LGBTQ+ history lessons are still non-existent in schools around the world, and… it’s 2021. For queer people to learn about their history, education generally comes in the form of our community-led initiatives, LGBTQ+ media and incredible queer historians, writers and filmmakers. Whether it’s first-hand accounts of the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, the enduring legacy of queer icons such as Marsha P. Johnson, Harvey Milk and Bayard Rustin (among others), and how queer people of colour united to vogue the house down in the ballroom, these queer stories have been brought to life through some truly amazing documentaries over the years. To mark the start of Pride Month, we’ve collected 14 of the most powerful documentaries you should watch right now, from Netflix’s critically-acclaimed look at trans representation in the industry in Disclosure to HBO Max’s in-depth investigation about Chechnya’s ongoing ‘gay purge’.
Amend: The Fight for America (2021)
Hosted by Will Smith, Amend: The Fight for America is a six-part docuseries from Netflix investigating the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution and its impact on generations of Americans. The series features various A-List celebrities including Mahershala Ali, Samuel L. Jackson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Yara Shahidi, Samira Wiley, Diane Lane and Lena Waithe, among others, who dramatize experts from historical documents. Episode five chronicles the struggle for marriage equality, which culminates in an Ohio couple having their case taken to the Supreme Court.
Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community (1984)
Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community chronicles the plight of the LGBTQ+ community prior to the Stonewall Uprising of 1969. Directed by Greta Schiller and Rosenberg, with narration from Rita Mae Brown, the documentary investigates cultural perceptions of homosexuality before the event and looks back on queer life in previous decades, as well as the relationship between the police and the LGBTQ+ community. The film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 1985 Sundance Film Festival, and went on to win Emmy Awards for Best Research and Best Historical/Cultural Program.
Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin (2002)
Bayard Rustin takes centre stage in this acclaimed film from Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer. The documentary chronicles the life of the African-American gay rights activist and civil rights campaigner, who worked endlessly in the fight towards equality as he collaborated with Martin Luther King and helped organise the historic march on Washington. Despite his various achievements, Rustin was primarily active behind the scenes due to public discomfort over his homosexuality. In the 1980s, however, Rustin made his stance on LGBTQ+ rights known as he advocated at several events. It was recently announced that Rustin will be receiving the autobiographical drama treatment from Netflix.
Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson follows American LGBTQ+ rights activist and retired domestic violence counsellor, Victoria Cruz, as she investigates the death of Marsha P. Johnson, one of the prominent figures in the Stonewall uprising of 1969. A founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, Marsha devoted her life as an outspoken advocate for trans people of colour, and established STAR (Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries) alongside fellow activist Sylvia Rivera to help homeless transgender youth in New York City. In 1992, at the age of 46, Marsha was found dead in the Hudson river, which police ruled as a suicide. However, Marsha’s friends, including Sylvia, believe that she was murdered.
Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen (2020)
Directed and produced by Sam Feder, Disclosure explores Hollywood’s depiction of transgender people and the impact of their stories on transgender lives and American culture. It features stars such as Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black), Trace Lysette (Transparent), Angelica Ross (Pose), Rain Valdez (Razor Tongue), Jen Richards (Mrs. Fletcher), Candis Cayne (Dirty Sexy Money), Brian Michael Smith (9-1-1: Lone Star), Lilly Wachowski (The Matrix), Yance Ford (Strong Island), Sandra Caldwell (Little Men) and Chaz Bono (American Horror Story). Disclosure received widespread critical acclaim upon release and won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Documentary.
Hating Peter Tatchell (2020)
Hating Peter Tatchell tells the inspiring story of human rights campaigner and LGBTQ+ activist Peter Tatchell, who became a leading member of the Gay Liberation Front in the 1970s and co-founded the British lesbian and gay rights political group, OutRage!, which lasted between 1990 and 2011. Sir Ian McKellen interviews Tatchell about his 54 years of activism and how his advocacy for marginalised groups came to fruition. The documentary also includes archival footage of historic events from Tatchell’s life, as well as interviews with George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Stephen Fry about their history with the controversial campaigner.
