15 LGBTQ Movies That Changed Society
LGBTQ people are finally getting the respect and tolerance that they deserve. Society has been making huge strides in the past few years. Same sex couples can legally get married across the United States.
Caitlyn Jenner took the world by storm when she announced her transition a couple of years ago, and since then, trans people the world over have had the courage to come out. One of the biggest factors in changing public opinion about an issue such as this is the media.
Some movies can educate and enlighten our minds. On that note, here are 15 great movies that did just that for LGBTQ rights. Be they true stories or fictional ones, they all inspired hope, tolerance, and understanding.
Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia was a game-changer. It was the first ever big budget mainstream Hollywood movie that addressed AIDS, homosexuality, and homophobia — and it was the best one to kick things off. It presented a raw and honest view of real people, and audiences started to get the message.
With such big names on board — Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington — the movie was a huge success. Released in 1993, it grossed over $200 million worldwide. This started a more frank discussion about HIV following the myths and rumors that had circulated about the epidemic in the ‘80s.
Critics loved it, calling it “timely and powerful,” “well-meaning and gutsy,” and “compassionate, compelling, and emotionally devastating.”
The late Roger Ebert wrote that “for moviegoers with an antipathy to AIDS but an enthusiasm for stars like Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, it may help to broaden understanding of the disease.”
Ebert referred to the film as a “groundbreaker” that uses star power and the familiar courtroom drama genre “to sidestep what looks like controversy.”
14. The Danish Girl
Loosely based on the story of Danish painter Lili Elbe — one of the first known transgender people to have successful sex reassignment surgery — The Danish Girl was released in 2015. That’s around the time Caitlyn Jenner transitioned and transgenderism became a huge issue across the world.
One year after Eddie Redmayne had clinched the Academy Award for Best Actor for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, The Danish Girl was a surefire Oscar bait. The film’s writer, Lucinda Coxon, had been dedicated to the project for a decade and struggled to get it made until trans made it into the mainstream.
The creative team was committed to telling an important story. Though Redmayne didn’t win an Oscar, his brilliant co-star Alicia Vikander did. Director Tom Hooper made a great movie from the source material. According to Rotten Tomatoes, The Danish Girl “poignantly explores thought-provoking themes with a beautifully filmed biopic drama.”
Carol tells the story of a female photographer with big dreams who has a romantic affair with an older lady who’s going through a divorce. The brilliant Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara play the leads, and the movie manages to do what was seemingly impossible – it does justice to the source material book it’s based on.
That book was groundbreaking when it was published back in the 1950s. Critics loved the same-sex romance. Directed by Todd Haynes with such conviction and passion for the story, one critic called it “a subtle, moving and deceptive story.”
Mark Kermode, who reviewed the movie for The Guardian, wrote, “from Phyllis Nagy’s alluringly uncluttered script to Cate Blanchett’s sturdily tremulous performance as a society woman with everything to lose, this brilliantly captures the thrills, tearsm and fears of forbidden love.”
12. The Hours
Stephen Daldry’s The Hours is a deep, contemplative, and utterly engaging movie. It stars Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman — three of the greatest actresses who ever lived — as three women in search of something. They know they want something in life; they know they’re pursuing something.
And then they have a totally profound experience; they realize what that something is. They’re lesbians. Streep and Moore play fictional characters, but Kidman plays the brilliant writer Virginia Woolf, whose lesbianism has been inferred by later scholars from the subtext in her work and the troubles she faced in her personal life.
This performance won Kidman an Academy Award. The New York Times called The Hours a “deeply moving” piece. Meanwhile, The San Francisco Chronicle said, “Stephen Daldry employs the wonderful things cinema can do.”
Pride premiered at Cannes and received a standing ovation. It tells the story of the huge historic strides a group of London-based activists made. The Rotten Tomatoes consensus reads, “earnest without being didactic and uplifting without stooping to sentimentality, Pride is a joyous crowd-pleaser that genuinely works.”
Critics praised the movie for its important and uplifting message; the way it combines “broad comedy with subtle observation;” the way the director “relishes visual contrasts and jarring juxtapositions;” and for being “impassioned and lovable.”
