17 iconic LGBTQ movies you need to watch

Off-White Productions‘Paris Is Burning’ takes a closer look at ballroom culture in 1980s New York.
  • Numerous films have been made that aim to chronicle the experience of the LGBTQ community – and many of them are still talked about today.
  • There are also plenty of new films portraying more diverse aspects of LGBTQ life.
  • Ranging from groundbreaking documentaries like “Paris Is Burning,” to more recent films like “Moonlight” and “Carol,” these are some of the truly iconic LGBTQ movies you need to watch.
  • Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.

From heartbreaking dramas like “My Own Private Idaho” and “Brokeback Mountain,” to nuanced comedies like “But I’m a Cheerleader” and “Tangerine,” numerous films have been made that try to portray aspects of the LGBTQ experience.

Some films, like “Call Me by Your Name” and “Brokeback Mountain,” have even achieved mainstream success, although their depictions of LGBTQ characters have led to some controversy.

While some of these films are not as groundbreaking as they once were upon release, we’ve compiled 17 classic LGBTQ films that are definitely worth a watch.

Here are the most iconic LGBTQ movies you should watch ASAP.

“My Beautiful Laundrette” was released in 1985, and featured a young Daniel Day-Lewis.

Orion ClassicsPakistani-American actor Kumail Nanjiani will reportedly cowrite and star in a remake of the film.

Synopsis: “An ambitious Pakistani Briton and his white boyfriend strive for success and hope when they open a glamorous laundromat.”

Why it’s important: In addition to portraying the complexities between the Pakistani and white British communities during Margaret Thatcher’s time as prime minister, the film also portrays a nuanced and loving relationship between two men.

The 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning” introduced audiences to the diverse ballroom culture of New York in the mid-to-late 80s.

Off-White ProductionsThe House of Xtravaganza, a prominent family in the ballroom scene, are featured heavily in the documentary.

Synopsis: “A chronicle of New York’s drag scene in the 1980s, focusing on balls, voguing, and the ambitions and dreams of those who gave the era its warmth and vitality.”

Why it’s important: The documentary introduced viewers to the diverse “ballroom” culture active in New York City in the 1980s, and took an unflinching look at the effects of AIDS, homophobia, and violence.

1991’s “My Own Private Idaho” starred a young River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves as two street hustlers.

Fine Line Features/New Line CinemaRiver Phoenix and Keanu Reeves became good friends during the filming of ‘My Own Private Idaho.’

Synopsis: “Two best friends living on the streets of Portland as hustlers embark on a journey of self discovery and find their relationship stumbling along the way.”

Why it’s important: “My Own Private Idaho” is an unflinching portrayal of male prostitution and street life. The film also explores the unrequited love Phoenix’s character, a gay man, has for Reeves’s character, a man who’s more ambivalent about his sexuality.

Gregg Araki’s 1995 film “The Doom Generation” features a love triangle between the three main characters.

Trimark PicturesRose McGowan starred in ‘The Doom Generation.’

Synopsis: “Jordan White and Amy Blue, two troubled teens, pick up an adolescent drifter, Xavier Red. Together, the threesome embark on a sex and violence-filled journey through an America of psychos and quickie marts.”

Why it’s important: The film was directed by queer director Gregg Araki, and focuses on the growing attraction between main characters Jordan and Xavier against the backdrop of an apocalyptic America.

Natasha Lyonne starred in the 1999 film “But I’m a Cheerleader.”

LionsgateActress Clea Duvall appeared in ‘But I’m a Cheerleader’ as Natasha Lyonne’s lover.

Synopsis:“A naive teenager is sent to rehab camp when her straitlaced parents and friends suspect her of being a lesbian.”

Why it’s important: The film cleverly satirizes the idea of conversion therapy, and follows a diverse cast of characters as they learn to freely express their sexual identities.

1996’s “Beautiful Thing” tells the story of two working class British teens who fall in love.

Sony Pictures‘Beautiful Thing’ was originally intended for television broadcast only, but was later released in movie theatres too.

Synopsis: “In a suburb of London, young Jamie is escaping sport hours, to avoid being the victim of his comrades. Young Ste, his neighbour, is beaten by his father, and comes to sleep overnight. They discover new feelings, sleeping in the same bed.”

Why it’s important: “Beautiful Thing” portrays a burgeoning relationship between two young men in a tender and respectful way, and was written by gay playwright Jonathan Harvey.

The 2005 film “Brokeback Mountain” saw Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal play star-crossed lovers.

Focus Features‘Brokeback Mountain’ was based on a 1997 short story by Annie Proulx.

Synopsis: “The story of a forbidden and secretive relationship between two cowboys, and their lives over the years.”

Why it’s important: “Brokeback Mountain” arguably brought same-sex romance to mainstream audiences – and although neither Gyllenhaal nor Ledger were actually gay, the actors’ performances were widely praised.

2008’s “Milk” told the story of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk.

