Queer History Films For Pride

10 min read

Poster showing all 5 queer history film posters on the top, white background on bottom with title "5 Queer History Films For Pride" with LGBT coloured movie ticket on the lower right

[This post contains affiliate links, meaning I earn a small commission if you make a purchase through my links, at no cost to you. Read my full Disclosure for more.]

June in the United States is a special month for the LGBT & Queer community – it’s Pride Month! It’s a month-long celebration of who we are, letting the world see us as we revel and celebrate the long struggle to get where we are today. It’s also a time when we continue to push even further for equality, both at home and world-wide.

But we can’t celebrate without knowing about how we got to this point. That is why I’ve opted to focus on Queer History films for June, even though LGBT History Month in the US is celebrated in October.

[While LGBT History Month is still celebrated internationally in October, some countries celebrate pride in other months. Down here in New Zealand, Pride is during the month of February.]

The five queer history films I’ve selected for this month’s post were actually difficult to watch at times. Are they important to the LGBT community – Absolutely! But these films also dramatise and highlight some of the darkest days of our past. Days when the police, politicians, and everyday people were against us. When it was dangerous to even be presumed homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, or trans. Some of these films provide glimpses into those dark days, which unfortunately include the arson of the Up Stairs Lounge (the US’s worst mass murder of gays until the Pulse massacre in 2016) and the assassination of Harvey Milk. A few of the films even include actual archival footage and news coverage from these factual events.

Thankfully, through the hard work of activists and politicians such as Harvey Milk and Vito Russo, through the rioters at Stonewall Inn, and from years of marches, protests, & more – things ARE better for us. That is why we celebrate Pride month. To celebrate and take pride in how far we have come, while acknowledging that there is still a long way to go before we truly are viewed as equals around the world.

So take time this month to sit down and watch these five queer history films to remember our history. I’ve tried to capture a wide-range and world-wide focus, so there is definitely something that will be new to you – even I learned quite a lot! Afterwards, go and celebrate your gay & queer hearts out and make sure the world never forgets:

We’re here, we’re queer – Get used to it!

[Note: Not all of these films have full reviews yet – but they’re added to the quickly growing list of films I plan to tackle soon!]

5 Queer History Films For Pride

Pride" film poster 

It’s the summer of 1984 Margaret Thatcher is in power and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is on strike. At the Gay Pride March in London, a group of gay and lesbian activists decides to raise money to support the families of the striking miners. But there is a problem. The Union seems embarrassed to receive their support. But the activists are not deterred. They decide to ignore the Union and go direct to the miners. They identify a mining village in deepest Wales and set off in a mini bus to make their donation in person. And so begins the extraordinary story of two seemingly alien communities who form a surprising and ultimately triumphant partnership.

I have to admit that I am rather late to this Pride party, but only now do I realise that I was missing out on this bit of queer history! This charming queer history film weaves together a handful of lives during a rather rough time in the UK. Juxtaposing the struggle of the LGBT community with the separate yet similar struggle of the striking miners is a unique story device, yet it works wonderfully into a cohesive film. And best of all, it actually happened! Films based on true events always tug at my heartstrings, but there’s something special about “Pride”. I thought I knew quite a lot about the UK miner strike, but I honestly had no idea that LGSM provided so much support during the miner’s strike. Nor was I aware that the miners advocated and helped advance the LGBT agenda in return. The final scene where the minors showed up in busses for the 1985 Pride Parade is simply moving. If you haven’t seen “Pride” yet, watch this queer history film today!

Using flashbacks from a statement recorded late in life and archival footage for atmosphere, this film traces Harvey Milk’s (Sean Penn) career from his 40th birthday to his death. He leaves the closet and New York, opens a camera shop that becomes the salon for San Francisco’s growing gay community, and organizes gays’ purchasing power to build political alliances. He runs for office with lover Scott Smith (James Franco) as his campaign manager. Victory finally comes on the same day Dan White (Josh Brolin) wins in the city’s conservative district. The rest of the film sketches Milk’s relationship with White and the 1978 fight against a statewide initiative to bar gays and their supporters from public school jobs.

“Milk” is a difficult queer history film to watch and as such, one I have only seen a few times. Based on the real life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to a public office in California, the film is a roller coaster of emotions. Sean Penn brings Harvey to life with an abundance of optimism despite the multiple failed election campaigns, a failed relationship, the death of his lover, and many of the same issues we all faced during the days when queer activism was at its strongest. In fact, they actually used a good amount of archival footage from his life and the activism Harvey inspired. Yet it’s also a tragic film and they don’t shy away from the unfortunate outcome: Harvey Milk was assassinated for being gay. Right away, they start with breaking news of his death, and the rest of the story is told in an odd juxtaposition of flashbacks pierced with a self-recorded statement from Harvey himself.

