The 20 Most Important LGBTQ+ Directors

Historically, Hollywood has been a predominately straight, white, and cisgender male class of elites that is very hard to break through. As media consumption changes and there are more and different kinds of stories, viewers have a better chance of seeing diverse films and television shows. As creators and audiences have become more attuned to ongoing social justice movements in the past few years, there has been a greater emphasis and focus on recruiting and recognizing diverse talent in the film industry. 

Of course, queer characters have been on screen since the earliest days of cinema, and LGBTQ+ directors have been working and advocating in the industry for decades. LGBTQ+ directors have made invaluable contributions to the shape of cinema as a whole. From blockbuster names like The Wachowskis and Lee Daniels to auteur queer new wave directors like Todd Haynes and Rose Troche, we've compiled the list of the 20 most important LGBTQ+ directors.

Lee Daniels

Writer-producer-director Lee Daniels didn't take the traditional film school path to directing, and that makes his hugely successful career all the more inspiring. Daniels broke into the film industry as a successful talent manager and casting director before moving into producing. As a producer, Daniels struck gold right away with his first film, "Monster's Ball," which was critically acclaimed and earned Halle Berry the Oscar for best actress in a leading role, making her the first woman of color to win the honor. 

Daniels officially segued into directing four years later with his debut feature "Shadowboxer" but broke out and made his mark as a director with 2009's "Precious," an inspirational story of an abused and illiterate teen in 1980s Harlem. "Precious" garnered six Oscar nominations, including best picture and best director for Daniels, cementing him as a force to be reckoned with. Daniels' personal connection to the subject matter would be an ongoing theme in his work as he expanded into television with "Star."He later drew direct inspiration from a moment in his childhood to create the infamous scene in "Empire" when Lucious throws Jamal into the trash. 

Across all of his work, Daniels explores various facets of the Black American experience to create emotionally moving tableaus and characters. Daniels is also known for his historical biopics, including "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and most recently "The United States vs. Billie Holiday."

Joey Soloway

Joey Soloway is a writer-producer-director best known for their critically acclaimed and groundbreaking television series "Transparent." The series was based on Soloway's own experience with their parent's journey coming out as trans and was nominated for 28 Primetime Emmy Awards and seven Golden Globes. Soloway would walk away with two Emmy wins for outstanding directing for a comedy series during the series' run. Soloway went on a journey of their own while making the series, coming out as queer and later as nonbinary.

While Soloway is best known for "Transparent," their film career began a year earlier with their debut feature, "Afternoon Delight," which earned Soloway the directing award at the Sundance Film Festival. The film explores a relationship between a mother and a sex worker who she hires as a live-in nanny. Soloway also co-created, executive produced, and directed two episodes of the series "I Love Dick," which starred Soloway's frequent collaborator Kathryn Hahn as a woman engaged in an obsessive affair. Much of Soloway's work investigates gender, sex, and Jewish identity through a feminist lens. While Soloway has a dominant television career, they have two films they are writing and directing in the works: "Red Sonja" and "Mothertrucker." 

Andrew Ahn

Writer-producer-director Andrew Ahn's work tends to explore the queer Asian American experience through intimate storytelling. Ahn had a pedigreed breakthrough in his film career, participating in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, Film Independent Screenwriting Lab, and the Film Independent Directing Lab for his debut feature, "Spa Night." The film follows the exploits of a closeted gay Korean American teenager who works at a spa to help his family only to discover a sexual underworld at his new job. "Spa Night" was critically acclaimed and earned Ahn the John Cassavetes Award at the Film Independent Spirit Awards and the best narrative feature honor at Outfest

Ahn's second feature, "Driveways," tells the story of a lonely young boy and his unlikely relationship with an elderly man. It earned two Film Independent Spirit Awards. His next feature, the highly anticipated "Fire Island," is forthcoming and stars comedians Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang in a modern queer twist on "Pride and Prejudice." Ahn has also directed for television, including such shows as "Gentefied," "Generation," and the Sundance series "This Close," which he also executive produced. 

Jamie Babbit

Jamie Babbit is perhaps best known for her debut feature, 1999's "But I'm a Cheerleader," the beloved queer classic that tells the story of two teenage girls who fall in love at a gay conversion therapy camp. Babbit's second feature, "Itty Bitty Titty Committee," released in 2007, was critically successful and won the Grand Jury Prize at the South by Southwest Film Festival, but was, unfortunately, a commercial flop. Yet throughout her career, Babbit has been a steadfast and trustworthy voice for comedy, excelling with unique relationships, gender roles, and characters.

