The 20 inspiring LGBTQ+ documentaries show queerness in bold living color

paris is burning feat lgbtq documentaries
A still from Paris Is Burning

LGBTQ+ documentaries can be informative, enlightening, moving, funny, sad or all of these at once. Some are journalistic reports on a scene; others are the cinematic equivalent of a personal essay.

The LGBTQ+ documentary is not only able to connect people within a community, but also to explain the community to outsiders. Can LGBTQ+ documentaries change the world? Perhaps — but they can certainly change worldviews and make their audiences more informed and empathetic.

1. Paris Is Burning

Paris is Burning, transgender movie, transgender film, transgender day of visibility, lgbtq+ documentaries
Paris is Burning
Paris Is Burning is a classic documentary looking at the ball culture of the late 1980s. The film brought classic queer slang to the masses and taught the world about the modern forms of drag. Paris Is Burning also taught more film viewers about voguing, as it was released about six months after Madonna’s hit single piqued mainstream America’s interest in the queer dance form.

Where to watch: Max, Criterion Channel, rentable from Apple

2. Becoming Leslie

Leslie Cochran, Becoming Leslie, Tracy Frazier, lgbtq+ documentaries
Leslie Cochran Rebecca McEntee/Austin American Statesman
Becoming Leslie is a 2019 documentary about Leslie Cochran, an Austin, Texas fixture. Cochran was a homeless drag queen, advocating for the rights of homeless people — he even appeared on David Letterman. Not just a seminal figure in the “Keep Austin Weird” movement, he worked to make the city more inclusive.

Where to watch: IndieFlix, Plex, rentable from Google Play and YouTube

3. Oriented

oriented lgbtq+ documentaries

Jake Witzenfeld’s 2015 documentary Oriented is about the lives of three gay Palestinians in Israel. The three subjects live in Tel Aviv, perhaps the most gay-friendly city in the Middle East. One of the subjects, activist Khader Abu Seif, told the Associated Press that when he’s in Tel Aviv, he doesn’t get pushback for being gay, but he does get flack for being Palestinian: “At the airport, while my Jewish partners … are already at the duty-free, I’m still being checked.”

Where to watch: Dekkoo, rentable from Fandango, Amazon, Google and YouTube.

4. Compared To What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank

Barney Frank US Department of Agriculture
Former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was the first openly gay U.S. congressman, coming out in 1987. Compared to What catches up with Frank shortly after his 2011 retirement, and includes footage of his 2012 wedding to partner Jim Ready.

Where to watch: Not on streaming, but available on physical media.

5. Tongues Untied

Still from Tongues Untied, lgbtq+ documentaries
Still from Tongues Untied Institute of Contemporary Arts
Groundbreaking filmmaker Marlon Riggs’ 1989 film Tongues Untied aired in 1991 as part of PBS’ P.O.V. series of documentaries. The film, an unflinching look at the lives of Black gay men, upset conservatives, who lobbied to cut funding to PBS. Unfortunately, at the time, over 100 PBS affiliates didn’t show the film, but it’s now available to watch online. It’s an interesting mix of short films, direct camera confessionals, dance, and poetry.

Where to watch: Criterion Channel, Kanopy, OVID.

6. Little Richard: I Am Everything

Little Richard, lgbtq+ documentaries
Little Richard Shutterstock
Little Richard was not just a queer icon, but one of the progenitors of rock ‘n’ roll. He was also deeply religious, which would sometimes lead him to go back into the closet from time to time. Little Richard: I Am Everything looks at the complicated, beloved musical figure.

Where to watch: Max, rentable from just about every platform.

7. The Times of Harvey Milk

harvey milk, george moscone, lgbtq+ documentaries
In this April 1977 file photo, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, left, and Mayor George Moscone are shown in the mayor’s office during the signing of the city’s gay rights bill.

The 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk is a must-watch for anyone interested in the life of the gay politician, one of the first to be out in the United States. The film tracks Milk’s beginnings as a camera shop owner, to supervisor of San Francisco, up to his assassination by fellow supervisor Dan White, and the riots that followed White’s sentencing.

Where to watch: Max, Criterion Channel, rentable from just about every platform.

8. She’s Not a Boy

She’s Not a Boy is about Tatenda Ngwaru, the founder of the first intersex organization in Zimbabwe, Africa. It follows her immigration to the U.S. from Zimbabwe, landing in New York City — where she still has to fight against disparities in healthcare.

Where to watch: Not available for streaming, but the Newark Public Library has the film posted to its social media platforms, along with a Q&A from the filmmakers, embedded above.

9. The Freedom to Marry

The Freedom to Marry, LGBTQ+ documentaries

The Freedom to Marry was released just about a year following the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage in the United States. The documentary is about Evan Wolfson, the “architect” of the same-sex marriage movement, along with other figures in the marriage equality movement. Watch it now before the conservative Court rolls back its decision.

Where to watch: Peacock, Fubo, Roku, Hoopla, Tubi, FlixPremiere, Flex, rentable from the usual suspects.

