LGBTQ+ Pride isn’t just for June! Exploring and appreciating queer culture should be a never-ending endeavor, whether you identify as queer or not. While it’d be easy to make appeals to diversity and cross-cultural understanding, there isn’t really a reason to resort to this rhetoric when the history of pop, avant-garde, and underground culture is filled with examples of queer excellence.
Despite stereotypes about Hollywood as a promised land for gay people, the history of the film industry is still decidedly straight — and almost all the films released every year are about very straight people and their very straight lives. This is changing as time goes on, but a bigger conversation around the outsized congratulations straight performers and artists get for telling gay or trans stories (we see you, Jared Leto) has become a heated debate within the entertainment industry. Why bother with these bad impersonations when you can watch actual queer art by actual queer people?
A funny thing about the history of gay cinema is that for so long real gay stories weren’t allowed to exist, meaning that gay and queer people latched onto a strange assortment of offbeat classics as cultural touchstones — which have themselves been weaved into the gay collective unconscious.
Below, we’re counting down the greatest films that have either been made by LGBTQ+ people or have been so beloved by LGBTQ+ they’ve become enmeshed with gay culture. With these films in mind, understanding the nuances of gay culture will be a lot easier.
CW: Some of these films depict sexual violence, extreme sexual scenarios, drug usage, and suicide
New York City’s gay underground has always been a magnet for a plethora of miscreants and ne’er-do-wells, but there’s something charming about the lawlessness of nightlife — or at least there was, until Angel Melendez’s murder. Depicting the events and aftermath of one of NYC’s most notorious killings, Party Monster explores the psychotic allure of the club kids, a subcultural movement of bratty queers throwing ostentatious, drug-filled parties in abstract costumes inspired by cartoons, space aliens, haute couture, and horror films. The acting throughout Party Monster is delightfully atrocious, but the electroclash soundtrack and exuberant costumes (some recreated, some borrowed from the actual party-goers from back in the day) make this movie a hidden gem. Even though Michael Alig’s nauseating crimes wound up destroying an entire vibrant scene, the colorful utopian promise of the club kids lives on in the spirit of today’s queer children.
Director Bruce LaBruce’s extreme porno movies are as much statements about the revolutionary potential of homosexuality as they are erotic dreams committed to film. In Raspberry Reich, an ultra-leftist terrorist-wannabe forces her followers to engage in sodomy (while screaming quotes from The Communist Manifesto, no less) so as to free themselves from the oppressive brainwashing of heterosexuality. It’s every Republican’s worst nightmare come true: But is the film satirical or sincere? No surprise LaBruce’s slogan, “The Revolution is my boyfriend!” became a hot fashion statement for radicals queers shortly after the film was released.
“What disappoints me most about the current state of the gay movement, if you can still call it that, is that most gays have settled for this really rigid, obvious, and stereotypical idea of what it means to be a homosexual,” said LaBruce in an interview about the impact of Raspberry Reich. “It’s become a very facile, consumerist identity without any substance, purely decorative and inert, and strangely castrated.”
Right before the AIDS crisis totally devastated New York City, a brimming and bizarre subculture of ultra-fashionable punks and gender-bending performance artists thrived. Liquid Sky is as much a sci-fi story about invisible aliens feeding off heroin highs as it is a portrait of a scene that would soon be obliterated. The aliens, of course, are a sort of proto-metaphor for the disease that would soon overtake the gay world. The movie’s outrageous soundtrack and costume design are jaw-droppingly stunning, as is the film’s ominous and outlandish poetry that the characters sometimes burst into apropos of nothing. Not only is Liquid Sky an underappreciated queer classic, but we also named this movie as one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time.
