The 20 Most Influential LGBTQ+ Movies Ever Made

Queer films have existed forever. Handpicking the most influential ones is difficult, but it can provide a pathway for viewers who want to learn more about the genre and see its progression over the years. From homoeroticism to outright queer love stories and narratives, queer cinema is vast and beautiful. For this list, we focused on films that came out after the mid-1980s, a time when LGBQT+ issues were becoming more visible. After the '80s and the struggles that the queer community experienced (the AIDS crisis, depictions of queer people as villains and thieves, and broad stereotyping), a variety of creators decided to do their own thing and tell the stories they wanted to tell. 

In the '90s, the term New Queer Cinema was born, launching a genre of transgressive films that could only be made because their creators were queer themselves and were comfortable in depicting aspects of their community that the world was afraid of. For better or worse, the villainization of queer characters that was so prominent early on gave rise to a movement that added an edge to queer films. Since then, queer films have come in all varieties. While they're all different, we've selected a batch of films and ordered them chronologically, showing how much the genre has evolved and how broad the appeal of queer characters has become. 

Desert Hearts

Released in 1985, "Desert Hearts" was revolutionary. The story is set in 1959, and it follows Vivian (Helen Shaver), an English professor from New York who visits Nevada to establish a teaching residency. She's 35 (well on her way to becoming a spinster in that era), and going through a divorce. In Nevada, she meets Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), a younger woman who leads a completely different life of making art and living in the moment. 

Revolutionary for its time, "Desert Hearts" is a simple love story (no crime, murder, or mystery) that hooks the viewer in. That the film is independent, directed by a woman, stars two women, and is set on a ranch (perhaps the most traditional setting for testosterone-fueled stories) make it even more striking. 

Set against the backdrop of a beautiful landscape, the film explores the unraveling of a tightly wound protagonist as the two women slowly engage in a love story that takes the majority of the film's runtime to consummate. "Desert Hearts" might sound like just any other lesbian film made since, but it remains special years later. To get the film made, director Donna Deitch acquired the rights to lesbian author Jane Rule's 1964 novel, "Desert of the Heart," and then raised money by sending out newsletters in the mail. "Desert Hearts" was a labor of love, and it set a high bar for modern lesbian films. 


Based on the E.M. Forster novel of the same name, "Maurice" is a beautiful film. A highlight in the Merchant-Ivory partnership, which includes films like "A Room With a View" and "Howards End," "Maurice" follows its eponymous character (James Wilby) and his affair with Clive (Hugh Grant), a man he meets at Cambridge University and spends the majority of his life in love with. Unlike many gay films, "Maurice" doesn't shy away from its lead characters' self-loathing and repression or their desire to change to fit into a society in which being gay is a crime. Through the characters of Maurice, Clive, and Alec, the film shows a hopeful take on queerness in the 1900s through a complicated love story of missed opportunities and unbelievable circumstances. 

Made in the wake of "A Room With A View," an incredibly English film and the recipient of several Oscars, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory took a chance with this story. Although "Maurice" is darker and stranger than their previous work, it was a story that was dear to their hearts. The two were together for years, hiding their relationship behind their professional partnership. "Maurice" is lovely, romantic, bittersweet, and reverent to its source material. A landmark film, it still holds up in its sincere depiction of the gay experience.

My Own Private Idaho

The '90s were revolutionary for LGBTQ+ cinema. The decade kicked off the New Queer Cinema movement that was known for its transgressive films and trend-setting directors. Out of all of these projects, no film is better known than "My Own Private Idaho," likely due to River Phoenix's presence. Directed by Gus Van Sant and released in 1991, the film follows Mike (Phoenix), a narcoleptic hustler, and Scott (Keanu Reeves), his best friend and the object of his desire. Although it touches on several filmmaking styles, "My Own Private Idaho" is, for the most part, a road movie that takes its characters across America. The film, at times, feels like a documentary, a drama, and an art film, but it's never messy or disjointed. 

Years after its release, "My Own Private Idaho" is more than a staple of queer cinema. It remains an elusive art film, deeply strange and captivating, something unlike you've ever seen before.

