There’s a reason why “representation matters” has long been a rallying cry for the LGBTQ community: From books to movies to television, the stories we consume have the power to shape how we see other people—and ourselves. So when a film comes along that manages to really nail the queer experience, well, suffice it to say, we as a community hold on tight to our favorites. Here are 30 of the most beloved LGBTQ movies of all time, ranging from subtle and quiet to political and groundbreaking.
New Queer Cinema pioneer Gregg Araki’s eighth film is perhaps his most well-known to date. Following two teenage boys as they struggle to cope—in wildly different ways—with a shared childhood trauma, Mysterious Skin features memorable early performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbett. (The former was in the thick of his transition from child star to adult actor, whereas the latter was himself still a teenager at the time.) In the film, Gordon-Levitt’s character Neil turns to sex work at the age of 15 in an effort to reconcile his burgeoning queerness with his memories of abuse.
One of the first wide-release films to positively portray a lesbian relationship, Desert Hearts is an enduring entry in the sapphic canon. When university professor Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) travels to Reno for a quickie divorce, she doesn’t expect to fall in love with Cay Rivers (Patricia Charbonneau), a sculptor and the divorce ranch’s adopted daughter.
Love, Simon is noteworthy precisely because of how groundbreaking it isn’t. While the film certainly touches on the struggles of being gay and closeted—the titular Simon (Nick Robinson) isn’t yet out to his friends or family—it is fundamentally a sweet, earnest high school rom com where the guy gets the guy. Sometimes a little feel-good romance is just what you need.
The trans representation in this Sidney Lumet-directed classic about a bank robbery gone wrong probably wouldn’t win any GLAAD awards today: Sonny’s (Al Pacino) lover, a trans woman named Leon (Chris Sarandon) who needs money for gender confirmation surgery, is consistently referred to in the film as a man. However, Dog Day Afternoon was perhaps the first major motion picture to openly and sympathetically portray queer characters—even flawed ones—as figures deserving of the audience’s love and support. What initially seems like a comedy about an inept criminal proves more complicated as we learn about Sonny’s motivations for robbing the bank.
The mainstream canon of trans stories—including some of the films on this list—is full of hurtful, inaccurate, and misguided representations of trans characters. Over the years, Hollywood has frequently derided the trans community by including portraying trans characters as deceptive villains, treating transness as a punchline, and casting cis men to play trans women. Disclosure provides a hugely important documentary counterbalance to that canon, taking viewers through the history of trans representation in film and television.
A woman on the run from her foundering marriage. Two girl-crazy teenage boys. One epic, sexy road trip. If this doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for groundbreaking queer cinema, then you haven’t seen Alfonso Cuarón’s international breakout film, Y Tu Mamá También. What initially seems like a hormone-fueled romp becomes a stirring, sensual exploration of male fragility, bisexuality, and female independence.
John Waters has worked hard for his nickname as The Pope of Trash. Though best known for his (comparatively) mainstream movies—especially Cry-Baby and Hairspray—the godfather of raunchy queer cinema originally made his name as a director of wildly offensive, chronically X-rated cult films. Perhaps the most iconic of these is Pink Flamingos, starring frequent Waters collaborator Divine as a criminal who learns that she has been named “the filthiest person alive” and sets out to defend her title from a pair of jealous rivals. The film includes a number of controversial scenes that could be triggering — so, watch at your own risk.
The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is a sapphic classic that has become a key entry in the largely gay male-dominated canon of high camp. Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who himself was openly queer and reportedly abusive), Petra is an all-female melodrama set entirely in the title character’s ornate bedroom. When volatile and narcissistic fashion designer Petra Von Kant falls in love with a beautiful 23-year-old woman, her longstanding sado-masochistic relationship with her personal assistant is thrown into jeopardy.
Rose Troche’s debut feature follows Max (co-writer Guinevere Turner), a college-aged lesbian in Chicago who’s frustrated by a dry spell in her dating life. When she meets Ely (V.S. Brodie), however, her luck seems poised to change—and her friends, all navigating personal and romantic struggles of their own, are determined to see that it happens. Go Fish premiered at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, where it broke sales records upon being picked up by Samuel Goldwyn for distribution.
If you haven’t seen Emma Seligman’s debut feature about a college student (Rachel Sennott) who runs into both her sugar daddy and her ex-girlfriend at a shiva for a family friend whose name she doesn’t even know, you’re making a grave mistake. Claustrophobic and messy to the point of resembling a horror movie, Shiva Baby offers an intimate, deeply unsettling—and hilarious—portrait of a queer college almost-graduate struggling to find her place in the world.
