Must-Watch Documentaries About LGBTQ History, Rights and Visibility
By ETonline Editors
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While October marks LGBTQ History Month and June is when many Pride celebrations happen around the country, these non-fiction films and documentary series can (and should) be watched any time. All of them re-examine the history, rights and visibility of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community through various perspectives and points in time, from the fight for rights during the pre-Stonewall era, how the AIDS epidemic had a lasting impact on the community, to depictions in media today.
ET has rounded up ones currently streaming on various platforms, like Apple TV+, HBO Max and Netflix. No matter what, these are eras, people and places in history that should not be forgotten.
A Secret Love
A Secret Love is one of several Netflix projects that shine a light on untold histories from Ryan Murphy. The heartfelt and emotional film tells the lifelong love story between Pat Henschel and former baseball player Terry Donahue. While Donahue’s time as a catcher for the Peoria Redwings of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League inspired the 1992 classic A League of Their Own, her nearly seven decades-long romance with Henschel did not make it into the story. But in the doc, the couple finally tell their truth, from the first time they met to eventually coming out. “Those ladies are heroes and unseen heroes is very much in my wheelhouse,” Murphy says, explaining his desire to tell stories about varied, overlooked parts of history. “I’m interested in people not being seen. I’m interested in using whatever influence I have, which is like a big fat spotlight and shining it into dark places that haven't had a lot of attention.”
The 2020 Netflix film directed by Sam Feder and executive produced by Laverne Cox examines the history of transgender visibility from the earliest days of cinema to TV’s current scripted dramas -- and how that has evolved over decades. The documentary features interviews with Cox as well as Lilly Wachowski, Yance Ford, Mj Rodriguez, Jamie Clayton and Chaz Bono and more as they share their own experiences of seeing themselves represented (or misrepresented) onscreen in everything from Dog Day Afternoon to The Crying Game, and shows like The Jeffersons, The L-Word and Pose.
The innovative, four-part docuseries reclaims forgotten or overlooked LGBTQ trailblazers from the post-war America to the pre-Stonewall uprising eras through never-before-seen archival footage, untold backstories and portrayals by Hollywood’s most prominent out actors, including Anthony Rapp, Isis King, Jamie Clayton and Samira Wiley as Lorraine Hansberry.
Most well known for his work on Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid, lyricist Howard Ashman has become synonymous with his time spent on the animated classics. Arriving on Disney+ nearly 30 years after his death, the film chronicles Ashman’s life, from childhood to his humble beginnings in New York theater, to his longtime partnership with Bill Lauch and secret battle with AIDS, and his successes in creating Little Shop of Horrors and award-winning musical partnership with Alan Menken. Through never-before-seen archival footage, personal photographs and all-new interviews with Ashman’s friends, family and colleagues, Howard offers an intimate look at the musical theater legend’s life, creative drive and process behind the music.
Now streaming on Discovery+, a secret box of letters discovered 60 years later ignites a five-year exploration into a part of LGBTQ history that has never been told as subjects of the letters and those who knew them revisit a hidden world of men masquerading as women before it was known as drag.
The six-part FX docuseries chronicles the rise of LGBTQ+ rights in America from the 1950s through the 2000s, with six renowned LGBTQ+ directors exploring different eras as well as heroic and heartbreaking stories that helps define the community. The series spans from the 1950s Lavender Scare to the “Culture Wars” of the 1990s and beyond, exploring the queer legacy of the Civil Rights movement and the battle over marriage equality as well as the evolution of trans rights and identities through the decades.
Marsha P. Johnson has been called “the Rosa Parks of the LGBTQ movement,” because of the pivotal role she played in the Stonewall riots of 1969 alongside the likes of Sylvia Rivera and others. She was also a pioneer of the gay liberation movement, co-founder of S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries), a self-proclaimed drag queen, community leader and, according to her friend and roommate, Randy Wicker, an “Andy Warhol model, prostitute, starving actress and saint.” Her life and tragic death is captured in the Netflix doc from David France, who says, “If you were in New York -- in gay New York, in queer New York -- during her lifetime, you knew Marsha.”
Narrated by Harvey Fierstein, the film chronicles the rise of San Francisco's Castro district politician, Harvey Milk, and his efforts to become California's first openly gay public official and life in office after he’s elected. The film also examines his gay political achievements before his life and time in office were cut short by his assassination in November 1978 at San Francisco's city hall.
While television in America has been around since the 1930s, it wasn’t until the ‘70s before the LGBTQ community started seeing positive portrayals of themselves onscreen. Now, 50 years later the five-part docuseries examines the evolution of visibility on the small screen. “It’s easy to turn on your television now and go, ‘Almost every show has an LGBTQ character,’ and just assume that that’s a natural thing,” producer Wilson Cruz says. “But, you know, that didn’t just happen. It happened because a lot of people risked a lot in order to tell those stories.” Over the course of the docuseries, an expansive list of A-list stars and notable LGBTQ celebrities -- everyone from Billy Crystal to Tim Gunn -- candidly discuss how storytelling and portrayals have changed over time.
This incredibly powerful documentary looks back on life in 1970s San Francisco, which became a safe haven for the gay and lesbian community, providing one of the few places in America where they could live openly and safely from discrimination. But a decade later, the city and the community alike were ravaged by the AIDS epidemic, becoming the epicenter for the deadly infection, which took the lives of thousands of gay men.