Paris is Burning

Another seminal New Queer Cinema film is "Paris Is Burning," a documentary that follows a group of drag queens in New York City and explores house culture and community. Thanks to "RuPaul's Drag Race" and "Pose," we're thoroughly acquainted with these topics. Despite the controversy that surrounds it, "Paris Is Burning" remains an important film. 

"Paris Is Burning" was directed by Jennie Livingston, a privileged white woman, who greatly profited from other people's stories. While Livingston paid the performers for their appearances in the documentary, once the film was purchased by Miramax for a great sum of money, the performers had to sue the distributor to get the compensation they were promised. 

"Paris Is Burning" wasn't the first documentary about drag queens, but its popularity showed that these types of stories could make money and be seen by millions of people. It remains a vital entry in the genre and one that opened the door for better and more inclusive stories.

Basic Instinct

I could write about "Basic Instinct" every day. It's a film I love and admire, and while it was problematic for the LBGQT+ community upon its release, it also stars a character who is unapologetically queer. The film follows Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), a sketchy police detective investigating the gruesome murder of a rock star. As the police begin to gather information, they stumble upon Catherine Trammell (Sharon Stone), the casual girlfriend of the victim, who years before wrote a book in which a rock star dies identically.

Catherine Trammell may be another gay murderer, but she's the star of the film. The treatment of Roxy, her girlfriend, still sparks some confusion, yet their relationship is depicted as loving and committed. Along with "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Dog Day Afternoon," "Basic Instinct" upset a lot of queer viewers and was partially responsible for sparking the New Queer Cinema movement. It gave a queer people license to declare, "If this is the way the world views us, why not have some fun with it?

The Watermelon Woman

A movie within a movie, "The Watermelon Woman" follows Cheryl (Cheryl Dunye), a black lesbian filmmaker who works at a video store. Cheryl has an unwavering interest in Black actresses and their performances in old movies. She soon grows obsessed with a woman who is credited as the Watermelon Woman in a slave film. As her investigation unfolds, Cheryl develops a relationship with a recurring customer (Guinevere Turner).

"The Watermelon Woman" was the first film directed by an "out" Black lesbian, making the film vitally important and a landmark of New Queer Cinema. The film was also selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Aside from the impressive accolades the film has amassed over the years and the unique spot it occupies in history, "The Watermelon Woman" is also incredibly fun and thoughtful. It's a movie that's in love with the process of filmmaking and has an intelligent and unfussy take on race. 


"Bound" is a timeless film. Featuring plenty of tension, crime, and some of the sexiest and most romantic moments ever captured on film, it was also the feature debut of Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski. It remains one of their best films. 

"Bound" stars Gina Gershon as Corky, an ex-con who wants to steer clear of trouble and is making ends meet as a plumber in a fancy residential building. It's there that she meets Violet (Jennifer Tilly), her gorgeous neighbor, who is interested in her. However, Violet is also the girlfriend of a violent gangster (Joe Pantoliano, in one of his best and skeeviest roles). They fall in love and scheme to rob the mob and run away together. 

Upon its release, "Bound" put the Wachowskis on the map. Premiering at Venice Film Festival, the film was impactful not only in its style and quality but also because it was a queer film that wasn't defined by its queerness. While Violet and Corky are the heart of the story, there are plenty of other elements moving the plot forward, and that elevated the film for viewers and critics of the era, pushing it into the mainstream. 

Boys Don't Cry

Without a doubt, "Boys Don't Cry" is one of the most important queer films ever made. Like many LGBQT+ films, it also has a tarnished legacy. Released in 1999, it was the first mainstream film to focus on a transgender man. Its star, Hillary Swank, won an Academy Award for best actress. Although "Boys Don't Cry" launched the careers of its young cast and director Kimberly Peirce, it bears the burden of featuring a cisgender woman in the role of a trans man. 