In the intervening years, Babbit has had a wildly successful career in television, producing and directing series like "Drop Dead Diva," "Silicon Valley," "Only Murders in the Building," and the forthcoming "A League of Their Own." Her directing work on "Silicon Valley" also earned her a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for outstanding directing for a comedy series. Babbit has directed over 60 different series including queer and queer-run shows like "Nip/Tuck," "The L Word," "Looking," and "Russian Doll," as well as classics like "Gilmore Girls," "Rizzoli & Isles," and "The Middle." 

Andrew Haigh

British writer-director-producer Andrew Haigh is perhaps best known for his contributions to the HBO series "Looking," which follows a group of young gay men in San Francisco. Haigh served as executive producer, writer, and director for the series and also co-wrote and directed the "Looking" movie. While his debut feature was "Greek Pete" in 2009, Haigh broke out two years later with "Weekend," a film about two gay men who have an extended one-night stand and explore the meaning of connection in the modern era. "Weekend" earned a GLAAD Media Award nomination for outstanding film in limited release and launched Haigh into a broader mainstream audience

Haigh followed up "Weekend" with a very different film. "45 Years" is about a married couple who receive shocking news on the eve of their anniversary. The film earned a BAFTA nomination for outstanding British film and star Charlotte Rampling an Oscar nomination. Outside of "Looking," Haigh has also helmed the recent miniseries "The North Water," a historical survival epic that he adapted, directed, and executive produced.  

Gus Van Sant

A multifaceted artist, writer-producer-director Gus Van Sant is also a painter and frequent editor of his own films. Many of Van Sant's films explore homosexuality through subtext, examining the relationships of marginalized outsiders. Van Sant broke out with his second feature, 1989's "Drugstore Cowboy," a story of small-time criminal drug users and dealers. The film won four Film Independent Spirit Awards including a best screenplay award for Van Sant and co-writer Daniel Yost. Van Sant's next feature, 1991's "My Own Private Idaho," starred River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves as two road-tripping hustlers in a loose homage to Shakespeare's "Henry IV." The film earned Van Sant his second Film Independent Spirit Award for best screenplay. 

Van Sant gained broader mainstream notoriety with his 1997 film, "Good Will Hunting," which earned him his first Oscar nomination for best director and best picture. While queerness is often subtextual in his films, Van Sant explored homosexuality at the forefront of "Milk," a historical biopic about Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay elected politician. "Milk" was nominated for eight Oscars, including best picture and best director. Van Sant has also been a successful music video director for artists such as David Bowie, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tracy Chapman, Elton John, Chris Isaak, Stone Temple Pilots, and Hanson.

Clea DuVall

Best known as an actor, Clea DuVall has been known as a queer icon for most of her career due to her role in the 1999 classic "But I'm a Cheerleader." However, DuVall herself didn't come out until 2016 during the release of her feature directorial debut, "The Intervention," a film about a weekend couples getaway gone awry. DuVall also wrote and appears in the film. "The Intervention" was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. 

While DuVall spent much of her youth acting in some of the biggest teen films of the 1990s, she shied away from the public eye because of probing questions about her sexuality. This experience with public scrutiny influenced DuVall's breakthrough film, "Happiest Season," a holiday rom-com centered on a queer couple. "Happiest Season" was a commercial success, breaking records on its host streamer Hulu and paving the way for more LGBTQ-inclusive mainstream films. 

DuVall is also a frequent collaborator with queer sibling musical duo Tegan and Sara, having directed various projects for the duo who also provided the music for "Happiest Season" and "The Intervention." DuVall is collaborating with the siblings on the upcoming television adaptation of their memoir, "High School," which will see DuVall as a writer, director, and executive producer. DuVall will also write, direct, produce, and act in her forthcoming series "Day Job," with her "Happiest Season" co-writer Mary Holland. 

Todd Haynes

Known for both lush historical dramas that explore gender and sexuality and musical biopics, Todd Haynes is a singular auteur of the New Queer Cinema movement. Haynes kicked off his career as a writer-producer-director with his notorious 1987 short film, "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," an experimental and slightly campy narrative about the legendary singer's struggles with anorexia. Haynes' debut feature "Poison" was even more controversial for its overt exploration and depictions of homosexuality, but it earned him two Film Independent Spirit Award nominations for best director and best first picture. In 1998, Haynes released the cult classic "Velvet Goldmine," a colorful tribute to glam rock that alluded to the rumored dalliances between musical icons like David Bowie and Iggy Pop. 