Famously androgynous and somewhat alien in appearance, Tilda Swinton was the perfect casting choice to play the titular character—an immortal English nobleperson who transforms into a woman after several centuries of living as a man—in Orlando, Sally Potter’s 1992 adaptation of the notorious Virginia Woolf novel. Beautifully shot and exquisitely acted, Potter’s Orlando plays with the fourth wall as freely as it does with notions of gender and sexuality.
At just 33 years old, Xavier Dolan—the French-Canadian wunderkind of 21st-century queer cinema—has nearly ten films under his belt, several of them equally deserving of a spot on this list. Still, his semi-autobiographical first film continues to leave an indelible impact on the genre. In I Killed My Mother, Dolan documents the fraught relationship between a gay teenager and his single mother in dreamy, heart-wrenching detail.
A crime thriller set against the backdrop of the 1970s leather scene, Cruising is a polarizing film with a complicated legacy. When it came out in 1980, mainstream audiences and gay rights activists alike were scandalized—the former due to the graphic sexuality and the latter on the grounds that it portrayed the LGBTQ community in a bad light. (By contrast, director William Friedkin alleges that much of New York’s leather/S&M community actively supported the film and participated en masse as extras.) In recent years, though, the film—which features Al Pacino as a New York cop who goes undercover in the city’s S&M scene to investigate a serial killer targeting gay men—has been reevaluated and is now considered by many as a classic. Love it or hate it, Cruising is a touchstone of queer cinema history.
Danielle Lessovitz’s quietly stirring debut feature premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019 to tremendous acclaim. Set in the world of the New York ballroom scene, Port Authority—which was executive produced by Martin Scorsese—tells of the love story between a white man who has just arrived in New York without a penny to his name (Fionn Whitehead) and a Black transgender woman with deep ties to the city’s ball culture (Leyna Bloom, the first Black trans actress to star in a film at Cannes).
Described as a “part-thriller, part-gay love story,” Young Soul Rebels—a film not often included in U.S.-centric “best gay films” lists like these—is nevertheless a touchstone of Black, British, and queer cinema. Taking place in London’s punk scene in 1977, the film investigates the murder of a Black gay man and the violently apathetic response of the city’s police force. The protagonists—a pair of Black pirate radio DJs, one of them in an interracial relationship with a white man—must navigate the hostility of the state and the rise of skinhead culture while trying to uncover the truth behind their friend’s death.
to Titanic, the epic, star-crossed romantic drama has been a Hollywood staple for as long as Hollywood has been in existence. In Céline Sciamma’s breathtaking 2019 film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the genre meets its match in Héloïse, an aristocratic bride-to-be in an arranged marriage, and Marianne, an artist commissioned to paint Héloïse’s wedding portrait. Over the course of their time together, what starts as an antagonistic mutual fascination transforms into a love affair for the ages.
Before Pose and RuPaul’s Drag Race, there was Paris Is Burning. Shot during the late 1980s, Jennie Livingston’s documentary is the definitive record of golden-age New York City drag ball culture, featuring interviews with house founders such as Willi Ninja, Angie Xtravaganza, Dorian Corey, and other fixtures of the ballroom scene. To this day, the film remains an enduring record of what it was like to be Black, Latinx, or queer in New York City during the height of the AIDS crisis.
These days, director Alice Wu is probably best known for her sweet Netflix coming-of-age film, The Half of It. Nearly 20 years before that, though, she directed Saving Face, a defining entry in the lesbian film canon. The first Hollywood movie to center on Chinese-Americans since The Joy Luck Club some 11 years before it, Saving Face tells the story of a closeted Chinese-American woman falling in love for the first time and struggling to reconcile the relationship with her and her girlfriend’s traditional (read: homophobic), close-knit New York City community.
The first feature film directed by an out Black lesbian, The Watermelon Woman remains a landmark title in the history of queer cinema. Director Cheryl Dunye plays Cheryl, a Black lesbian filmmaker who decides to make a documentary about a Black actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age who is known only as the Watermelon Woman.
What list of queer classics would be complete without Call Me by Your Name? Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s lush, sensuous adaptation of the André Aciman novel follows 17-year-old Elio as he falls in love with Oliver, Elio’s father’s 24-year-old graduate student assistant, in 1980s northern Italy. The romantic drama features dreamy original compositions from Sufjan Stevens and a notable cameo by an overripe peach.
