Before stonewall

LGBTQ+ History On Screen

For the whole of February, we’re celebrating LGBTQ+ History Month. This month was introduced to the UK in 2004 by Schools OUT UK in order to educate, inform and inspire the population on the moments in LGBTQ+ history that have shaped the community, as well as highlight the inequalities still seen today.

As the visibility of LGBTQ+ characters and actors in screen increase, we feel it is important to help contribute to the understanding of LGBTQ+ issues, by sharing a list of films, which demonstrate the history and stories that have shaped the progression in equality. We chose 28 films to mark the 28 days that make up February this year, so there is plenty for you to watch!

From researching, it is clear more voices are being heard and there is better and fairer representation in these stories. This being said, better inclusion and representation is still needed in the film and TV industry. Asexual and pansexual characters are rarely seen in TV and film, and when they are their sexuality is hardly addressed or is left to the audience’s perception. The more stories including queer people of colour, LGBTQIAP+ people, and accurate casting, the more inclusion and acceptance we will see in the world.

Here are our recommendations:

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1. Word is Out (1997)

A documentary on 26 American LGBTQ+ people of various ages and backgrounds who tell their life stories and share their perspectives growing up queer during the 1930s through to the 1960s. 'Word is Out' is an informative watch to see its post-Stonewall liberation and before the AIDS crisis changed everything. The interviewees speculate on their future with their non-heteronormative sexualities and the state of acceptance in America.

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2. Carol (2015)

From the adaption of Patricia Highsmith’s inspiration novel ‘The Price of Salt’, 'Carol' is the tale of two women from different backgrounds who fall into an unexpected love affair in 1950s New York. Carol, an alluring woman is trying to break free of an unwanted marriage, feeling trapped and fighting for custody of her daughter. Meets Therese a young store clerk looking for a fulfilling life. Their connection deepens against the conventional norms of the time, only to find their relationship become complicated by Carol’s husband who learns of the relationship and uses it as leverage for custody.

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3. Rafiki (2018)

'Rafiki' follows the story of two young Kenyan girls who despite their families political rivalry, support each other and a blossoming relationship begins to form. The movie continues to challenge the deep-rooted views on same-sex relationships where homosexuality is illegal and considered taboo. This film was banned by Kenyan authorities as lesbianism was shown in a positive way and believed it had the intent to promote lesbianism. We hope more directors such as Wanuri Kahiu continue to make movies with the same portrayal to change the attitudes towards homosexuality in places with similar views.

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4. Happy Together (1997)

'Happy Together' is a volatile on-again, off-again relationship of two men with the story cut into disorienting fragments. Lai Yiu-fai and Ho Po-wing arrive in Argentina together in the hopes to reignite their relationship but instead find themselves just with a new backdrop for their usual antics. This movie was pre-deemed as a gay-themed movie but is only ever slightly connected with homosexuality. Director Wong Kar-wai successfully told a story on loss, regret, love and hate, which isn’t heteronormative.

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5. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

Said to be the next cult drama/musical movie after ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, we meet Hedwig a rock singer who has fled Communist Berlin. We learn Hedwig, formally known as Hansel fell in love with an American soldier who agrees to marry Hansel if he undergoes a Gender Reassignment Surgery to become a woman. After a failed surgery, Hedwig’s husband abandons them in Kansas, leaving Hedwig to earn money by performing side gigs. 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' breaks down the masculine and feminine gender binary and revels in the meaning of gender.

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6. How to Survive a Plague (2012)

First-time director David France lays together footage from the 80s and 90s to create a narrative of the HIV virus hitting the gay community. Real-life figures are recorded fighting for their lives and taking to the streets to protest. This documentary is a history of the battle against the epidemic with many ACT UP and TAG (Treat Action Group) activists laying out their untold stories.

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7. Looking for Langston (1989)

Shot in black and white, 'Looking for Langston' is from the perspective of Langston Hughes a Harlem Renaissance black queer poet. High-society gay men dance and talk in an elegant bar, with Langston’s story framed by voices reading from the poetry of Langston and other gay men. An extraordinary celebration of African American homosexuals directed by British filmmaker Isaac Julien.