While Haynes' work has been consistently critically acclaimed, his 2002 feature, "Far From Heaven," broke him into the mainstream. The film stars his good friend and frequent collaborator Julianne Moore as a 1950s suburban housewife who learns her husband is gay and embarks on an affair with her Black gardener. "Far From Heaven" earned four Oscar nominations including a best original screenplay nod for Haynes. Haynes has explored music and celebrity in his films "I'm Not There" and "The Velvet Underground" and queerness in a historical context with his acclaimed 2015 film "Carol." In addition to his work in film, Haynes directed the "Mildred Pierce" miniseries for HBO, which he also co-wrote and executive produced. "Mildred Pierce" earned 21 Primetime Emmy Award nominations and won six.

Rose Troche

Rose Troche began her career as a writer-producer-director in 1994 with her debut feature, "Go Fish," a classic queer romantic comedy about the Chicago lesbian community loosely inspired by Troche's own life. The film won the GLAAD Media Award for outstanding film and earned a Sundance Film Festival nomination for the Grand Jury Prize. Troche followed up "Go Fish" with two more successful indies, 1998's "Bedrooms and Hallways," and 2001's "The Safety of Objects," both of which examine the dark underbellies of seemingly conventional relationships. 

Troche also has an incredibly successful and varied career in television and has directed episodes for over 20 different series, working on queer shows like "Six Feet Under," "The L Word," "The L Word: Generation Q," and "Vida" and police procedurals like "Law & Order," "FBI," and "FBI: Most Wanted." Troche's diverse career has made her a versatile, skilled, and accomplished director who can easily create a mood and a world for her characters to live in.

The Wachowskis

Filmmaking siblings Lana and Lilly Wachowski are best known for their hugely successful sci-fi saga "The Matrix," which has cumulatively grossed nearly $1.9 billion worldwide. Together, they have co-directed seven features and co-written 10, re-shaping the modern science fiction-fantasy film. Many of their films are large-scale epics with queer themes and subtext. Aside from "The Matrix," the duo helmed  "Bound" (their 1996 debut feature), "Cloud Atlas," and "Jupiter Ascending."  Across all of their films are a mastery of genre conventions, a sense of playfulness, and a queer sensibility combined with creative production design and memorable aesthetics. 

The two have also worked in television, creating, writing, directing, and producing their original series "Sense8" for Netflix. The series was nominated for two Emmy Awards and won the GLAAD Media Award for outstanding drama series during its run.  Lilly Wachowski also wrote, directed, and executive produced the comedy series "Work in Progress," a departure from the grandiose genre films she and her sister typically create.

Céline Sciamma

Céline Sciamma is a writer, director, and costume designer whose work frequently explores the intersection of gender, sexual identity, and coming-of-age. Sciamma's work tends to feature sparse dialogue and focuses on relational dynamics. Sciamma considers her first three features an unofficial trilogy on adolescence. "Water Lilies," released in 2007, follows three young girls who develop an attraction to each other at a pool during summer break and was nominated for three César Awards, including best first film. "Tomboy," released in 2011, centers on a young child exploring their gender identity. "Girlhood," released in 2014, tells the story of a teenager who joins a gang and begins to find herself. The film earned four César Award nominations, including a best director nod for Sciamma.  

Sciamma gained major international success and attention for her 2019 film "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" ("Portrait de la jeune fille en feu"), a film about a female artist painting a portrait for a woman's upcoming wedding. "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" was widely critically acclaimed, earning Sciamma the best screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival and a nomination for the festival's top prize. "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" also earned a Golden Globe nomination for best non-English film.  

Pedro Almodóvar

A hugely successful and prolific Spanish writer, producer, director, and musician, Pedro Almodóvar's work often employs melodramatic tropes, symbolism, and playful techniques to examine sexuality, gender, and politics. Almodóvar's controversial 1980 debut feature, "Pepi, Luci, Bom, and Other Girls Like Mom," deals with the violence and political strife of the punk era in post-Franco Spain. It wasn't until Almodóvar's seventh feature, 1988's "Women on the Verge of a Breakdown," that he found broader international acclaim, earning his first Oscar nomination for best foreign language film.

In 1999, Almodóvar won best director at the Cannes Festival for "All About My Mother," which explored a young writer navigating his relationship with his estranged trans mother. Throughout his career, the director has been well-received at Cannes and has been nominated for the festival's top honor, the Palme d'Or, six times, most recently in 2019 for "Pain and Glory," which also earned two Oscar nominations.

Almodóvar is best known for his many fruitful collaborations with actors Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas, including their work in "Pain and Glory." The loosely biographical film follows a director reflecting on his life in the vein of Frederico Fellini's 1963 classic "8½." Almodóvar's latest film, 2021's "Parallel Mothers," earned Cruz her fourth Oscar nomination and second for an Almodóvar film.

