Being a member of or an ally for the queer community means more than flying a rainbow flag — it means educating yourself about the issues. The history of the LGBTQIA community in the US is long and troubled, with triumphs amidst extreme trauma. This LGBT History Month, you can engage with that history from home, emerging post-binge with some new knowledge and appreciation of the heroic activists who came before. We’ve rounded up some must-watch films that will help you or your loved ones understand this shared history.
This new Netflix documentary landed just in time for this year’s LGBT History Month. It covers the story of Marsha P. Johnson, an activist and transgender woman whose role in the gay rights movement includes the infamous Stonewall Riots. While her death in 1992 was ruled a suicide, the discovery of her body in the Hudson River made most of her friends believe that she was, in fact, murdered. This documentary moves through Marsha’s world, speaking to other activists and covering the fraught atmosphere of the gay rights movement during her involvement. It’s worth watching for a new look at the life of a brave woman who lived and died at the forefront of a major movement.
For a deeper dive into the Stonewall Riots and the underground culture that existed before it, this documentary provides a fascinating look into gay gathering. From the handkerchief code to the first places that queer Americans could feel free, Before Stonewall’s old documentary footage and in-depth interviews include peeks into a world that once existed — and sadly, still does exist in some areas around the world. The documentary itself is a piece of history, dating back to 1984, when the HIV/AIDS crisis was underway. It was a remarkably brave film, and still has incredible value today.
The Celluloid Closet takes a look at one very specific element of queer coverage: that of the film industry, from the early days up to the documentary’s release in 1995. Major celebrity interviews include Susan Sarandon, Tony Curtis, and Tom Hanks, who was then fresh off of filming Philadelphia. The actors comment on their own roles, while other experts discuss the general portrayal of non-cisgendered sexuality onscreen. The Celluloid Closet had a key role in turning these portrayals around from characters like the transvestite serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs (which equated crossdressing with homicidal mania), to the much more nuanced and honest characters from modern films like Moonlight.
Perhaps the most famous documentary in the gay lexicon, Paris is Burning is the source of all the slang and inside jokes you’ve heard for years. Shade, reading, kiki-ing, “touch this skin, darling,” “you own everything,” and more originate with its incredible subjects. With a focus on New York’s drag and vogue subculture in the 1980s (that’s not inspired by Madonna, by the way — but the inspiration for her), it moves between ballroom sequences and in-home interviews. These interviews provide an honest look into everything from familial rejection to poverty to the early days of sexual reassignment surgery. It’s still a must-watch for anyone, and a primer for every finely polished RuPaul series that rests on its shoulders.
How to Survive a Plague sounds like a horror movie, but it’s not. This 2012 documentary depicts the harrowing battle for gay rights in America. It features news clips of riots, politicians, the FDA shutdown, and the unimaginable personal and public clashes that came from the HIV/AIDS crisis. It covers the crisis that compelled members of the general public to teach themselves about science, stage sit-ins, and force the government to address the issues head-on. It’s a powerful depiction of a fraught time, and one that comes as close as the medium can to capturing the fight to turn AIDS from a guaranteed death sentence into something survivable. It’s a powerful and surprisingly hopeful window into a desperate time.