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8. Moonlight (2016)

This coming-of-age drama draws focus on a young black man growing up in Miami’s impoverished neighbourhood. The film is presented in three pivotal acts centered on the young protagonist’s life, whilst he discovers more about his identity. The film became the first film by an all-black cast and the first LGBT+ film to win an Oscar for Best Picture. 'Moonlight' is a culture-shifting beacon of representation for black gay men.

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9. Pariah (2011)

A raw and powerful depiction of a young coming-of-age queer black women who juggles conflicting identities, risks friendship, heartbreak, and family troubles in a search for sexual expression. Although coming-of-age stories are commonplace, it is rare to watch Writer/Director Dee Rees’ so perfectly demonstrate an intolerant, religious mother and progressive daughter dynamic.

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10. Paris is Burning (1990)

30 years after its release, 'Paris is Burning' is still a pivotal documentary that offers a look into its time and place that humanizes 80s transgenders and allows those of us in a place of privilege to understand them better. This documentary captures the lives of drag queens in New York City and their “house” culture and Harlem’s drag balls. The film touches on issues of racism and poverty with a number of renowned drag queens being interviewed.

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11. The Queen (1968)

Not to be mistaken for the movie portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, 'The Queen' (1968) is a documentary sneak peak into the behind scenes of a national drag queen contest in New York City. This film captures a moment in time when cross-dressing was deemed a crime in most of America and those caught were considered “deviants”. Yet 'The Queen' demonstrates that gay culture was alive, the art of drag was being celebrated, and they were courageous and not afraid to be themselves. The drag queens seen in this film are the people who laid the groundwork for the popular and respected drag culture that we see today.

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12. The Times of Harvery Milk (1984)

A ground-breaking true story of San Francisco activist Harvey Milk on his election to the city’s board of supervisors and the first out homosexual politician in California’s history. This documentary is about Harvey Milk’s legacy as he fought for Gay rights and gave hope to minority groups. An inspiring tale on human rights and the gay rights movement.

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13. Tongues United (1989)

Marlon Riggs was an American filmmaker, educator, poet and gay rights activist. 'Tongues United' celebrate Black men loving Black men as a revolutionary act. The documentary is directed by and follows Marlon Riggs with other queer black voices, gay dancers and poets of colour. The film became the centre of controversy after its first airing with number regional public-broadcasting channels refusing to show it. The film ends with obituaries for victims of AIDS and footage from black men marching at pride. Riggs sadly passed away due to AIDS complication in 1994 but this film remains a strong part of his legacy.

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14. Boys Don't Cry (1999)

Young female-to-male (FTM) transgender Brandon Teena played by Hilary Swank leaves his hometown due to a threat made by his ex-girlfriends’ brother who discovers Brandon is biologically female. The biographical film directed by Kimberly Pierce follows Brandon’s journey resettling into a small town in Nebraska, finding love, and meeting friends. Brandon’s story becomes unsettled with his hidden past. There is, of course, conversation to be had on the casting of a cisgender actress in the portrayal of Brandon, however, Swank’s depiction in that time still helped to widen audience’s eyes to the transgender experience.

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15. Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community (1984)

The 1984 documentary portrays a vital LGBTQ+ history from the early 20thcentury to 1969’s Stonewall riots and the birth of the gay rights movement. The movie uses archival film, movie clips, as well as personal recollections to unearth the hidden and often shunned history of the community. An Emmy-award-winning documentary is a must-watch for the history of LGBT+ culture.

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16. Desert Hearts (1985)

At the time of release, lesbian stories tended to end in tragedy or with a 'fix-it' plotline where women have been 'fixed' and were never really lesbians - a reminder of the stance the film industry had for same-sex relationships. Until, Donna Deitch's story of an English professor who travels to Nevada to file for divorce where a young woman catches her eye. Undeniable chemistry exudes between the two against vivid cinematography of a desert landscape. Deitch's film broke major barriers for the portrayal of lesbians in film.

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17. The Imitation Game (2014)

True story of the codebreaker and pioneering Mathematician Alan Turing, who helped win World War II but became prosecuted for being gay. This movie depicts the incredible achievements of Turing and doesn’t turn a blind eye to the shocking callous treatment given to him as a result of his sexuality. It is an educational biopic, which sheds a reminder of the discrimination against non-hetero relationships.

