharply focused film that’s tragic and bittersweet. “What a way to live,” Joslin says to the camera, and to us, all these years later. “What a way to die.”
Directed by Sam Feder and executive produced by Laverne Cox, Disclosure is a critical look at transness as depicted on screen, from the early days of cinema to today’s hit TV shows. Featuring interviews from Cox, Lilly Wachowski, Yance Ford, and Chaz Bono, among others, the film is a straightforward exploration of the profound effect of the stories we tell on the very real lives of trans people.
This coming LGBTQ+ History Month and, truthfully, every month, it’s worth turning to the documentaries above as a reminder of how far we’ve come as a community, and how far there is left to go. What’s your favorite LGBTQ+ documentary?