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13 Films That Got the LGBTQ+ Experience Right

Photos provided by 20th Century Fox, Frenesy Film Company, Freeform, A24, Lionsgate, The Weinstein Company; Edit by Samantha N. Olson

This story was originally featured in Shifter Issue No. I — June 2020, available now.

The stories we consume — whether it be through books, music, movies or television — have the power to shape the way we live our lives. Media can also impact our perspectives on other people in groups we aren’t directly part of.

It goes without saying that LGBTQ+ culture has influenced many character arcs in our favorite films and TV shows. What’s rare is for these stories to be told and depicted accurately through mainstream media. When it comes to the LGBTQ+ experience, there are plenty of angles from which these stories are told — be it a campy comedy or heart-wrenching drama. Here are thirteen films that got these stories right.

1. “Love, Simon” (2018)

Where you can watch: YouTube ($3.99), Amazon Prime Video ($3.99)

Known as the first gay teen movie released by a major studio, “Love, Simon” tells the story of Simon, a closeted gay 17-year-old who’s trying to discover the identity of the anonymous classmate and penpal he’s fallen for through the internet. Simon also balances his friendships, familial relationships and a blackmailer threatening to out him to his entire school (as if being closeted wasn’t difficult enough). This coming-of-age flick ushered in a new era of representation with its diverse cast and inclusivity. It even inspired a Disney+-turned-Hulu spinoff, “Love, Victor,” which debuts June 19.

2. “Hurricane Bianca” (2016)

Where you can watch: YouTube ($3.99), Amazon Prime Video ($3.99)

If you’re a fan of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” or drag in general, then you’ll love this campy comedy! RPDR season six champion Bianca Del Rio plays former New York schoolteacher Richard, who relocates to a small Texas town and is immediately fired for being gay. Richard returns — in drag, this time — with a vengeance for the cruel townspeople. This film also features cameos from other drag queens, including Alyssa Edwards, Willam Belli and RuPaul himself. With Bianca’s signature bits and a storyline to follow, what’s not to love?

3.“The Color Purple” (1985)

Where you can watch: Amazon Prime Video ($1.99)

Directed by Steven Speilberg and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, “The Color Purple” is a period piece set in the early 1900s that follows the tumultuous life of Celie, a black woman in rural Georgia who’s faced sexual abuse from her father and a man who her father gave her away to. Celie later meets showgirl Shug, who she forms a deep connection with. She ultimately discovers love for herself through liberation, and Celie and Shug’s romantic relationship is one that helps her through many obstacles. “The Color Purple,” which covers themes from race, class, gender, sexual assault, domestic abuse, lesbianism, and the South, was nominated for 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture. It didn’t end up winning any, and we have to say it was definitely snubbed as it’s a love story for the ages.

4. “Saturday Church” (2017)

Where you can watch: Tubi (free)

“Saturday Church,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2017, tells the story of Ulysses, a shy and feminine 14-year-old who’s taken over the responsibilities of his late father as the “man of the house.” Along with coping with his father’s death, Ulysses is slowly coming into his own and discovering his gender identity alongside his mother, younger brother and disapproving conservative aunt. He ultimately finds comfort in ballroom culture and the transgender community at Saturday church, which is a program that feeds and provides shelter for LGBTQ+ youths. This film, stars newcomer Luka Kain and “POSE” actors Mj Rodriguez and Indya Moore, realistically depicts someone finding themselves in times of uncertainty, which is a feeling all too familiar for a lot of LGBTQ+ youth. You can stream “Saturday Church” for free on Tubi.

5.“Call Me By Your Name” (2017)

Where you can watch: Vudu ($1.99), YouTube ($3.99)

Did you really think we were going to leave Armie and Timothée out of this? Based on the novel of the same name, “Call Me By Your Name” has quickly become a cult classic in the LGBTQ+ community. The film follows 17-year-old Elio and doctoral student Oliver in the summer of 1983, when their romance heats up in Italy. The film was received well by critics and was even nominated for Best Picture at the 90th Annual Academy Awards. Let’s be real — CMBYN has changed the way we see peaches and the way we listen to “Play Date” by Melanie Martinez. It’s just the way the world works.

6. “The Thing About Harry” (2020)

Where you can watch: YouTube ($17.99), Hulu (with subscription)

The thing about “The Thing About Harry” is that it’s a heartfelt romantic comedy that doesn’t follow the “I’m-gay-so-my-life-must-be-difficult” trope. Instead of using characters’ queerness as their defining characteristics, this film focuses on developing natural character arcs, making them more dimensional and human-like. If you’re looking for a film where you’ll relate to most of the characters, check out “The Thing About Harry” on streaming platforms.