The cast was also received praisee. From The Wire’s Dominic West, Harry Potter’s Imelda Staunton, the incomparable Bill Nighy, Paddy Considine, and Him and Her’s Russell Tovey, some of the best actors in Britain appeared in the film to show their support for this pro-LGBTQ rights tale.
10. My Own Private Idaho
Gus Van Sant is a relatively mainstream director, having helmed such hits as Good Will Hunting and Drugstore Cowboy. But he is also respected auteur among the arthouse film community for his work celebrating and giving a voice to marginalized groups. Van Sant identifies with these kinds of characters as he is a gay man himself.
My Own Private Idaho is his loosely adapted modernization of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV. River Phoenix plays a gay hustler with narcolepsy, who hits the road with Keanu Reeves, the mayor’s son, in search of his estranged mother.
They prostitute themselves for money and drugs along the way, and a rich guy and a pervert take notice. It’s an insane story when you look at it on paper, but the movie is fantastic.
9. The Birdcage
The Birdcage stars Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as a gay couple, one of whom is a drag queen, who pretend to be straight so they don’t embarrass their son in front of his future in-laws.
It was directed by Mike Nichols, who spent his life making consistently brilliant, envelope-pushing movies that gave a voice to marginalized groups. His filmography includes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Postcards from the Edge, Angels in America, and many more.
Entertainment Weekly called The Birdcage “enchantingly witty.” James Berardinelli wrote of The Birdcage, “the film is so boisterously entertaining that it’s easy for the unsuspecting viewer not to realize that there’s a message here.”
GLAAD, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, spoke highly of the movie for “going beyond the stereotypes to see the character’s depth and humanity. The film celebrates differences and points out the outrageousness of hiding those differences.”
8. Paris is Burning
Paris is Burning is technically a documentary that feels like a gritty, realist, plotless movie. In a long string of interviews and scenes from the drag culture of New York, the lens captures the essence of a close-knit community.
The film is a contemplative portrait of the ball culture of New York City and the minority groups who make it up: African-Americans, Latinos, and gay and transgender people. It explores not only the struggles of LGBTQ communities in America, but also race, class, and gender.
The movie has a rare perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes, and it was chosen for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It empowers a marginalized group, gives them a voice, and forces even the most bigoted viewer to empathize and accept them.
7. Blue is the Warmest Color
The promise of a hot, steamy lesbian sex scene would be enough to draw in narrow-minded straight men to watch Blue is the Warmest Color, but that would simply be to lure you in to see a beautiful, emotionally charged, and honest portrayal of love between two women.
There’s only, like, three collected minutes of lesbian sex in the movie, but that’s not what it’s about — it’s a story of love.
The film stars Bond girl Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos as lesbian lovers. They are the first lead actresses to be awarded the Palme d’Or alongside their director and two of the other three female winners of the award.
The French movie, clocks in at around three hours, but it’s worth it. It could’ve been a lot worse — the director, Abdellatif Kechiche, reportedly shot 800 hours of footage. That’s 797 hours on the cutting room floor.
Critic Andrew Chan wrote, “Kechiche knows love and relationship well and the details he goes about everything is almost breathtaking to endure.” The movie’s depiction of sexuality is so raw and open it caused controversy at the time of its release.
The movie that put the Wachowski siblings on the map was not, in fact, The Matrix, but rather this Billy Wilder-inspired sexy noir thriller. It stars Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly as two forbidden lesbian lovers, one of whom must escape the grasp of her abusive boyfriend to be with the woman she really loves.
The Wachowskis made Bound to prove that they could direct a studio movie. Warner Bros. would then hire them to make The Matrix. But it’s much more than what producer Joel Silver described as an “audition piece” for their next movie.
The siblings used their story to play around with the stereotypes that people hold about women’s sexuality. They filled the movie with subtle themes of masculinity, femininity, and gender relations, lost on mainstream audiences but picked up on in later screenings at LGBTQ film festivals.
It’s interesting that the Wachowskis made an LGBTQ movie for their directorial debut, as they both recently came out as transgender.
5. The Crying Game
Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game doesn’t become an LGBTQ movie until halfway through. It starts off as an IRA movie about an Irish militant who goes into hiding in England when his base is attacked by the British Armed Forces.
