As queer visibility increases, LGBTQ+ movies created by writers, directors, and actors in the community are becoming more mainstream. While many of these contemporary films are essential and continue to portray aspects of modern queer life, it’s important to recognize that onscreen queerness has existed throughout cinematic history. With this in mind, we’ve compiled 12 must-see LGBTQ+ films from 1990 and earlier that deserve a spot on your binge-watching list during Pride season and beyond.
This German-language classic (English translation: Girls in Uniform) stars Hertha Thiele as a motherless teen named Manuela who is feeling off to an all-girls boarding school. Soon, she’s crushing on her young teacher, Elizabeth von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck), and the two share the first real lesbian kiss on screen. Almost banned in the US, the film garnered support from none other than Eleanor Roosevelt, which resulted in its limited American release in 1932.
Stream it: YouTube
Dirk Bogarde stars in this landmark film that put a spotlight on the real-life debate surrounding the UK’s anti-sodomy laws, which were repealed just a few years after the movie’s release. (Many even credit victim with helping to build momentum to get the law axed.) Bogarde plays Melville Farr, a lawyer in early 1960s London. On the surface, his career and personal life reflect success—he has a wife (Sylvia Syms) and a thriving law firm. But as it happens, Farr is gay and closed at a time when sexual activity between men was against the law. When he is threatened with blackmail, his entire world is in jeopardy. Instead of giving in, however, he chooses to fight.
Directed by Radley Metzger, who was known for his artistic interpretations of erotic material, Therese and Isabelle is based on the censored 1966 French novella of the same name by Violette Leduc. The story revolves around two adolescent girls—Essy Persson as Therese and Anna Gaël as Isabelle—who become lovers at a boarding school in Switzerland. Hailed as a milestone of sexual candor, the film depicts then-taboo scenes of lesbian love, premarital sex, and masturbation.
Stream it: Internet Archive
Based on the play by Mart Crowley, The Boys in the Band centers on a gay birthday party in late ’60s New York City. The host, Michael (Kenneth Nelson), gets a surprise visit from an old straight friend, Alan (Peter White), who turns the whole evening upside down. After an acclaimed Broadway revival in 2018, theater director Joe Mantello and producer Ryan Murphy teamed up for a remake starring an all-queer cast, including Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer, Zachary Quinto, and Andrew Rannells, which debuted on Netflix in 2020.
This iconic musical, directed by Bob Fosse and starring Liza Minnelli, Michael York, and Joel Grey, is a must-watch. In early 1930s Berlin, American cabaret singer Sally Bowles (Minnelli) encounters a British academic, Brian Roberts (York). The two become lovers despite Brian’s confusion over his sexual orientation —but a rich German playboy, Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem), complicates things. Their love triangle plays out against proliferating Nazism and the crumbling of the Weimar Republic.
Victor/Victoria is a remake of a 1933 German film and focuses on a woman named Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews), an unemployed British soprano looking for work in Paris nightclubs. While attempting to dine and dash, she meets a gay cabaret performer named Toddy (Robert Preston), who devises a plan to change both of their fortunes. Acting as her manager, Toddy bills Victoria as a female impersonator named Victor, making her “a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman.” The nightclubs fall for their ruse, and Victor becomes a smash hit. Even a Chicago mobster (James Garner) falls in love with Victor, while suspecting (and hoping) that he is really a she. With a fantastic lead performance by Andrews, Blake Edwards’s gender-bending musical comedy is fun, witty, and wildly entertaining.
In 1959, Vivian, a Columbia University English professor (Helen Shaver), heads to Reno to divorce her husband. There, she has a torrid affair with a younger woman named Cay (Patricia Charbonneau)—but this is more than just a rebound story. Director Donna Deitch’s film is an intensely erotic, emotional, romantic tour-de-force that was groundbreaking at the time for its honest portrayal of a lesbian sexual awakening and happy-ish ending.
One of the first feature-length films about AIDS, Parting Glances centers on a day in the life of a gay couple, Robert (John Bolger) and Michael (Richard Ganoung), living in New York City. As they prepare for Robert’s departure on a work reassignment to Africa, Michael copes with the impending reality of a long-distance relationship. Meanwhile, he also cares for his HIV-positive best friend and ex-boyfriend, Nick (Steve Buscemi). At Robert’s farewell party, emotions run high as the men and their friends wrestle with love, sex, friendship, illness, and saying goodbye. Sadly, the director, Bill Sherwood, had his own life cut short by AIDS at the age of 37.
Stream it: kanopy
Based on the posthumously published EM Forster novel, this sumptuous Merchant Ivory film adaptation recounts an affair between two male Cambridge students, Maurice (James Wilby) and Clive (Hugh Grant), and explores the complications of forbidden desire in Edwardian society.
According to its director, Marlon T. Riggs, this experimental documentary sought to “shatter the nation’s brutalizing silence on matters of sexual and racial difference.” Consisting of interviews, spoken-word poetry, rap, and performances, Untied Tongues explores the intersection of homophobia and racism in Black and queer communities—subject matter that still resonates today.
Stream it: kanopy
Long before award-winning TV series like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Posethere was Paris Is Burning. This essential documentary chronicles 1980s transgender and queer ball culture in New York City, featuring Black and Latinx performers. Watch and you’ll uncover the origins of drag slang terms like voguing and throwing shade.
rent: Apple TV+
During the 1980s, a group of friends faces the initial HIV/AIDS crisis in New York City and Fire Island. After Willy (Campbell Scott) loses his buddy, John (Dermot Mulroney), it becomes clear that a pandemic is ravaging the gay community. Willy, his boyfriend Fuzzy (Stephen Caffrey), and his adopted sister, Lisa (Mary-Louise Parker), attend funerals and advocate for awareness while losing people they love—including David, played by Bruce Davison, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance.
buy it: amazon