Widely regarded as the unofficial sequel to Paris is Burning due to its themes of HIV/AIDS, LGBTQ+ youth and homelessness, Kiki focuses on the drag, queer and voguing scene in New York. Directed by Sara Jordenö, the documentary profiles the lives of queer youth of colour over the course of several years as they compete in exuberant ballroom competitions alongside other houses. Jordenö collaborated with Twiggy Pucci Garçon, a leader in the kiki community in New York, who also served as a co-writer, and closely followed the transitions of transgender women Gia Marie Love and Izana Vidal. Kiki is a glamorous film but above all, it’s an educational look into the experiences of LGBTQ+ people of colour and their daily struggles in the United States.
Paris is Burning (1990)
This legendary 1990 documentary chronicles the ball culture of New York City and the African-American, Latino, gay, and transgender communities involved. It explores race, class, gender, and sexuality in 1980’s America, and is widely credited with bringing mainstream attention to voguing and the ballroom scene. Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija, Venus Xtravaganza, Octavia St. Laurent, Angie Xtravaganza, Sol Pendavis, Freddie Pendavis, Junior Labeija, Paris Dupree and Willi Ninja (the ‘godfather of voguing’) were among the performers involved. The film was directed by American director Jennie Livingston, who served as a producer on the first season of Ryan Murphy’s drama Pose, which borrows many elements from the iconic documentary.
A Secret Love (2019)
This emotional documentary follows the 65-year-long secret relationship between former All-American Girls Professional Baseball League player Terry Donahue and her partner Pat Henschel, as well as the challenges they face coming out later in life. Directed by Chris Bolan, with a producing credit from queer mastermind Ryan Murphy, the film remembers when Terry and Pat met for the first time, through their professional lives in Chicago, coming out to their conservative families and deciding with whether or not to get married. The synopsis states: “Facing the hardships of ageing and illness, their love proves resilient as they enter the home stretch.”
The Queen (1968)
Frank Simon’s widely-acclaimed documentary The Queen explores the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest and its legendary mistress of ceremonies, Mother Flawless Sabrina. The film follows the American LGBTQ+ activist and performer and her protege, Rachel Harlow, as she competes for the crown against Crystal Labeija, one of the most influential drag queens in history and the founder of the House of LaBeija. In-between rehearsing and performing, the contestants can be seen discussing topics such as sexual identity, transgender identities and life as a drag queen. The film has become a cult favourite since its release, particularly for the concluding scene with LaBeija, which was sampled on Frank Ocean’s visual album Endless and paid homage to on the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars by Aja.
Stonewall Uprising (2010)
Starting with an overview of societal attitudes towards homosexuality in 1960s America, this 2010 documentary explores the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, which is widely credited with kickstarting the modern fight for LGBTQ+ rights in the United States. The film focuses on the raid at the Stonewall Inn, archival footage from the riots and dramatic re-enactments, as well as eyewitness testimonies from people who were active in the uprising and subsequently formed gay liberation groups, and law enforcement who participated in the raids. Stonewall Uprising was produced and directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner and is based on Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution from historian David Carter.
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Milk tells the inspiring story of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk, who made history as the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California. Narrated by Tony and Emmy Award-winning entertainer Harvey Fierstein, The Times of Harvey Milk documents Milk’s move from New York City to the Castro District San Francisco, his political career and murder at the hands of Dan White, a disgruntled city supervisor, as well as the aftermath. The documentary received various accolades, including the Special Jury Prize at the first Sundance Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Visible: Out On Television (2020)
Five-part docuseries Visible: Out On Television, which arrived on Apple TV+ last year, takes a look at the state of LGBTQ+ visibility on the small screen and how the LGBTQ+ movement has shaped television. Created by filmmakers Ryan White and Jessica Hargrave, with Wanda Sykes and Wilson Cruz executive producing, the series features archival footage alongside never-before-seen interviews with LGBTQ+ talent such as Asia Kate Dillon, Billy Porter, Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey, Anderson Cooper, Don Lemon, Rachel Maddow, Sara Ramirez and Jesse Tyler Ferguson.
Welcome to Chechnya (2020)
Oscar-nominee David France teamed up with HBO last year for a powerful call to action with a documentary about Chechnya’s ongoing anti-LGBTQ+ persecution. The film focuses on a small group of Russian activists – often with hidden cameras – as they help vulnerable queer people escape capture, torture and even execution from the government as part of their horrifying ‘gay purge’. It exposes the unimaginable horrors of the country’s violence and highlights the incredible work of the activists who are risking their lives to confront the purge head-on. With a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Welcome to Chechnya was one of the most renowned films of 2020.