Based on the real-life story of Brandon Teena, the film follows the last months of his life during which he moved to a small town and fell in love with a girl (Chloe Sevigny). Teena was then raped and murdered by two men who had been his friends, resulting in a scandal that was thoroughly documented by the homophobic press of the era. While the film can't change the tragic details of Teena's story, it does imbue it with touching moments, including an emotional karaoke scene, lovely shots of middle America, and a depiction of a person who's finally found himself and his place in the world.

"Boys Don't Cry" was incredibly important in shifting the narrative for trans people in America. When Hilary Swank won best actress, she thanked Brandon Teena, pointedly using male pronouns on one of the world's biggest stages. Consequently, Swank's speech helped shaped the conversations we're having about gender today. While "Boys Don't Cry" would have benefitted from the perspectives of trans people, it nonetheless remains powerful and influential. 

All About My Mother

Pedro Almodóvar has made some of my favorite films. "All About My Mother" is one of his most special and a favorite for fans of his work. It's a film obsessed with motherhood, a topic that Almodóvar finds himself returning to film after film. It follows Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a nurse who loses her only son. Unmoored, she travels to Barcelona to look for his long-lost father and ends up forming a family of her own, becoming a surrogate mother and friend to a group of vastly different women, including a nurse who's HIV-positive (Penelope Cruz), an emblematic theater actress (Marisa Paredes), and a trans sex worker (Antonia San Juan).

"All About My Mother" is a film that revels in the outskirts. A commercial and critical success, it tells stories that a large percentage of audiences have never heard. At the time of its release, it wasn't common for mainstream films to explore topics like AIDS and transgender issues. While it never glosses over the ugliness and the danger that these women encounter every day, it still shows their happiness and joy —  the things that make life worth living.

But I'm a Cheerleader

Jamie Babbit's "But I'm a Cheerleader" is an off-beat, romantic (and funny) take on conversion therapy, which is also a little mind-boggling. It's tough to think of a film that's more famous or significant for queer audiences. At the time of its release, it received mediocre reviews from most mainstream outlets, with only LGBTQ+ publications flocking to it. Over the years, "But I'm a Cheerleader" cemented its cult status, inspiring movies, music videos, and launching the careers of a handful of impressive actors.

Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is a cheerleader. She's also a lesbian, which everyone in the film can see but her. Her parents stage an intervention, sending her to True Directions, a conversion camp headed by RuPaul who plays his straightest self and proudly proclaims to no longer be gay. There, Megan meets all sorts of gay kids, including Graham (Clea Duvall), whom she immediately likes. 

"But I'm a Cheerleader" accomplishes the impossible. It's a satire that manages to be gentle and charming while creating a memorable world that queer audiences return to year after year. 

Brokeback Mountain

The release of "Brokeback Mountain" was revolutionary, earning eight Academy Award nominations. The fact that it lost best picture (to "Crash" of all films) remains one of the biggest Academy Award upsets of all time. 

The film is based on the Annie Proulx short story of the same name and follows Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), two cowboys who meet on Brokeback Mountain in 1963. Tasked with herding and caring for large flocks of sheep, their work is taxing and isolating. During their time on the mountain, the two fall in love and continue to meet over the years. Unable to address their sexuality head-on, they are nonetheless unable to stay apart.

"Brokeback Mountain" remains the world's go-to gay film. It doesn't have the cerebral quality of "Call Me By Your Name" or the restraint of "Moonlight." It's a straightforward Western with beautiful landscapes and a bunch of recognizable stars. While many decry "Brokeback Mountain" for a variety of reasons, the film remains a pure and powerful experience. It's timeless. 

The Kids Are All Right

The world was vastly different by the time "The Kids Are All Right" was released. While queer families were more accepted, the topic was still considered taboo and not something that was depicted in the mainstream. "The Kids Are All Right" had a hand in placing queer relationships and families at the forefront of entertainment, showing that they can be just as interesting, boring, and moving as straight families. 

Directed and co-written by Lisa Cholodenko, another important figure of New Queer Cinema, the film follows Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), two women stuck in a relationship rut. They love each other, but life gets in the way. Their children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), reach out to their biological father (Mark Ruffalo), kicking off a cycle of soul searching and cheating. 