Overall, “Milk” is a must-watch queer history film, for it’s a key part of Queer history in the US. Just don’t forget to bring your tissues.

Early 1990s. With AIDS having already claimed countless lives for nearly ten years, ACT UP-Paris activists multiply actions to fight general indifference. Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a newcomer to the group, has his world shaken up by Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a radical militant, who throws his last bits of strength into the struggle.

I’m a bit torn on “BPM”. Overall, it’s a powerful queer history film as it recounts how Act Up fought in Paris. For many of us familiar with US LGBT history, the historical value of this film is quite eye opening. And for those of us who are too young to have gone through this important era in our history, it’s equally important to watch. For we cannot truly understand how much things have changed for the better and how lucky we are today, without recalling the struggle of those before us.

Yet, “BPM” is a tough film to watch. In all honesty, it’s TWO separate films that were combined into a very long film. The first half is primarily about Act Up and slowly skips from meetings to protests, showing the important historical bits via recreations. It almost feels more like a documentary than a feature film though. During this first part, the budding romance between Nathan and Sean very slowly develops and quickly overtakes the plot of the film. Unfortunately, the second half of “BPM” focuses only on their relationship and Sean’s losing battle with AIDS. While their romance is beautifully told, it’s also gut-wrenching to watch. Both stories are important to tell, but as one film it gets a bit muddled.

While this queer history film is in French thus most of us require subtitles, I strongly encourage everyone to watch “BPM” – but make sure to grab some tissues!

On June 24, 1973, an arsonist set fire to the Up Stairs Lounge, a gay bar located on the edge of the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana. The fire ultimately killed 32 people and severely injured countless others. For over 40 years, it was considered the “Largest Gay Mass Murder in U.S. History”. With exclusive interviews from survivors, family/friends of victims and witnesses, along with long lost artifacts, newsreel footage and photos, “Upstairs Inferno” vividly examines this oft-forgotten story and gets inside the hearts and minds of a handful of vibrant people who experienced one of the most important and underreported moments in LGBT History.

I watched this queer history documentary with a mate during lockdown and was both impressed and shocked – I did not even know this tragedy even occurred! While I am no expert on Queer history in the US, being gay myself I thought I knew of the major incidents. So if I was unaware, then how many others are unaware? What I found the most shocking (and perhaps the reason why this tragedy went under the radar of younger generations) is that the local government did almost nothing to address the crime and horrific attack. But by adding in interviews of survivors who recount that fateful night and the long nights since, there’s a personal touch to this documentary that is both education and heartfelt. I highly encourage you to grab a copy and support efforts to keep Queer history alive. We cannot forget or ignore our past.

In the aftermath of Stonewall, a newly politicized Vito Russo found his voice as a gay activist and critic of LGBT representation in the media. He went on to write “The Celluloid Closet,” the first book to critique Hollywood’s portrayals of gays on screen. During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Vito became a passionate advocate for justice via the newly formed ACT UP, before his death in 1990.

Wow – I cannot believe that I have not seen “Vito” before! [And equally, I need to rush out and quickly watch and read “The Celluloid Closet”, written and created by Vito Russo!] When I compile these monthly posts, I try to focus on Queer films – but I could not ignore this documentary. Vito’s life should be a key component of everyone’s gay history background. First off, Vito was an early member and key voice for the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA), a group formed shortly after the Stonewall riots that was crucial in the early fight for gay rights nationwide. Later when the AIDS epidemic struck, Vito helped found the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) in 1985. When that still wasn’t enough, Vito and Larry Kramer took their activism to the next step by creating the “AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power” (ACT UP) in 1987, a protest group dedicated to bringing an end to the AIDS crisis by any means possible. As his own life was being taken away by AIDS, Vito became a powerful voice in passing on the burning ember of queer activism to the next generation. And that’s just focusing on Vito’s activism!

This brilliant queer history documentary uses tons of archival footage and photos, along side interviews with his family and friends, to bring Vito’s life to the next generation of queer folk. Being a queer cinephile myself, there was another facet that just floored me – how crucial Vito Russo was to documenting queer cinematic history. While I knew of Vito’s importance with older films, I actually thought I knew a decent amount about the history of queer cinema. Even though only about a third of “Vito” focuses on the film historian Vito became, I was simply floored by how much I did NOT know! So if you’re also a queer cinephile, add this important queer history to your “Watch Now” list. (And then add “The Celluloid Closet” immediately afterwards!)