10. Thanks to Hank

Hank Wilson, Sisters of Perpetual Inudlgence, LGBTQ+ documentaries

Experimental composer Bob Ostertag directed Thanks to Hank, about Hank Wilson, who started the AIDS Candlelight Vigil. Wilson was a former kindergarten teacher who ran an HIV-positive hospice in San Francisco during the worst parts of the AIDS epidemic. He also launched the first queer comedy club in the city, the Valencia Rose Cafe, hosting legendary comedians like Whoopi Goldberg and Lea DeLaria.

Where to watch: Dekkoo, OVID.

11. Queer Planet

Screenshot Peacock
Queerphobes like to say that being gay or trans isn’t natural — but Queer Planet puts that lie to rest. The film, narrated by gay actor Andrew Rannellsis about lifeforms that have same-sex pairings, change their sex, or even have multiple genders. If only queerphobic pastor Pat Robertson were still alive to see this — it would make his head explode.

Where to watch: Peacock (appropriately)

12. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

all the beauty and the bloodshed, lgbtq+ documentaries
Still from All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Oscar-winner Laura Poitras directed All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, the 2022 portrait of artist and activist Nan Goldin. Goldin is known for her photos of queer culture and the AIDS epidemic. The film also focuses on her fight against the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma over the opioid epidemic.

Where to watch: Max, rentable most everywhere

13. Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero

Lil Nas X at the world premiere of Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero
Lil Nas X at the world premiere of “Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero.” Screenshot
Lil Nas X quickly rose to fame off the viral hit “Old Town Road,” but unlike other viral stars, he had the talent to back it up. Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero follows the rapper on tour as he learns to navigate his newfound fame with unapologetic queerness.

Where to watch: Max

14. State of Pride

State of Pride trailer
State of Pride, the 2019 film, looks at three different Pride celebrations — two in red states, and one in the queer haven of San Francisco — in the wake of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. One of the Pride parades takes place in the small town of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which the filmmakers called “a wonderful thing to see.”

Where to watch: YouTube

15. Stories of Intersex and Faith

stories of intersex and faith, lgbtq+ documentaries
A still from Stories of Intersex and Faith

Megan DeFranza’s 2019 documentary is about five intersex people, and their struggles with society not knowing how to handle them. The film shows that “religion can and has been a tool to support secrecy and surgeries but how their own faith has also helped them find healing, courage, and hope,” according to the film’s official website.

Where to watch: Rentable at the filmmakers’ website only.

16. How to Survive a Plague

Peter Staley in classic ACT UP mode, at a pharmaceutical protest in 1989.

The 2012 documentary is about ACT UP NYC’s activism during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. The queer community had to come together to fight for their lives in the face of a government that literally laughed at AIDS. The film not only contains lots of great footage from their memorable direct-action protests — including a “die-in” during a Catholic cathedral and a giant condom being placed over the house of anti-gay Sen. Jesse Helms — but also how ACT UP NYC eventually suffered from in-fighting just as new pharmaceuticals appeared.

Where to watch: AMC+, Kanopy, Mubi, PlutoTV, Plex, rentable at major outlets.

17. Chasing Chasing Amy

Kevin Smith with Chasing Chasing Amy director Sav Rodgers.
Kevin Smith with Chasing Chasing Amy director Sav Rodgers. Bill Winters/Courtesy of Sicily Publicity
While Kevin Smith’s 1993 film Chasing Amy was a critical success at the time, its story about a straight man falling in love with a lesbian is now often considered problematic. Chasing Chasing Amy is about Sav Rodgers’ personal love of the film that he says “kept him alive,” while grappling with its legacy.

Where to watch: Not streaming, but still touring cinemas. Check the film’s website for details.

18. The Celluloid Closet

The ad for
The ad for “The Celluloid Closet” as it appeared in the Advocate. Screenshot/The Advocate
The Celluloid Closet is an adaptation of Vito Russo’s classic book of the same name about how Hollywood treated gay characters and issues. Russo always wanted his book to become a film, and worked on it with the filmmakers until his death in 1990. The film interviews Hollywood icons gay and straight, including Tom Hanks, Whoopi Goldberg, and Susan Sarandon.

Where to watch: Rentable at major outlets

19. Out in America

out in america lgbtq+ documentaries

Out in America, directed by Andrew Goldberg, aired on PBS in 2011, looking at LGBTQ+ Americans across the United States. The documentary focuses on normal, average queer people — though there are a few celebrity ringers like Armistead Maupin.

Where to watch: Not streaming, but available on physical media

20. Blue

blue derek jarman lgbtq+ documentaries

The above image is a still from Blue, the 1993 film by Derek Jarman; it is not a rendering glitch. The film visually features only a field of blue — the only color Jarman could see by the end of his life, due to AIDS-related complications. Through the film, Jarman talks about living and dying of AIDS, and shares a fable about the color blue personified. He would die in early 1994, shortly after its release. This film may not be for everyone, but those viewers it clicks with will be forever changed.

Where to watch: Kanopy, OVID, Plex, Metrograph

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