The only English-language film adaptation of the play (and later musical) La Cage aux Folles, The Birdcage is a camp classic. The film stars Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as Armand and Albert, domestic partners who own and operate a drag club in Miami Beach. When their son, Val, announces that he intends to marry his girlfriend, Barbara, Armand and Albert must “play straight” to impress Barbara’s parents—an ultraconservative Republican senator and his wife. Disaster predictably ensues.
Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2013 queer coming-of-age drama has come under fire many times: for being a lesbian film directed by a straight man, for Kechiche’s reportedly abusive behavior as a director, for its inclusion of a largely gratuitous—and extremely explicit—lesbian sex scene between the two leads. Nevertheless, Blue Is the Warmest Color, which follows its protagonist, Adele, over the course of her first serious relationship with a woman, remains a landmark depiction of sexuality and first love.
Though Oldboy director Park Chan-wook’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’s lesbian novel Fingersmith transposes the action from Victorian-era Britain to Japanese-occupied Korea, The Handmaiden has established itself as the definitive film version of its source material. A psychological thriller about an heiress, a con man planning to steal her fortune, and the pickpocket hired by the con man to become the heiress’s maid, The Handmaiden is a Russian nesting doll of a film in which nothing is quite as it seems.
When transgender nightclub singer Marina’s older boyfriend, Orlando, unexpectedly dies, she faces an uphill battle to have her role in Orlando’s life recognized by his ex-wife and kids. Featuring a tour-de-force performance from Daniela Vega as Marina, the film won the 2018 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and then went on to play an important role in accelerating the Chilean trans rights movement.
Ex-con Enrique returns home after a stint in prison, only to find that home is different from how he left it: His wife, Angela, has had an affair, and his child, who has recently come out as a trans woman, is navigating the process of transitioning. Director Rashaad Ernesto Green’s self-assured 2011 debut is especially notable for featuring a trans lead character played by an actual trans woman—something that shouldn’t be notable but unfortunately is. The actress, Harmony Santana, was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for her performance, making her the first openly transgender actress ever nominated.
Camp is typically considered the province of gay men and drag queens, but the genre’s roots in the lesbian community run just as deep. Nowhere is this on greater display than in Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader, the movie that launched Natasha Lyonne’s and Clea DuVall’s careers, and gave us the vision that is RuPaul Charles playing an “ex-gay” conversion therapy counselor in baby-blue booty shorts. In this queer classic, Lyonne plays a cheerleader whose conservative parents suspect she is a lesbian. They ship her off to conversion therapy, where she falls for DuVall’s enigmatic outsider.
Homosexuality is only one element of Stephen Frear’s potent social comedy. The film, which centers around business-minded Pakistani man Omar, also tackles racism and socioeconomic disparity in Thatcher-era London. But all that takes a temporary backseat when Omar rekindles a romance with Johnny (a young Daniel Day-Lewis, still four years away from the first of three Oscar wins). The film handles their relationship delicately but casually, offering it up as a choice. In My Beautiful Laundrette, you can live within the confines of class or sexuality—or you can open your life to other possibilities.
My Own Private Idaho stands as one of Gus Van Sant’s most conceptual films: it has an unconventional narrative structure, not to mention a central character who suffers from narcolepsy, which lends additional surrealism to the film’s disjointed architecture. But River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves anchor the film as Mike and Scott, two rent boys bonded by their estrangement from society. For a film with sex at its center, My Own Private Idaho is less concerned with sexuality than with love and comfort—something made especially clear in its famous campfire scene. It’s a masterclass in acting—a radical statement in a film already full of them.
In a post-RuPaul’s Drag Race world, it’s easy to forget how subversive Stephan Elliot’s film was for its time. But the sequined gaudiness and over-the-top production of The Adventures of Priscilla represented something of a watershed moment when it first came out. This scrappy spectacular, centered on two drag queens and a transwoman journeying through Australia, not only reached cult status; it eventually opened cinema up to more positive and mainstream representations of the LGBT community.
As far as gay coming-of-age stories go, Beautiful Thing is rather straightforward. An adaptation of the Jonathan Harvey play of the same name, the film follows two teenage boys as they gradually discover their homosexuality—and mutual feelings for each other—in a London council estate. Theirs is a relatively uncomplicated love story, nearly eclipsed by the messiness of the other characters in their orbit. But that’s part of the fantasy—sometimes, falling in love really is as simple as that.