In the past few decades, the LGBTQ+ community has come a long way in gaining acceptance and equality. There is still much work to do, but it’s important to recognize progress. Particularly in the last 15 years, there have been some great movies featuring a wide range of LGBTQ characters, living diverse lives with a variety of issues. While there still isn’t nearly enough representation, these stories are important markers of a change that is starting to occur. There have been lots of great LGBTQ TV characters, so now it’s time to talk about movies.
Some of these movies will make you laugh, and most of them will probably bring you close to tears. There are some powerful true stories on this list, as well as some solid book adaptations that hopefully live up to the originals. No matter what, these movies all give important screen time to characters that have been marginalized for too long.
20. Call Me By Your Name
One of last year’s breakout indie movies, Call Me By Your Name is an emotional story of first love. Timothée Chalamet made himself a star as the forlorn Elio, who falls for visiting graduate student Oliver (played by Armie Hammer). Their story of summer love, set against the beautiful Italian countryside, truly makes the heart ache. Whether you’ve experienced something like this or not, the emotions are universal. It’s hard to imagine anyone not loving this movie.
Moonlight might be best remembered for the legendary Best Picture screwup, but there’s way more to remember. La La Land was great, but Moonlight is an important story of growing up queer in an underprivileged community, and the unique struggles that come with the territory. The deeply moving film follows Chiron from youth to adulthood, and depicts how his upbringing and his role models affect his relationships. The queer narrative in Moonlight is subtle and understated, but it’s quite beautiful. As a Best Picture winner, Moonlight is a truly historic choice in more ways than one.
18. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Perks of Being a Wallflower has everything you could want from an emotional high school movie. There’s a charming lead performance by Logan Lerman, Emma Watson plays a fun supporting character, and there’s also LGBT representation. The story centers on Charlie, but Patrick, an older gay character, acts as a mentor to him. It’s nice that Patrick’s sexuality isn’t the only interesting thing about him, letting him be a fully-formed character. This coming-of-age story is a touching experience that can be appreciated by anyone.
17. Dallas Buyers Club
As a society, we aren’t taught enough about the AIDS crisis, but there are some great movies that help show what a terrifying time it was in the LGBTQ community. In Dallas Buyers Club, AIDS medication is smuggled into Texas, because the FDA has not worked quickly enough to approve the drugs and improve the lives of the primarily queer people affected. Matthew McConaughey is the glue that holds the movie together, but Jared Leto is incredible as Rayon, an HIV-positive trans woman. His physical transformation was striking, and the character is a heartbreaking representation of what so many people have gone through. Leto won an Oscar for his performance, and the movie is a powerful story about a marginalized community in crisis. While ideally in the future trans characters will be played by trans actors, Jared’s portrayal was a step in the right direction.
Representation is everything, and Tangerine made waves for its use of trans actors in telling its gritty story. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor star as a pair of best friends on a revenge mission in Hollywood. Rodriguez’s character Sin-Dee Rella is a transgender sex worker just out of prison, and the movie is important in its nonjudgmental treatment of characters like Sin-Dee. It’s important that we tell all kinds of LGBTQ stories, not just those that fit into pretty little boxes. This movie was shot with an iPhone 5S, but you’d never know from the high-quality storytelling on the screen.
Deadpool might not be as emotional or deep as most of the others on this list, but the representation it gives is just as important. The title character, played by Ryan Reynolds is pansexual, a sexual orientation that many are confused by even now. It mainly just means that you can be attracted to anyone, regardless of their gender identity, but it’s a big deal to have it represented in such a huge movie. It’s not a major plot point or anything, but maybe in the upcoming Deadpool 2 Wade Wilson will have a more interesting love life. In the superhero genre, anything other than completely straight is a major development.
14. Blue Is The Warmest Color
Some of the best movies are able to capture the visceral, sensual side of human emotion, and Blue Is The Warmest Color does this expertly. This French film stars Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos as two young women who share an incredible bond. Their courtship and the tumultuous times that follow are completely spellbinding, and this movie is easy to get wrapped up in. It’s a wonderful coming of age story, as well as a complicated portrait of what a real, messy relationship looks like. Even if foreign movies are tough for you to get into, this one is worth a try.
Though Felicity Huffman is best known for her work on Desperate Housewives, she won rave reviews for her performance in Transamerica. She plays a transgender woman who is comfortable with her identity, but must confront her past before she can move forward with the future. She finds out she had a son in her past life, with whom she reluctantly forms a relationship, trying to make up for lost time. It’s a funny, poignant look at how our identity affects our relationships. Going forward, we need more trans actors playing trans characters, but Huffman really is great here.
12. The Kids Are All Right
Even families that seem normal can have some pretty crazy things happening under the surface. In The Kids Are All Right, Julianne Moore and Annette Bening play a lesbian married couple raising two children. That, in and of itself, was pretty groundbreaking for a mainstream movie, but there’s a lot more going on here. The sperm donor that made their kids possible is revealed, and it causes major repercussions for the family. This movie is a darkly funny, realistic look at what a family can look like in the 21st century.
