Cinema has long held a space that needs to be filled with great queer films. When queer films do happen to make it to mainstream audiences, it is often through queer-coding or turning LGBT + characters into monsters and villains.
Regardless of this vacancy in big studio movies, there have always been underground artists bold enough to celebrate queer voices. Independent filmmakers have been the backbone of queer cinema and helped bring many LGBT + crises, like civil rights and the HIV / AIDS epidemic, into the mainstream. This is why it remains so important to honor those who made queer cinema what it is today.
Sean Baker’s Tangerine had a minuscule budget of $ 100,000, and he still made one of the best films about Black trans lives in recent years. The film stars transgender actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor as sex worker friends. They set out to teach Sin-Dee’s boyfriend a lesson after he cheats on her with a cisgender woman. The film creates its own little world in Hollywood where there are never any feelings of being outsiders.
There are very few movies in existence about trans people that have garnered such critical acclaim and mainstream support. Even fewer movies have given those roles to actual trans actors. Tangerine’s main ladies even became the first openly transgender actresses to receive an Academy Award campaign.
Nowhere came out in the 90s during the New Queer Cinema movement – an era of queer-themed independent filmmaking. Director, Gregg Arakiwas a pioneer of the movement with his film Kaboom winning the first Cannes Film Festival Queer Palm award.
Nowhere is especially important to queer cinema because of its eccentric, relatable characters, dazzling cinematography, and deep relationships. The movie follows an alienated young man as he struggles with his life and the complicated relationships he has with his bisexual girlfriend and gay classmate. It is unapologetically queer in its graphic sexuality that rivaled straight, cisgender erotic thrillers of the 90s.
The Boys in the Band (1970)
William Friedkin tried tackling queer cinema a few times in an era where most movies contained harmful stereotypes. He did not always get it right, but The Boys in the Band was his best attempt. It is one of the earliest openly gay movies to be released to a mainstream audience. At the time, it stood out for having an entire cast of gay characters who did not hide who they were.
The film follows Michael, a man who is hosting a party for his gay friends. One of his straight friends shows up unexpectedly though, bringing secrets to the surface and changing their night. Although the film’s portrayal of gay life is not perfect (Michael hides who he is from his straight friend), its representation mattered at the time.
Moonlight remains an important milestone for LGBT + movies. It shook the awards season in 2017 and went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Every bit of its recognition is deserved. With its profound sorrow, hazy, blue cinematography, and a Black, gay protagonist, the movie succeeds in tearing masculinity apart.
Moonlight follows Chiron as he wins and fails throughout his life, trying to figure out where he belongs in the world as someone that society deems so different. The film shines a much-needed light on the toxic masculinity that plagues the Black male youth of modern times.
Paris Is Burning (1990)
Paris Is Burning is a vital part of queer cinema. It gave space to drag artists, Black and Latino queer voices, and trans experiences. While it is a documentary, it is just as entertaining, joyful, and bittersweet as a movie.
The film became a permanent part of pop culture when its language, styles, and queer culture began to be used by big Hollywood names like Madonna and RuPaul. Madonna essentially commandeered voguing dance moves from the Harlem queer community, and RuPaul was heavily inspired by the movie. Unfortunately, the darker parts of the film are still a part of American culture today. The struggles that queer identities faced in the 90s are still very real – with racism, poverty, and anti-trans hate.
Female Trouble (1974)
Queer cinema cannot be mentioned without John Waters, a pioneer of LGBT + independent filmmaking. Waters is known for the bizarre, the outlandish, and the flamboyant. He is an outcast who loves outcasts, and he makes sure the world knows it. He is known for using drag queens and queer people in his movies, many of which went on to become cult films.
Waters has made an array of films over his career, but one of his best is still Female Trouble. Dawn Davenport, played by legendary drag icon, Divine, turns to a life of crime after her straight-laced parents won’t give her what she wants. It devolves into a bizarre and violent film after she gives birth to an obnoxious child. The movie was wholeheartedly for queer audiences, which had never been done before. Waters made a habit of it because he never wanted to make movies for straight people.
Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)
Sunday Bloody Sunday was a breath of fresh air during a time of straight, white cinema. It was an exhilarating achievement for its time because it was full of queer characters who lived their lives normally, just like the straight protagonists in every other movie.
None of the characters were tortured souls or hiding their sexuality, they loved, argued, and enjoyed each other’s company, just as it should be. The movie explored how a divorced woman falls in love with a bisexual artist, a young man who is also dating an older male doctor. The lives and relationships of these queer characters are treated with complete normalcy which is what made it so special in the 70s.
Bound is one of the most underrated queer gems to come out of the 90s. It stars Jennifer Tilly as Violet, and Gina Gershon as Corky, two women who fall in love with each other and assemble a plan to escape from Violet’s mob boyfriend.
The film was written and directed by transgender icons, Lana and Lilly Wachowskiand was one of the few thrillers at the time to present a realistic lesbian relationship. Bound was full of passionate chemistry between its female actresses, and there had never been a portrayal of such an electric queer relationship before. It became the starting point for Hollywood’s highest-profile trans filmmakers.
Desert Hearts (1985)
Queer movies in the 80s were full of harmful stereotypes about the LGBT + community. Many films released around the time equated queer people with villains and violence, like Cruising, Dressed To Killand The Silence of the Lambs. Thankfully, Desert Hearts broke that pattern.
Desert Hearts follows a New York professor who divorces her husband and falls in love with a woman in 1959 Reno. The story is full of vibrancy and passion, and never comes close to tragedy or suffering. This was a much-needed film in the time of queer coding and trans serial killers.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
While Brokeback Mountain veers on harmful tropes and uses straight actors, it deserves a spot in queer cinema history for the role it played in pop culture. It helped change the way that mainstream audiences viewed queer love and identity. It was a huge deal at the time for two major actors like Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal to portray openly gay romance.
The movie follows two men as they struggle with their sexual identities and feelings for each other. Their affair lasts for years until tragedy strikes. Though the movie lost Best Picture at the Academy Awards, it started a significant discussion with studio heads who saw that mainstream audiences could accept queer content.
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