Dee Rees

Having graduated from New York University's film program and earning a Sundance Screenwriting and Directing Lab Fellowship in 2008, writer-producer-director Dee Rees has a prestigious pedigree. Her work often explores the intersection of race, power, and identity. Rees's debut feature, 2011's "Pariah," follows a teenager coming to grips with their sexuality in Brooklyn. The film was critically acclaimed, earning the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards, a Grand Jury Prize nomination at the Sundance Film Festival, and the outstanding independent motion picture award at the NAACP Image Awards

In 2015, Rees followed up "Pariah" with "Bessie," an HBO biopic starring Queen Latifah as legendary queer blues singer Bessie Smith. "Bessie" won four Primetime Emmy Awards, including outstanding television movie. Rees' next film, 2017's "Mudbound," brought her to Netflix and larger mainstream recognition. A historical drama, "Mudbound" tells the story of two men who return home from World War II to segregation-era Mississippi. "Mudbound" performed incredibly well, receiving four Oscar nominations including best adapted screenplay for Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams. While Rees is a master of drama, she has also directed episodes of hit comedy series like "Upload" and "Space Force" and the forthcoming historical war epic "Masters of the Air."

John Waters

Proudly hailing from Baltimore, Maryland, John Waters rose to prominence as a cult figure in the 1970s due to his trashsploitation films that featured shocking, controversial, and sometimes offensive themes that satirized class and gender. Waters' early films were incredibly low-budget affairs that saw Waters necessarily wearing multiple hats as writer, director, producer, cinematographer, and editor, lending the films a gritty, artistic quality. He is also known for his collaboration with drag queen and actor Divine who starred in all but one of Waters' early features, beginning with "Pink Flamingos" until his death in 1988. 

As Waters' career progressed, he refined his artistic vision and became slightly more mainstream, leading to his best-known work, 1988's "Hairspray," which also happened to be his last film with Divine. "Hairspray" follows a bubbly plus-size teen who revolutionizes Baltimore after landing a spot dancing on a local television show. The film was also his most critically successful, earning him two Film Independent Spirit Award nominations including best director. "Hairspray" has since spawned a Broadway musical and a film adaptation of the Broadway show. Since "Hairspray," Waters has written and directed a string of successful features, including "Serial Mom" and "Pecker." Waters' most recent feature was 2004's "A Dirty Shame." In recent years, Waters has devoted more of his time to writing and acting. Embracing his icon status in pop culture, he has appeared on such shows as "Search Party" and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

Cheryl Dunye

Groundbreaking independent filmmaker Cheryl Dunye made a string of successful shorts before writing, directing, producing, and starring in her debut feature, "The Watermelon Woman," in 1996. The film stars Dunye as a loosely fictionalized version of herself and employs an experimental narrative that explores a fictional historic Black woman of cinema in the midst of a lesbian romance. Since its initial release, "The Watermelon Woman" has become a beloved indie classic for its raw depiction of Black lesbians and its unique visual storytelling. It has also been heralded as a groundbreaking movie for being the first film directed by an openly-lesbian Black director about Black lesbians

While Dunye's other features are not as well known as "The Watermelon Woman," they have reflected Dunye's consistent vision. Across all of her films, Dunye is known for using postmodern techniques and a low-fi aesthetic to examine race and identity. Dunye received her first mainstream critical success with "Stranger Inside," a film about a mother and daughter in prison, which she also directed and co-wrote. "Stranger Inside" earned Dunye a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for best director. In the last few years, Dunye has developed a strong career, directing numerous landmark television series like "The Chi," "Dear White People," "Queen Sugar," and "Lovecraft Country."

Lisa Cholodenko

Writer-producer-director Lisa Cholodenko's career has been one of steady success with much of her work investigating the intersection of family, relationships, and sexual politics as well as her Jewish identity. Cholodenko had a strong debut with "High Art," a romantic drama about two women falling in love with and using each other to advance their careers. The film was critically acclaimed and received six nominations at the Film Independent Spirit Awards including best screenplay and best first feature. 

Cholodenko is perhaps best known for her 2010 feature "The Kids Are All Right," a quirky family dramedy about two teenage children conceived through artificial insemination who bring their biological father home to meet their mothers. The film earned four Oscar nominations, including best picture and a best screenplay nod for Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg. Cholodenko has also worked extensively in television, directing episodes of Alan Ball's series "Six Feet Under" and "Here and Now" as well as other prestige dramas like "Hung," "The L Word," and "Unbelievable." Her direction for the miniseries "Olive Kitteridge" also earned her a Primetime Emmy Award for outstanding directing for a limited series.