11. The Imitation Game
The Imitation Game serves as a shocking reminder of how recently LGBTQ acceptance has started to become the norm. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician who helped stop the Nazis during the Second World War. In this true story, Turing’s identity as a gay man isn’t the primary focus, but it’s incredibly important nonetheless. Turing was convicted of being gay and forced to undergo a “chemical castration” treatment, a torturous punishment that is hard to believe today but was a reality just a few decades ago. This movie pays great homage to Turing’s important work, and his legacy as a gay man who was treated poorly by those in power.
Carol is a hauntingly beautiful story of forbidden love between two women in the 1950s. Based on a classic novel, the story depicts the painful position of being unable to express who you truly are, and who you love. Cate Blanchett plays the wealthy, middle-aged Carol, who seduces the younger Therese (Rooney Mara). Both ladies are just perfect in their roles, and the amazing Sarah Paulson also plays a great supporting character. This one is guaranteed to cause a lot of feelings, so be prepared.
9. Far From Heaven
In addition to sexual orientation, Far From Heaven examines many important issues in the context of the 1950s, including race and gender dynamics. Julianne Moore plays a picture-perfect Connecticut housewife Cathy, whose world starts to rupture when she discovers that her husband, Frank, played by Dennis Quaid, is gay. He decides that he will undergo conversion therapy, but the problems run deeper than anything that can be fixed. In a world where some people still believe conversion therapy is an acceptable option, this movie is a striking look at how homosexuality was viewed just 50 or 60 years ago. This Connecticut town is beautiful, but there’s no such thing as perfect.
It’s crucial to remember those who died fighting for LGBTQ equality, and Harvey Milk is at the top of the list. Milk was one of the first openly gay elected officials in history, and he cleared the way for so many trailblazers to come after him. Milk, the movie about his life, is a beautiful tribute to his legacy, and Sean Penn gives an outstanding performance in the title role. James Franco also gives a strong performance as Harvey’s lover and campaign manager. Harvey Milk was assassinated less than a year after being elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, but he made an impact that lives on to this day.
7. Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Musicals can provide the perfect creative outlet for telling stories of marginalized groups. In Hedwig and the Angry Inch, John Cameron Mitchell plays Hedwig, an East German transgender singer who survived a sex change operation that went wrong. Yitzhak, a trans man, is also in Hedwig’s band. The movie, based on the stage musical of the same name, is an energetic romp fueled by some great songs, and there are lots of deep emotions embedded in the rock and glam of Hedwig’s performance. A few years ago, the show enjoyed a hit Broadway revival starring Neil Patrick Harris.
6. The Hours
The Hours is a story told through three characters in three different time periods, but they come together in ways that are thoroughly bewitching. Nicole Kidman won an Oscar for her performance as British author Virginia Woolf, but the entire cast is remarkable. The indomitable Meryl Streep plays Clarissa, a bisexual woman in the modern era who struggles with depression. She has lived with a woman for a decade, but a former male lover is dying of AIDS, and she must be there for him. There’s a lot going on in this little movie, but it comes together beautifully.
5. Boys Don’t Cry
When it comes to LGBTQ history, unfortunately, many of the true stories are devastating. In this film, Hilary Swank plays Brandon Teena, a trans man from rural Nebraska. Brandon struggles with finding acceptance in his community, and is ultimately murdered. The story is a shocking, gruesome reminder of how strong hatred can be, and Hilary Swank is top-notch. There are too many true stories like this, but hopefully, we’re moving toward a future where this won’t happen anymore.
4. Battle of the Sexes
For Battle of the Sexes, Emma Stone stepped into the shoes of legendary tennis star Billie Jean King. King, who was a top tennis player in the 1960s and ’70s, became the public face of the movement for gender equality in the sport. She also caused controversy when she came out as lesbian, something relatively unprecedented for an athlete at the time. This movie is an entertaining and impactful love letter to Billie Jean and her legacy, which is going strong. Players like Serena Williams list Billie Jean among their top idols both on and off the court, and with good reason.
Rent, the beloved musical that was turned into a movie, was far ahead of its time in terms of LGBTQ issues. Many of the main characters are either gay, lesbian, or gender non-binary, and AIDS is the most important through-line in the story. You fall in love with the characters, just in time to remember that they are living in a society that has offered them none of the support they need. The musical first premiered more than 20 years ago, but it’s not hard to imagine the struggles that people like these characters went through. Luckily, we’ve come a long way, but there’s still much progress to be made.
2. Brokeback Mountain
This 2005 movie about two ranch hands in the West is a deeply affecting story about emotional and sexual taboos. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are mesmerizing as the forbidden lovers, and the supporting cast, including Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams, is excellent as well. The story weaves through two decades of their lives, and is fraught with pain and heartbreak. The lead actors share a raw chemistry that makes the whole story instantly believable. This might not be one of the more uplifting movies, but it’s an incredible one nonetheless.
1. Love, Simon
Finally, there’s a mainstream teen movie that puts gay characters front and center, rather than making them secondary. Luckily, it’s just as good as it is important. Nick Robinson stars as Simon, a high school senior who’s struggling with the secret that he’s gay. He starts emailing anonymously with another gay student at his school, and a powerful chain of events is set in motion. It’s one of the first big movies that really showcases gay characters, and you’ll probably cry at least a couple of times.