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To celebrate Pride Month, we rounded up the best documentaries focused on LGBTQ voices and history.
Our picks include classics like “Paris is Burning” and docuseries like “Visible: Out on Television.”
A good documentary can teach you something new and provide deep insights into its subject matter. To celebrate Pride Month, we selected some of the best documentaries focused on LGBTQ topics, figures, and history.
Our picks include films that chronicle the LGBTQ community’s struggle for equal rights, as well as pivotal members of the movement, and the ways in which things have changed since the Stonewall riots.
Our selection varies from classic documentaries like “The Times of Harvey Milk,” to more recent titles such as “Welcome to Chechnya.” To be included on our list, each documentary must have a fresh rating of 60% or higher on review-aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
Check out the 15 best LGBTQ documentaries you can stream right now
“Disclosure” gives viewers a history lesson on transgender representation in television and film, using clips from “Tootsie,” “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and more to highlight the damaging stereotypes often used when depicting trans people on screen. It also highlights trans talent currently working in Hollywood, including Laverne Cox, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, and Chaz Bono.
“Changing the Game” follows three transgender high school athletes, including a wrestler, a skier, and a track runner. The documentary premiered as anti-trans bills were being passed nationwide to prevent transgender teens from competing in athletics based on their gender. The main subject of the documentary is Mack Beggs, a transgender boy who, because of Texas state laws, had to compete in girls’ wrestling.
“How to Survive a Plague” documents the early years of the AIDS crisis, including the founding and rise of the activism organization ACT UP. The film also chronicles the community’s struggle to get the FDA to recognize the virus so experimental drugs could be approved to fight it.
Off White Productions Inc.
Widely recognized as one of the most important documentaries about race, gender and sexuality, “Paris is Burning” was filmed in the late 1980s to chronicle the ball scene in New York City. At the intersection of Black, Latinx, gay, and transgender communities, ball culture is an underground scene that involves “houses,” or chosen families, coming together to compete in categories like runway, walking, and vogueing.
In addition to filming at the ball, the documentary explores the house members as they deal with issues like AIDS, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and poverty.
Seen as a spiritual sequel and follow up to “Paris is Burning,” “Kiki” also focuses on gay and transgender people of color who participate in the drag and ball culture in New York City. Released over 25 years after “Paris is Burning,” “Kiki” shows the impact that the AIDS crisis continues to have on the LGBTQ community and the ways these subcultures try to raise awareness.
In his follow up to “How to Survive a Plague,” director David France chronicles two of the most important figures in the early gay liberation and transgender rights movements, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Though she wasn’t present when the riots began, Johnson became one of the more prominent activists involved with the Stonewall riots in 1969.
Mainly, the film focuses on contemporary activist Victoria Cruz and her investigation into Johnson’s 1992 death, which police initially ruled a suicide, despite suspicious circumstances suggesting otherwise.
“A Secret Love” tells the story of Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel. Donahue, a former All-American Girls Professional Baseball League player, and Henschel ran an interior decorating service together, while also keeping a major secret from their families for over seven decades: they were in a relationship.
Director Chris Bolan is their great-nephew, and decided to make the documentary after his great-aunts told him their story. The women married in 2015 and were together for a total of 72 years before Donahue’s death in 2019.
“Flee” is an animated documentary that focuses on the true story of one man’s journey to escape Afghanistan during a civil war. The man, using the alias Amin Nawabi, only decides to tell his story because of his impending marriage to his longtime boyfriend, Kasper.
Nawabi has secrets that could be damaging if found out, and because of that, he never told Kasper the full story of what it took to seek refuge in Denmark. The documentary also features touching scenes animated to Nawabi’s narration that show him first exploring his sexuality as a teenager on the run.
Howard Ashman was a songwriter who wrote the lyrics for some of Walt Disney Studios’ most iconic songs: “Part of Your World,” “A Whole New World,” and “Be Our Guest,” among others. He also co-wrote the 1986 musical “Little Shop of Horrors.”
“Howard” documents the life and work of Ashman, who was openly gay, until his 1991 death from AIDS complications. His frequent collaborator Alan Menken composed the score for the film, which he described as an opportunity to pay tribute to Ashman, who was also one of his closest friends.
Released just years after openly gay politician Harvey Milk was assassinated, “The Times of Harvey Milk” documents Milk’s life and career. Using archival footage, previously unreleased documentary footage, news reports, and interviews, the documentary shows Milk’s rise from neighborhood activism to serving on San Francisco’s board of supervisors, in addition to his assassination and the trial that followed.
“The Times of Harvey Milk” is narrated by Harvey Fierstein and was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2012.
Channel Four Films/HBO Pictures
Inspired by Vito Russo’s 1986 book of the same name, “The Celluloid Closet” takes viewers through the history of LGBTQ representation in cinema. Lily Tomlin narrates the documentary that includes clips of feature films from the 1920s through the early 1990s to show how queer characters were historically represented in film.
This includes more explicit representation like “The Boys in the Band” and “Cruising,” and more implied, queer-coding during the Hays Code era with films like “Ben-Hur” and “Rope.”
Alex Bohs/courtesy of We Were There Inc.
After a box of letters was found in a Los Angeles storage unit in 2014, directors Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera devoted themselves to finding out more about the men who wrote the letters — and who they were writing them to.
The discovery leads to an interesting peek into the drag community of New York City during the 1950s and ’60s.
Shot in secret using cell phones, GoPro cameras, and other discreet technology, “Welcome to Chechnya” focuses on a network of activists who helped queer Chechen refugees escape during the country’s anti-gay purges.
The documentary uses advanced artificial intelligence to alter the subjects’ faces and voices to protect their identities.
“Visible: Out on Television” takes a look at the history of television in the same way “The Celluloid Closet” does for film. The five-part miniseries traces the history of LGBTQ people on TV in a chronological fashion, with each episode revolving around a specific theme.
Each episode is narrated by a different queer person in the industry, including Lena Waithe, Janet Mock, and Asia Kate Dillon.
This six-episode docuseries chronicles the fight for LGBTQ rights from the 1950s through the 2010s. Each episode takes on a different decade, and all are directed by LGBTQ filmmakers who use distinct styles to tell each story.
Some use archival footage and scenes from groundbreaking films of the time, while others employ actors to recreate scenes from the era in period clothing. Together, the six episodes reveal how far LGBTQ rights have come and the heavy cost it took to get here.