7. “But I’m a Cheerleader” (1999)

Where you can watch: Tubi (free)

Natasha Lyonne playing another queer character? Groundbreaking. No, seriously — if you want to see Natasha Lyonne play a lesbian cheerleader whose parents send her to conversion therapy while she’s just becoming aware of her sexuality, this is the perfect satirical flick for you. Also, RuPaul plays a straight man trying to convert others… who wouldn’t want to see that?

8. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975)

Where you can watch: YouTube ($3.99), Amazon Prime Video ($3.99)

Our beloved Rocky Horror has made this list for three specific reasons. One: Tim Curry plays Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a cross-dressing mad scientist. Two: Killer musical numbers… seriously. And three: Who doesn’t love the iconic golden mini shorts? If you haven’t yet blessed yourself by watching Rocky Horror (sorry, but the “Glee” episode and few seconds in “Perks of Being a Wallflower” don’t count), lovebirds Brad and Janet get stuck at Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s with a flat tire during a storm. They meet a ton of wild characters and lose their innocence along the way when Frank-N-Furter unveils his latest creation: Rocky. If you’re into horror and musical, campy films, sit tight and feast your eyes on this iconic cult classic.

9. “Carol” (2015)

Where you can watch: Vudu ($3.99), Amazon Prime Video ($3.99)

“Carol” is the film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel “The Price of Salt,” in which she depicts a lesbian love affair in 1950s New York. Highsmith’s work was considered one of the first novels with a gay theme and happy ending, which is possible. In the film, Rooney Mara plays a shop girl Therese, who falls for married sophisticate Carol (played by Cate Blanchett). While the story follows two white women, it recounts how they fall in love during the McCarthyism era in the United States, when accusations of subversion were made without evidence. This was also a time when the same-sex attraction was considered taboo and “anti-American.” The film scored tons of Oscar buzz during the time of its release and went on to receive six nominations at the 88th annual Academy Awards.

10. “The Half of It” (2020)

Where you can watch: Netflix (with subscription)

There are a lot of things to celebrate about Netflix’s “The Half of It.” Writer and director Alice Wu, best known for her 2004 film “Saving Face,” highlights coming-of-age queer experiences for Chinese-American women in both films, but gives us a twist with her latest. High schooler Ellie Chu is the resident introvert who has a side-hustle of ghostwriting papers for other students to help her non-english speaking father pay the bills. When jock Paul asks Ellie to help him woo — you guessed it, yet another manic-pixie-dream-girl — Aster Flores with love letters, Ellie discovers that she, too, might be falling for Aster. It doesn’t matter who gets the girl in this flick, because at the end of the day, Ellie and Paul gain friendship through an unforgettable experience.

11. “Struck by Lightning” (2012)

Where you can watch: Tubi (free)

Spoiler alert: the structure of “Struck by Lightning” differs from most films as it kills its protagonist in its opening scene by — you guessed it — striking him with a lightning bolt. “Glee” alumnus Chris Colfer stars as high school student Carson Phillips, who has big dreams of becoming the youngest editor-in-chief of The New Yorker literary magazine. Carson feels that he must gain admission to Northwestern University to be on the right path of reaching his dream, so he plans an elaborate scheme to blackmail a bunch of misfits at his high school to create and contribute to their school’s literary magazine. The dramedy also contains an all-star cast, featuring Christina Hendricks, Angela Kinsey, Rebel Wilson, Sarah Hyland, Matt Prokop, Robbie Amell and Ashley Rickards. Did we mention that Colfer wrote the screenplay, too? We stan a multi-talented king.

12. “Moonlight” (2016)

Where you can watch: Amazon Prime Video ($0.99), Netflix (with subscription)

The Best Picture we so rightfully deserve. In an interview with The New York Times, “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney shared that the film parallels their own upbringings in Liberty City, one of the poorest parts of Miami, Florida. The story follows Chiron, a young black man who faces a journey of self-discovery and coming to grips with his homosexual feelings. The film depicts the harsh realities of what it’s like to grow up in a broken home as a queer black person. “Moonlight” made history as the first film with an entirely black cast and a homosexual main character to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

13. “Viva” (2015)

Where you can watch: Tubi (free)

Set in Cuba, “Viva” depicts what happens when young hairdresser Jesus (Héctor Medina) clashes with his estranged father (Jorge Perugorría) when he works toward making his dream of being a drag performer. While the protagonist overcomes obstacles to make his drag dreams tangible, he comes to terms with his sexuality and discovers his true identity. His macho-man father faces the challenge of overcoming his toxic masculinity and accepting his son for who he is. In 2016, the film was selected as the Irish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th annual Academy Awards. It’s dubbed in Spanish, but you can watch it with English subtitles.

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