I remember the conversations this film prompted amongst friends and family who didn't understand how Jules, a lesbian, would be attracted to a straight man. In 2010, the time of the film's release, gay marriage wasn't legal in America and the binary of sexuality wasn't a thing many people were thinking about. "The Kids Are All Right" is a relic of its time, back when finding a good depiction of a gay relationship onscreen felt like finding gold. 


"Weekend" is a small film, but it had a tremendous impact on gay stories. Andrew Haigh, the film's director and screenwriter, later went on to direct episodes in "Looking" and to make other critically acclaimed films. Still, "Weekend" remains a special movie that feels personal and in tune with the everyday aggressions gay men face. Although it was released in 2011, the film touches upon topics that queer films still shy away from. "Weekend" understands that homophobia isn't black and white. There's more to it than bullying and beating people up.

The film follows Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New), two guys whose one-night stand extends over a weekend. While they're very different and their relationship has no future, their time together forces them to reevaluate themselves and share the parts of their lives that they can't discuss with their closest friends. 

"Weekend" is an impressive film that paved the way for queer intimacy onscreen. It shows that there's an interest in these types of stories and that there are ways to make them.

Blue Is the Warmest Color

"Blue Is The Warmest Color" is a deeply controversial film. From its runtime to its sex scenes to the fact that it's directed by a straight male director, the movie has been decried by many. However, it was also incredibly beloved upon its release, launching the careers of Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos. It won the Palm d'Or, the top honor at the Cannes Film Festival, and prompted the jury to do something they'd never done before: split the award between director Abdellatif Kechiche, and the two leads.

In the span of three hours, the film follows the life of Adele, detailing her first love, her work, the food she eats, the sex she has, and everything in between. The love affair between Adele and Emma (Seydoux) is fast and all-consuming, and the film sticks with it until its bitter end.

The mark that "Blue Is The Warmest Color" leaves is indelible. At the time of the film's release, France was extending marriage rights to LGBT couples. "The law's passage followed rancorous debates and frightening rallies by right-wing political and religious groups. In the same week that Blue won the Palme d'Or, a violent suicide ruptured the sacred space of Notre Dame Cathedral, with the aim of fomenting resistance to the law," writes Criterion's B. Ruby Rich. While the sex scenes remain noteworthy, the noise generated by them is just that. Years later, the film remains as vibrant and daring as it was in its release. 


Directed by Sean Baker, 2015's "Tangerine" is a wonderful queer film that features LGBTQ+ characters in a story that goes beyond their mere existence. It's crazy that we still have to bring that up. Shot on three iPhones and made with a budget of $100,000, the film follows Sin-Dee (Kitana Taylor), a trans sex worker who goes on the hunt for her ex-boyfriend after learning he cheated on her while she was in jail.

"Tangerine" proves that you don't need a professional camera and a lot of money to make a great film. Based on the experiences that Kitana Taylor and Mya Taylor shared, it's a showcase of great talent that demonstrates how a good story in the right hands is priceless.

Great advances have been made in the years since "Boys Don't Cry." As a film in which trans women are at the center of their narratives and have a hand in the way their stories are told, "Tangerine" is a huge leap forward.


"Moonlight's" story is what every independent filmmaker dreams about — a little film with no major names attached to it that wins Academy Awards. In 2016, it was the first film to feature a gay lead character and win best picture.

Directed by Barry Jenkins, whose career deservedly took off following its release, "Moonlight" follows Chiron (Trevante Rhodes, Alex R. Hibbert, and Ashton Sanders) at three pivotal stages in his life as he comes to terms with himself and his place in the world.

"Moonlight's" win at the Academy Awards was historic, not only because it prized a queer story but because it deviated from the types of films that these awards generally honor. While it didn't change the type of films that get made or the type of films that win Oscars, it did represent a step forward. The Academy Awards have since featured a bevy of traditional Oscar films, but they're also more inclusive and interested in independent pictures. When it comes to cinema, "Moonlight" represents a "before and after" moment. 


A clear successor to "Desert Hearts," 2015's "Carol" is a beloved film. Critically acclaimed, it's also a film that has been embraced by queer women and is partly responsible for the recent boom in gay and lesbian-themed films. "Carol" remains among the best of them.

