The history of queer cinema goes back almost as far as film itself. There’s some (admittedly disputed) speculation that the first ever soundtracked movie, 1894’s The Dickson Experimental Sound Film, was queer coded. As far back as 1919 cinema was being used to promote gay rights. With this year’s Oscar race celebrating a combination of gay characters (Brendon Fraser in The Whale, Cate Blanchett in Tár), camp icons (Angela Bassett, Lady Gaga, Michelle Yeoh), and, in Everything Everywhere All At Once’s Stephanie Hsu, the first openly queer actor nominated for playing a queer character since Ian McKellen in 1998 (plus all the nods for Baz Luhrman’s Elvis, a movie that provides a one-word answer to the question, “Alexa, define camp?”), this LGBT+ history month is the perfect time to swot up on your queer cinema essentials.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) dir. Victor Fleming
Context is everything. Somehow MGM’s classic is simultaneously the least and most gay film on this list. There’s no overt sexuality or romance of any kind here, and (probably) no intentional queer coding, but such is the power of The Wizard of Oz and its star, all-time-one-off Judy Garland, that its imagery is synonymous with gay culture. It’s part of the canon. Friend of Dorothy has been slang for gay men for years (some chalk this up to Judy Garland, beloved of gay men everywhere, while others point to the original Oz books and the line “you have some queer friends, Dorothy”), Over the Rainbow is arguably the most important song in gay culture, as anyone who has heard Rufus Wainwright singing it will tell you, and rainbows themselves are part of the fabric of Pride. The technicolor, all-singing, ruby-slippered land of Oz is a safe space to spend LGBT+ history month. Just pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Paris Is Burning (1990) dir. Jennie Livingstone
A sacred text in queer cinema, this classic documentary is a snapshot of New York’s ballroom scene at a very specific time; ravaged by Aids, poverty, racism and poor health care, but glittering and strutting for all its worth. Drag culture has basically been riffing on it ever since. It’s absolutely essential viewing (for LGBT+ history month and beyond) and a window into a world that has, for heartbreaking reasons, all but disappeared in the form we see here.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) dir. Stephen Elliot