He has a short but quintessential conversation with a British soldier played by Forest Whitaker, whom the group take captive. The IRA operative promises to find and look after his girlfriend if Whitaker’s character dies. Following the soldier’s death, he heads to England and finds her — and falls in love with her.
When it comes time to get intimate and the girl gets undressed, he looks down to see that she has — SPOILER ALERT! — a penis. Rotten Tomatoes says, “The Crying Game is famous for its shocking twist, but this thoughtful, haunting mystery grips the viewer from start to finish,” and it’s true!
Many scholars have debated the depiction of transgenderism in the movie, with some arguing that the reveal and the perspective from which it is portrayed in fact adheres to the social stereotypes instead of challenging them. But you have to look at the bigger picture, not just the way the big reveal is shot.
It’s a story of how love can see through the heteronormative concepts enforced by society. It’s like Jack Black says in Shallow Hal, “when he found out it was a guy, it didn’t matter, ‘cause he already loved her.”
4. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
What a movie! Such great actors. Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce play a pair of drag queens and Terence Stamp plays a transgender woman. They all hit the road and head across the Australian Outback from Sydney to Alice Springs in a tour bus nicknamed “Priscilla.”
The movie was a surprise hit across the world in 1994. Its positive portrayal of transgenderism and drag queens is credited with introducing LGBTQ themes to mainstream moviegoing audiences. The critics loved it. It boasts a 93 per cent approval score on Rotten Tomatoes.
The review aggregation website states, “it certainly delivers its fair share of laughs,” but it’s “also a surprisingly tender and thoughtful road movie with some outstanding performances.” It’s ranked seventh on Logo’s 50 Greatest Films with an LGBT Theme and tenth on AfterElton’s Fifty Greatest Gay Movies list.
There’s no better way to make a movie about homosexuality than to get people who are gay to make it. Milk was directed by Drugstore Cowboy auteur Gus Van Sant, one of the pioneers of the New Queer Cinema movement. He was the perfect man to bring the story of Harvey Milk to the screen.
‘Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected into public office in California, and it was never smooth sailing. He faced adversity from homophobic protestors. One particular San Francisco politician assassinated him on the grounds that he was gay. He was then only charged with manslaughter because he ate Twinkies.
Milk’s is a story that needed to be done right, and that’s just what its writer Dustin Lance Black, also gay, did with his screenplay. He didn’t write a big, dense, convoluted, political movie; he wrote a deep and intimate portrayal of a man using anecdotal scenes and personal details to capture a huge gay rights figure’s life.
And Milk is played with such commitment from Sean Penn that it carries the whole movie.
2. Brokeback Mountain
The 78th Academy Awards were controversial. Why? Because Crash won Best Picture and not Brokeback Mountain. The story of two gay cowboys’ tumultuous romance in 20th century America, at a time and setting where homosexuality was maligned the most, was an eye-opening tragedy for the world.
For once, a movie with gay characters didn’t rely on stereotypes, and it didn’t have any kind of political message. It was just a straightforward romantic drama that happened to be about a same-sex couple. It was groundbreaking in its simplicity, and heads finally started to turn in Hollywood.
Steven Paul Davies wrote, “thanks to Brokeback, film financiers will continue to back scripts that don’t simply rely on gay stereotypes…and that will certainly be progress.” The movie is a masterpiece and a serious turning point for the film industry. Without Brokeback Mountain, there wouldn’t be any mainstream LGBTQ movies to write about.
1. Boys Don’t Cry
Boys Don’t Cry dealt with issues that no one had ever dealt with in film before — and it’s a damn powerhouse. It stars Hilary Swank — whose powerful performance won her one of the most well-deserved Oscars of all time — as Brandon Teena, a woman who identifies as male.
When he falls in love with a girl in a red state and gets found out by her redneck family, they rape and viciously murder him. It’s a really harrowing and terrifying movie, but that’s the point.
It is terrifying for trans people, especially in the Southern United States, simply to be themselves. We as a society are slowly coming to accept transgender people’s identities. The most tragic thing about the brutal story is that it’s true, but Teena didn’t die in vain. His story helped to swing opinion in the United States in the lobbying for hate crime laws.
Kimberly Pierce’s movie has had a huge impact, too. Boys Don’t Cry is used by scholars as a landmark turning point in society’s understanding of gender binary and the violence inflicted against LGBTQ people.