We are finally living in a time when queer stories are unapologetically mainstream. Openly gay characters are appearing everywhere from television commercials to hit shows on Disney Plus. Gay athletes are coming out on Instagram and drag queens are kiki’ing with straight contestants on The Bachelorette. Everything from global brands to popular streaming services are working to show their support for the LGBTQ community, bringing queer representation to its absolute peak.
It’s taken a long time to get here, but the journey has given us an entire canon of stories we can learn from and enjoy. Here are 10 of the best films that portray all the highs, lows, and rainbows that make up the queer experience.
Ang Lee’s tragic tale of Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist exploded onto screens in 2005, garnering three Academy Awards and as much praise from critics as it did controversy from viewers. Despite two straight actors in the leading roles, there’s no denying the spark between Heath Ledger’s Ennis and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack. Their love is palpable, if hard for the men to admit to each other, and spans not only the Wyoming winter when they first meet but years afterward.
Brokeback is not necessarily a happy tale, nor does it shy away from revealing what can come of forbidden romance. But it remains a film we’ll never be able to quit, and a major step forward in bringing gay stories to the forefront of Hollywood.
Fans of Becky Albertalli’s hit YA novel rejoiced when her titular Simon came to the big screen in 2018.
It’s hard not to love Simon Spier as he navigates his last days of high school while harboring an enormous secret (spoiler alert: he’s gay!). The film has all the book’s heart and a few clever tricks for keeping the audience guessing the identity of Simon’s online love interest. There’s much to love about this film, from its all-star cast and cozy suburban backdrop to its balance of high school drama and humor.
Love, Simon shines in depicting coming out before you’re ready. Just like the book, the film shows us that before you can find love with another person, you must first learn to love yourself.
The Kids Are All Right
As the title implies, it’s not the kids that are struggling in this family dramedy, but rather a pair of lesbian moms played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. They’re just like any other family—until the day their teenagers discover the identity of their sperm donor and begin to pursue a relationship with him. The complications that ensue are at turns hilarious and heartbreaking, and you’d be hard-pressed to find another film that so deftly balances the two while simultaneously easing into an emotional character study.
The Kids Are All Right holds a magnifying glass to the complexities of human sexuality in a wholly unique way, and the result is a satisfying film about the moments that tear families apart and the ties that bind them back together.
There’s a reason Sean Penn won an Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk. His performance is pitch-perfect, bringing to life the true story of Milk’s rise as a gay activist and California’s first openly gay elected official. Backed by Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, and James Franco, Penn brings a humanity to Milk that would have been easy to gloss over in a more straightforward biopic. Instead, Milk wisely highlights the stories of the real people the activist fought alongside, blending the political with the personal.
Despite the unfortunate climax the film builds to, it is ultimately a tale of hope, reminding us that the fight for basic human rights in the 1970s is still relevant today.
In 1950s New York, a young store clerk (Rooney Mara) locks eyes with a glamorous older woman (Cate Blanchett) in a moment that all but screams lust at first sight. One is an aspiring photographer inexperienced in the ways of love; the other is a soon-to-be divorcée whose life is crumbling around her. Carol explores their journey as women of vastly different ages and lives as they begin to pursue a forbidden love affair. The film is atmospherically gorgeous and brimming with nuance thanks to Todd Haynes’ precise direction and the spellbinding performances of its stars. The novel on which the film is based was originally published under a pseudonym for fear of retribution over its themes. Here, Blanchett and Mara leave it all on the table, proving that stories like this deserve to be made and seen.
Call Me By Your Name
Carol isn’t the only romance featuring lovers of scandalously different ages. The film adaptation of André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name achieved massive praise when it was released in 2017. More than just a star vehicle for Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet (not to mention a monologue of the ages from Michael Stuhlbarg), the film takes us on a hot jaunt through 1980s Italy and examines the intricacies of an unexpected, uninhibited summer romance. If your jaw doesn’t drop at the breathtaking cinematography, it might during the film’s climax, which offers a raw glimpse of what can happen when you put your whole heart into the hands of another. Whether or not the film ever gets its rumored sequel, Call Me By Your Name has secured its place as an instant staple of gay cinema.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
It doesn’t get more iconic than Hedwig. John Cameron Mitchell’s film adaptation of his off-Broadway musical has gained as a cult following for both its killer soundtrack and ever-poignant exploration of gender identity and self-expression.
Hedwig is a genderqueer singer from East Berlin who comes to America to become a rock star following a botched sex-change operation. As her life grows unexpectedly complicated, Hedwig struggles with issues of abandonment, jealousy, pain, and ultimately hope. Mitchell directed the film and also stars as Hedwig, immortalizing his lauded stage performance. Even though he’s described the character as being “more about drag than a trans thing,” Hedwig continues to serve as an icon for the trans and non-binary communities.
Adapted from the unpublished play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarrell Alvin McRaney, Moonlight is an Oscar-winning masterpiece that examines the experiences of a Black gay man at three different stages of his life. The protagonist is Chiron, who comes of age in an impoverished Miami community while grappling with his sexuality, identity, and a drug-addicted mother. As he faces bullies and danger on the streets, Chiron turns to his mentor, played by Mahershala Ali, for guidance. The film’s examination of a life and story often overlooked in the media is but one of the many reasons why Moonlight won Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor. It is regarded as not only one of the best queer films ever made, but one of the best films of the twenty-first century.
Sometimes anti-gay efforts are so outrageous that they just have to be adapted for the screen. This is the case with Boy Erased, a biographical drama based on Garrard Conley’s memoir about a gay conversion camp. Lucas Hedges stars as Jared, the son of a Baptist preacher in Arkansas who is sent to the Love in Action therapy assessment program in Tennessee after being outed to his parents. The sights and sounds Jared witnesses in the program are enough to give former Jesus Camp viewers disturbing flashbacks, and his journey of self-acceptance—regardless of whether or not his parents follow suit—makes him a character worth rooting for.
Hedges shines as Jared, as do Nicole Kidman as his redemptive mother and Russell Crowe as his homophobic father, in a film that too many parents in the world desperately need to see.
There are plenty of movie musicals out there, but how many of them feature a band of washed-up Broadway performers bent on helping a high school girl stand up to her bigoted community and take her girlfriend to the prom? Surely not enough. Thankfully Ryan Murphy has given us The Prom, his adaptation of the hit Broadway musical. As campy as it is touching, the film features a dazzling soundtrack with more than a few memorable choruses. Beneath its glittery sheen is the story of a girl who just wants to go to the dance like her classmates, even if her date happens to be another girl.
Unlike Simon Spier, The Prom’s Emma is out and proud; it’s everyone else in her small town that has to learn how to accept her for who she is. This theme of acceptance is still as timely as ever, even with inclusion growing stronger every day across the media landscape. We still have a long way to go as a society, but as the number of queer films continues to grow, so does the promise that LGBTQ stories are here to stay.