Sean Penn starred as the first openly gay mayor elected to public office in California in ‘Milk.’

Synopsis: “The story of Harvey Milk, and his struggles as an American gay activist who fought for gay rights and became California’s first openly gay elected official.”

Why it’s important: The film brought widespread attention to the story of Harvey Milk, an outspoken gay activist and politician who was also the first openly gay mayor elected to public office in California. In recent years, the film has taken on even greater significance.

Gregg Araki’s 2010 film “Kaboom” follows sexually adventurous college students as they investigate a supernatural cult.

Sundance SelectsThe film starred Juno Temple and Gregg Araki muse James Duval.

Synopsis: “A sexually ‘undeclared’ college freshman’s clairvoyant/prophetic dreams are the first sign that something very strange is going on involving his classmates – with him at the centre.”

Why it’s important: The film was awarded the first ever Queer Palm at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival for its contribution to LGBTQ issues, and features multiple sexually fluid or queer characters.

The 2013 film “Blue Is the Warmest Colour” depicts the relationship between two French women as they fall in and out of love.

Sundance SelectsLéa Seydoux starred in ‘Blue Is the Warmest Colour,’ which garnered controversy for its ‘graphic’ sex scenes.

Synopsis: “Adèle’s life is changed when she meets Emma, a young woman with blue hair, who will allow her to discover desire and to assert herself as a woman and as an adult. In front of others, Adèle grows, seeks herself, loses herself, and ultimately finds herself through love and loss.”

Why it’s important: The film received considerable attention for its portrayal of two women entering a romantic relationship, with special praise awarded to the lead actresses Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos.

“Carol” was a 2015 adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel.

The Weinstein CompanyRooney Mara, left, and Cate Blanchett starred in ‘Carol.’

Synopsis: “An aspiring photographer develops an intimate relationship with an older woman in 1950s New York.”

Why it’s important: While “Carol” portrays a relationship between two women in love, the film also shows the struggles that lesbian women faced in the 1950s.

The 2015 film “Tangerine” was shot entirely on an iPhone.

Magnolia Pictures via YouTubeTwo trans women starred in the film.

Synopsis: “A sex worker tears through Tinseltown on Christmas Eve, searching for the pimp who broke her heart.”

Why it’s important: The film received considerable attention for the fact that it was shot entirely on iPhones, but more significant is the fact that “Tangerine” stars two trans women of colour. Both Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, who star in the film, were praised for their performances.

2016 documentary “Strike a Pose” tells the story of some of Madonna’s backup dancers.

CTM DocsThe film profiles the dancers who worked on Madonna’s ‘Blond Ambition’ world tour in 1990.

Synopsis: “What does it take to express yourself? The surprising and moving story of Madonna’s most famous troupe of dancers.”

Why it’s important: The film follows the lives of some of Madonna’s backup dancers as they deal with AIDS, drug use, and homelessness in the years after the singer’s iconic 1990 “Blond Ambition” world tour. Several members of the renowned ballroom “family” House of Xtravaganza were featured in the documentary.

“Moonlight,” released in 2016, became the first LGBTQ movie with an all-black cast to win best picture at the Academy Awards.

A24Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae appeared in ‘Moonlight.’

Synopsis:“A chronicle of the childhood, adolescence and burgeoning adulthood of a young, African-American, gay man growing up in a rough neighbourhood of Miami.”

Why it’s important: The film’s Oscar win brought widespread attention to “Moonlight,” giving a story about a black gay man mainstream success.

2017’s “Call Me by Your Name” was an adaptation of a novel by Andre Aciman.

Sony PicturesTimothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer starred in the film.

Synopsis: “In 1980s Italy, a romance blossoms between a 17-year-old student and the older man hired as his father’s research assistant.”

Why it’s important: The film takes a stylised look at the romantic relationship between two men, and, much like 2016’s “Moonlight,” received mainstream success for its portrayal of LGBTQ characters.

The 2018 Chilean film “A Fantastic Woman” tells the story of Marina, a waitress and singer, and Orlando, an older man, who are in love and planning for the future.

Sony Pictures ClassicsThe film is Chilean, and starred transgender actress Daniela Vega.

Synopsis: “Marina, a transgender woman who works as a waitress and moonlights as a nightclub singer, is bowled over by the death of her older boyfriend.”

Why it’s important: In addition to being praised for the sensitive, thoughtful way it portrays a transgender woman struggling with loss, “A Fantastic Woman” also helped pave the way for improved LGBTQ rights in Chile, where it was filmed and produced.

Nicole Kidman and Lucas Hedges starred in 2018’s “Boy Erased.”

Focus FeaturesSinger Troye Sivan also has a role in ‘Boy Erased.’

Synopsis: “The son of a Baptist preacher is forced to participate in a church-supported gay conversion program after being forcibly outed to his parents.”

Why it’s important: Based on writer Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name, “Boy Erased” portrays the horrors of conversion therapy while advocating for love and acceptance of different sexualities.

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