Directed by Todd Haynes and produced by Christine Vachon, two giants of queer cinema, the film is based on Patricia Highsmith's novel "The Price of Salt." Set in the grimy 1950s, it follows the gradual and charged relationship that develops between Therese (Rooney Mara), a young, inexperienced woman, and Carol (Cate Blanchett), an older woman who is well-aware of her sexuality but burdened with a variety of problems that Therese is not equipped to understand. Unfortunately, Therese and Carol fall for each other at the wrong time. The influence of Highsmith's writing permeates the film, tinting everyday conversations with an edge of danger. Nevertheless, there are no explosions in "Carol." What you see is what you get. 

"Carol" is perhaps Todd Haynes' most discussed film. It created a splash when it first came out, not only in awards and opportunities for its filmmakers but also for queer women all over the world. "Carol" took on a life of its own. Years after its release, it continues to inspire critical writing, memes, and fan fiction.

A Fantastic Woman

"A Fantastic Woman" delivered something that had been building for decades. Directed by the great Sebastián Lelio, the film was the first trans story to make it into the big leagues. It was awarded best foreign film at the 2018 Academy Awards, and it made a star out of its lead actress, Daniela Vega. 

The story follows Marina (Vega), a woman whose life is completely disrupted following the sudden death of her boyfriend, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). Marina is then shut out of the funeral proceedings. Orlando's family makes her life miserable and treats her as something to be ignored and erased. While the film never shies away from the seriousness of its subject matter, Lelio is a careful observer, centering the story on Marina, who is more than capable of battling the issues that have plagued her life. The film is filled with dreamlike sequences that submerge the viewer in the character's vibrant subconscious. Vega embodies the role amazingly, turning in a layered performance that carries the film. "I was just trying to make a film that hopefully was as complex and beautiful as its main character," said Lelio in a conversation with the Harvard Gazette. Sometimes, that's all it takes. 

Call Me By Your Name

Based on the incredible André Aciman novel, "Call Me by Your Name" is a film obsessed with beauty. A perfect union of American and European styles, the film launched the career of Timothée Chalamet and was a natural progression for director Luca Guadagnino, a filmmaker incapable of making a mediocre film. 

Elio (Chalamet) is spending his summer in Italy with his parents. His peaceful holiday ends with the arrival of Oliver (Armie Hammer), a gorgeous, intelligent 24-year-old post-graduate student. Oliver makes Elio question everything he knows about himself. Their love affair takes time to unfold and has no challenges aside from ones of their own making. Their relationship is obvious to everyone but themselves. Still, as the summer fades, reality creeps in, and the differences between the two split them apart. 

"Call Me By Your Name" earned Academy Award nominations for best picture, lead actor, and original song, and won the Oscar for adapted screenplay. While many have criticized the film's careful approach to nudity, it remains a story that's obsessed with love and beauty. "Call Me By Your Name" has a keen understanding of youth and the kind of heartbreak that doesn't seem possible when you're older and jaded. 

Love, Simon

It feels strange to end a list of important queer films with "Love, Simon," but its impact is impossible to ignore. Released in 2018, "Love, Simon" was the first mainstream, big-budget teen film to star a gay character. It was a box office success. It's not the best queer film ever made, but it's an important one that demonstrates that mainstream audiences are not put off by queer characters and stories.

Based on the young adult novel "Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda," the story follows Simon Spier, a 17-year-old high school student who is gay and closeted. Through online exchanges, he starts to fall for a classmate who's also gay but won't reveal his identity. This makes Simon question the sexuality of almost every boy in his class. 

"Love, Simon" is a movie for the mainstream. It doesn't push too many buttons and features a lead character that is white and wealthy. His only "problem" is his sexuality. Still, the film is made with care and features a tender coming-out scene that makes the ride worth it. As I watched it unfold in a packed theater and heard sniffles from all directions, I was hit by how significant the film is. It's not an art film or an Oscar film. "Love, Simon" is a movie for everyday audiences that tells the story of a boy coming to terms with himself.