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18. The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

A teenager is sent to a gay conversion therapy camp after she is caught kissing her best friend. Touching on the disturbing practise of conversion therapy, this sensitive book adaptation depicts the impact denying their identity has on a group of teenager’s mental health. With a comedic tone, the film is an accessible platform for discussions on LGBT issues.

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19. A Fantastic Woman (2017)

You will find this Chilean drama to display a powerful portrayal of a transgender woman who fights against bigotry and stereotypes. The film demonstrates the impacts and affects of transphobia for its grieving main character, Mariana played by transgender woman Daniela Vega. In Spanish with subtitles.

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20. Appropriate Behaviour (2014)

A warm, funny and heartfelt comedy-drama on Shirin, a bisexual living in Brooklyn from a traditional Persian family. Shirin struggles to juggle her multiple identities between her family, friends and girlfriend as she transitions into adulthood. Writer, director and main actor Desiree Akhavan places a bisexual character front and foremost, where bisexual characters are still lacking in the film industry.

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21. XXY (2007)

A sensitive drama about Alex, a 15-year-old intersex person, who cannot be physically characterised male or female, but has been living as a girl. This powerful debut by Lucia Puenzo challenges the subject of intersexuality as the teenager works through their identity by making their own choices. Intersex characters and protagonists are rarely written in TV or film and Puenzo sensitively gives insight into the complex process of coming-of-age for a teen where society expects certain behaviours from certain genders.

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22. The Handmaiden (2016)

From the director of Old Boy Chan-wook Park, this 1930s South Korean erotic, the psychological thriller sees a young woman be hired as a handmaiden for an heiress, unbeknownst to the heiress the young woman is a pick-pocket. The heiress seems to be an innocent rich woman who has been secluded in a mansion with her domineering Uncle. Unexpected twists and turns with some unexpected emotions and feelings between characters will keep you on your feet throughout Park’s memorable movie.

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23. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)

When major trans activist and LGBTQ+ icon in the 1960s, Marsha P. Johnson turned up dead shortly after Gay Pride in 1992, following a series of murders, gay beatings, and mysterious deaths in the local gay community. Johnson’s death was tragically dismissed as “suicide”, with no evidence and significant evidence that Johnson had been stalked that night. Victoria Cruz investigates the death of Johnson in this unfolding documentary with hand-held recorded footage and interviews from people in Marsha’s realm.

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24. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

A biographical film on the story of Ron Woodroof, played by Matthew McConaughey, a homophobic electrician who is told he is HIV positive with just 30 days left to live. Refusing to live in despair, Woodroof seeks out alternative therapies and unapproved drugs. Woodroof joins forces with trans character Rayon (Jared Leto) and they both begin selling treatments to the growing number of people who need it most.

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25. The Watermelon Woman (1996)

Cheryl is a young, black, and lesbian woman making her own film, in which she searches for a Black actress, known as the Watermelon Woman, who appeared in films in the 1930s and was reduced to stereotypical roles. The more Cheryl unearths about the Watermelon Woman, the more parallels she sees with her own life, including an interracial relationship.

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26. All About My Mother (1999)

Manuela is a single mother whose life is turned to turmoil the night her teenage son, Esteban, is run over and killed by a car. To help her devastation, Manuela travels to Barcelona in search of her son’s father, only to find out his dad is now a woman named Lola. Pedro Almodóvar's movie has been praised as one of the most sensitive depictions of trans life.

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27. Tomboy (2011)

Céline Sciamma's French drama is the story of 10-year-old Laure whose family move into a new neighbourhood and Laure presents as a boy after being mistaken for a male. Laure starts experimenting with their gender identity and goes by Mikael. This film focuses on gender identity in social interaction from childhood and confronts the challenges of being transgender and young.

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28. 120 BPM (2017)

ACT UP Paris activists demand action by the government and pharmaceutical companies to combat the AIDS epidemic in the early 1990s. New to the group, Nathan starts to attend the weekly meetings, he learns that some members prefer a more radical approach to their protests. With inevitable endings for relationships, the film maintains a level of urgency with both the political actions from the group but also in their personal lives.