Japanese-American auteur Gregg Araki is considered a founding father of what’s known as “New Queer Cinema” — and Totally Fucked Up is considered one of the genre’s seminal texts. An early example of the found-footage style of film popularized by The Blair Witch Project, Totally Fucked Up appears as a video diary of a group of gay teens each dealing with the impact of internal and external homophobia. The tenderness and love the young protagonists have for each other is touching, but makes the film’s concluding tragic moments even more devastating. For a generation of punk queers who did not see themselves represented in the campy, ostentatious effeminacy that had previously been depicted on screen, Totally Fucked Up must have seemed like a revolution with its bold depictions of gay nihilism and angst.
How exactly a documentary about the reclusive and mentally ill cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onasis became a gay classic is sort of beyond the scope of rational understanding, but there’s something inherently queer about the decadent melancholy of the movie’s conceit. Once a showgirl, Little Edie and her mother, Big Edie, bring some truly demented song and dance numbers to this movie, which was filmed in their increasingly decrepit and flea-infested mansion in the Hamptons. Although the movie is imminently quotable and at points darkly hilarious, the true sign of it being a camp classic is the tender love gay people have felt for Little Edie since the movie’s debut in 1975.
Although it is a horrific story of intra-familial abuse — and many scenes are soul-shatteringly terrifying — the over-the-top acting from Faye Dunaway (whose career was almost ruined by the film’s terrible reputation) pushes Mommie Dearest into the realm of (accidental) dark comedy. An adaptation of the harrowing memoir of Christina Crawford, which documented the abuse she allegedly suffered at the hands of her mother, the esteemed actress Joan Crawford, has become an unlikely favorite for drag queens who continue to re-enact the film’s most outrageous scenes in performances and lip-syncs.
The Queen is a 1968 documentary that covers the events of the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest held at New York City’s Town Hall. There’s something seedily transgressive about this early depiction of a drag pageant: We watch as the contestants prepare choreography and put on their faces — an art form that didn’t come without danger in a pre-Stonewall world. The film is pretty lighthearted until its last moments: Contestant Crystal LaBeija’s stunning rebuke of the winner would reverberate through queer culture for generations — dressing down the inherent whiteness of the competition, her iconic rant has solidified her as a hero whose beauty and righteous anger couldn’t be suppressed.
The world’s longest-running film is also perhaps the zaniest sci-fi adventure ever made. Richard O’Brien’s campy classic is a postmodern pastiche of horror set to a score of psychedelic ragtime and rock. The once-controversial subversive thrills of Rocky Horror are relatively tame by today’s standards, but Rocky was (and still is!) many queers’ first encounter with non-hetero desire. It’s true that a younger generation has called for the canceling of Rocky due to its outdated usage of certain vernacular and its depictions of wanton lust, but the characters are still doing the “Time Warp” (again!) at movie theaters around the world.
John Waters’ rude masterpiece was compared to surrealist art like Bunuel’s “Un Chien Andalou” — but a thorough knowledge of modernist texts aren’t needed to appreciate the rotted glamor of Divine and her putrid compatriots. Pink Flamingos was punk cinema before punk rock. In it, the aforementioned unholy drag queen goes to hideous lengths to retain her reputation as the Filthiest Person Alive. Featuring deranged costuming from Van Smith, an iconic soundtrack, and jaw-droppingly grotesque dialogue written by Waters himself — every second of Pink Flamingos has been committed to memory by anti-authoritarian queers since its release in 1972.
It is one of the greatest injustices of queer history that the contributions of transgender POC are often diminished or totally erased — if not because of the AIDS crisis, then because of racism and transphobia from without and within the community. Although the film has a bevy of political problems (bell hooks’ critique of it remains prescient to this day) the beauty and courage captured in Jennie Livingston’s heartbreaking and life-affirming documentary is incomparable to any other movie in the history of cinema. Paris is Burning explores the ballroom culture of late ’80s New York City, in which gay and trans, Black and Latinx dancers and artists compete for glory in fierce dance battles and stunning displays of opulence. Quotes from the film’s cast of characters have become mantras for generations of queers who pay homage to their gay ancestors with every limp wrist and proud strut. (If you’re looking for more information on ballroom culture, check out the 2016 follow-up documentary Kiki or Vice’s series My House.)
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