Alice Wu

Unlike many directors who start their careers in the film school pipeline, Alice Wu was working for Microsoft when she wrote the screenplay for her 2004 debut feature, "Saving Face." The film is an unconventional romantic comedy that follows a mother and daughter who each have to face down cultural taboos to be happy while living in a traditional Chinese community in New York. "Saving Face" was a hard-earned project. Wu fought Hollywood every step of the way to maintain control and keep the film from being whitewashed. While the film was well-received — Wu earned a breakthrough director nomination at the Gotham Independent Film Festival — the film's diverse cast, LGBTQ content, and modest box office performance made it difficult for Wu to finance her next project. 

Wu soon left the industry due to a family illness, but when she shopped her next movie, "The Half of It," Hollywood was ready for more diverse projects. Wu's second feature is another unconventional love story that focuses on an unlikely friendship. "The Half of It" won best narrative feature at the Tribeca Film Festival and earned Wu a nomination for best screenplay at the Film Independent Spirit Awards. While Wu's career has not been as prolific as some of the other directors on our list, her LGBTQ spin on the romantic comedy through the Asian American experience has been an invaluable contribution to cinema.

Yance Ford

Yance Ford's film career is technically in its early stages, and that makes it all the more remarkable. His first documentary, "Strong Island," earned an Oscar nomination for best documentary feature (making him the first openly trans director nominated for an Oscar) and a Primetime Emmy Award for exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking. "Strong Island" is a moving, stark, and personal journey that investigates the murder of Ford's brother. 

Since "Strong Island," Ford has worked primarily in television, directing episodes of docuseries like "Pride" and "The Me You Can't See" as well as the queer comedy "Work in Progress." Ford was also a creative consultant and appeared in the documentary "Disclosure," which investigates the depiction of transgender people in media. Ford has also received incredible acclaim and accolades for his work outside of the film industry and in the art world at large. Ford has been named a Sundance Institute Fellow and received the Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award from the International Documentary Association

Luca Guadagnino

Italian writer-producer-director Luca Guadagnino has had a successful and varied film career. Much of Guadagnino's work explores gender, sexuality, and power dynamics in relationships. His films are known for their strong use of setting, taking advantage of the Italian countryside to create a naturalistic feel. Alternating between horror, romance, and comedy films, Guadagnino, however, is not a master of any one particular genre. Guadagnino kicked off his film career in 1999 with his debut feature, "The Protagonists," a murder mystery thriller that takes place in the world of filmmaking. It was also his first film to feature his frequent on-screen collaborator Tilda Swinton.

Guadagnino gained broader mainstream attention with his third feature, "I Am Love." Part romantic epic and part sexual thriller, it was his second film with Swinton. The film earned a BAFTA nomination for best film not in the English language and a Golden Globe Nomination for best non-English language picture. Guadagnino is probably best known for "Call Me By Your Name," a gay love story that takes place during an Italian summer in the 1980s. The film was nominated for four Oscars (including best picture), six Film Independent Spirit Awards (including best director), and three Golden Globes. Guadagnino has also worked in television, creating, executive producing, writing, and directing, the limited series "We Are Who We Are" for HBO.

Derek Jarman

An avant-garde pioneer of queer cinema, Derek Jarman was a British filmmaker who had a remarkably prolific career during the 20 years he was active. Jarman's first film job as a set designer gave him the skills that would help him develop the rich mise-en-scene of his later work as a director. Jarman's films often interrogated political conventions of power through a queer lens. His 1976 debut feature, "Sebastiane," was controversial for its overt depictions of homosexuality.  

As Jarman progressed, his films favored a neo-romantic style that often favored nonlinear narratives and sparse dialogue over visuals and music. This sensibility created singular works of art like 1977's "Jubilee," a film about a time-traveling Queen Elizabeth I, and "The Tempest," Jarman's unique take on Shakespeare. Jarman is perhaps best known for his 1986 film, "Caravaggio," a historical biopic about the famous painter. Jarman was also a successful music video director and worked with such artists as The Smiths, Wang Chung, and most notably, Pet Shop Boys. Outside of his work, Jarman was a prominent public figure in Britain and advocated for gay rights during the AIDS crisis. He was forthcoming about his 1986 HIV diagnosis and worked up until his death in 1994. His final film, the haunting and heartbreaking "Blue," was his meditation on his final days of living with AIDS. Jarman's legacy still impacts queer cinema today