STREAMING GUIDE

10 LGBTQ Documentaries to Stream This Pride Month

Add these formative documentaries that cover LGBTQ subjects of all kinds to the top of your queue.

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Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson
Image courtesy of Netflix.

The explosion of queer content on streaming platforms and in the theaters this summer (just look at the recent success of Joel Kim Booster’s Fire Island or the anticipation for Billy Eichner’s Boys) is a sight to behold and celebrate. And while we celebrate these films, there’s always room for more—especially in the nonfiction space. Below are just a handful of documentaries that cover LGBTQ subjects—hopefully they provide a deeper understanding of the struggle for queer liberation in the United States.

Disclosure

Since it premiered in June 2020, viewers have flocked to Netflix to watch Disclosure, Sam Feder’s survey of transgender representation in film and television. In the film, Laverne Cox, Mj Rodriguez, Chaz Bono, Lilly Wachowski, Jen Richards, and more transgender creatives and thinkers analyze historical depictions of transgender people in media—from transphobic (and often racist) silent films from the early 1900s to the groundbreaking series Pose. Meanwhile, they trace their understanding of their own identities and experiences as they’ve been depicted on screen, and the impacts those representations have had on American culture overall. Many of the cinematic depictions mentioned in Disclosure will be familiar, though the documentary looks at them through a lens that may be new to some. Most of those films and television series referenced throughout the film are worth seeking out to be viewed in their entirety.

Where to stream: Netflix

Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin

You may not know about Bayard Rustin, the civil rights leader who worked on the March on Washington Movement, and later became an advocate for gay rights. Because of his identity as a gay man, Rustin often worked behind the scenes of the movement, and in 2013, he was posthumously awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. All of this and more is covered in Brother Outsider, a documentary released about Rustin in 2003. His life will also be the subject of a forthcoming film called Rustin, which will star Colman Domingo in the titular role.

Where to watch: Amazon

My Name Is Pauli Murray

Another influential figure whose name you might not know is Pauli Murray, the nonbinary attorney and activist who worked with Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Murray was also a poet and a priest, and their research contributed to foundational cases for the ACLU.

Where to watch: Amazon

The Brandon Teena Story

Many are familiar with Boys Don’t Cry, a fictionalized account of the murder of Brandon Teena which won Hilary Swank an Oscar, but The Brandon Teena Story is a documentary which features interviews with several people who knew Teena and archival footage of him before his death in 1993.

Where to stream: Tubi

The Celluloid Closet

Before Disclosure, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet (based on Vito Russo’s book of the same name) explored the representation of LGBTQ people in Hollywood. Narrated by Lily Tomlin, it features interviews with Quentin Crisp, Harvey Fierstein, and Whoopi Goldberg, among many others.

Where to watch: Tubi

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

This year, it seems more people are recognizing queer activist Marsha P. Johnson, for her role in paving the way for gay liberation and participation in the 1969 Stonewall uprising. When her body was found in the Hudson River in 1992, her death was ruled a suicide, but The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson interrogates that narrative, seeking justice for Johnson and paying tribute to her work. That being said, the production of The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson has a thorny history. Tourmaline, formerly known as Reina Gossett, alleged that the director David France stole from her archival research and films without proper credit, in order to make his documentary for Netflix. So, with that in mind, consider watching Happy Birthday, Marsha!, directed by Sasha Wortzel and Tourmaline and starring Tangerine‘s Mya Taylor as well.

Where to watch: Netflix

Circus of Books

With Circus of Books, Rachel Mason paints a portrait of her family, and her parents, Karen and Barry Mason, who accidentally became the owners and operators of a Los Angeles store that was the largest distributor of hardcore gay porn in the United States.

Where to watch: Netflix

The Queen

Referenced in Disclosure, Frank Simon’s 1968 documentary was re-released in 2019. The film focuses on the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest, and follows the drag queen participants in the competition—including House of Labeija founder Crystal LaBeija. Think of it as a predecessor to RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Where to watch: Netflix

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood

Fans of Netflix’s Hollywood will recognize something similar about this documentary, in which gas station attendant Scotty Bowers became a pimp to the stars of the silver screen from the 1940s to 1980s. That’s because the series was based, in part, on this real story, which was also chronicled in Bowers’s memoir, Full Service. Bowers passed away in 2019, not long after the film premiered.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime

How Do I Look

It is impossible to talk about the evolution of on-screen depictions of drag and ball culture without talking about Paris Is Burning. But as outlined in Disclosure, that documentary is, while formative and goundbreaking, deeply problematic—and many of its subjects were not given the platform to voice their concerns about their exploitation by filmmaker Jennie Livingston in the documentation process. There were also concerns about the spectacle depicted in the film for white audiences. In 2006, Wolfgang Busch released How Do I Look, which takes a deep dive into a decade of ball culture in Philadelphia and Harlem, giving more of a voice to legends Willi Ninja, Kevin Ultra-Omni, Octavia St. Laurent, Pepper LaBeija and Jose Xtravaganza, and addresses the mainstream-ification of the ball circuit.

Where to watch: Amazon

Related: From Miss Juneteenth to Jezebel, Black Female Directors Lead a New Hollywood Vanguard

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