Learn more about LGBTQ history with these films and documentaries

With ABC's When We Rise event miniseries about real life advocates in San Francisco from the 1970’s to 2015 airing this week, it is important to look back at additional films and documentaries that tell important stories from LGBTQ history.

LGBTQ history is often left out of the lessons taught in schools and erased from biographies. These stories then remain hidden unless people specifically search them out. There can be no progress without knowing our history, to know where we have come from and how much further we have to go for full acceptance.

Check out a list below of 15 documentaries and films (available on streaming or digital download) highlighting noteworthy people and moments in LGBTQ history, and how these stories shaped modern LGBTQ activism. This is only a fraction of the media that share some of the notable stories of LGBTQ history.

We have many stories left to tell, and we’d like to see more stories from the voices that are still too often left out of the conversation including bisexual people, transgender people (including trans men), LGBTQ people of color, and disabled LGBTQ people, among others.


Before Stonewall (1985) – This documentary dives deep into the often-unheard history of the community prior to the 1969 Stonewall riots. This Emmy-award winning documentary covers multiple decades of the 20th century, including WWII and the resulting population shift to big cities and founding of queer neighborhoods, and Harlem nightclubs in the 1920s. Before Stonewall is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Brother Outsider: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (2003) – This documentary chronicles the life of Bayard Rustin, an openly gay African American man who worked for more than 50 years as an advocate for various human rights initiatives. He most famously advised Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and was the chief organizer of the 1963 March on WashingtonBrother Outsider is available to stream with a subscription to Sundance Now, the doc took home the GLAAD Media Award in Outstanding Documentary at the 15th Annual GLAAD Media Awards.

The Celluloid Closet (1995) – The documentary version of GLAAD co-founder Vito Russo's book of the same name, The Celluloid Closet documents the portrayal of LGBTQ characters in Hollywood. Ranging from the coded characters in early movies, to the effects of the Hays Code, to the more recent film of the 90s, The Celluloid Closet is still more than impactful today in how we think about the media's portrayal of LGBTQ people. The Celluloid Closet is available to rent or buy on Amazon and iTunes.

How to Survive a Plague (2012) – This Oscar-nominated documentary about early HIV and AIDS activists shows the extent of the AIDS crisis in America. The film is an unflinching look at how the activists behind groups like ACT UP and TAG formed and forced the medical establishment into action following its tragically stunted response to the HIV and AIDS crisis. How to Survive a Plague is available to stream on Netflix and Hulu. National Geographic recently announced they would be adapting director David France’s novel, which the documentary was adapted from, into a scripted miniseries.

L Word Mississippi: Hate the Sin (2014) – This documentary explores the challenges faced by lesbians living in the deep South, an often-overlooked section of the lesbian community. L Word Mississippi highlights the struggles these women go through, often times being outcast by their own communities or families, and why they stay instead of moving to a more accepting city or state. The documentary paints a real and compelling portrait of these individual women. L Word Mississippi is available to stream on Hulu or Amazon with a Showtime subscription.

Paris is Burning (1990) – Regarded as one of the most essential LGBTQ documentaries made to date, Paris is Burning explores the ball culture and drag house system of New York City in the late '80s. The doc features many black and Latinx gay and trans young people, and explores how the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality create a unique culture. Last year, the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry. Paris is Burning is available to stream on Netflix now. 

The State of Marriage (2015) – This documentary focuses on the the two-decade struggle for marriage equality in Vermont, particularly the efforts of Mary Bonauto of Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders and local attorneys Beth Robinson and Susan Murray. Vermont was the first state to introduce civil unions for same-sex couples in 2000 after the state Supreme Court heard the case on appeal by Bonauto, Robinson, and Murray. In 2009, Vermont became the first state to institute marriage equality by legislation. The State of Marriage is available to stream on Netflix.

Vito (2011) – Chronicling the life and work of GLAAD co-founder Vito Russo, the film follows Russo's life from his childhood to becoming a leading voice in the movement. The film’s producer/director Jeffrey Schwarz has uploaded all 13 episodes of Vito’s 1983 TV series Our Time to YouTube. The series covered LGBTQ history, drag, and the early days of the HIV and AIDS crisis. Vito is available to buy on iTunes.

We Were Here (2011) – This documentary tells the story of the gay community in San Francisco, and how it was affected and shaped by the HIV and AIDS crisis. The film is driven by stories told by the people living in San Francisco before, during, and after HIV and AIDS struck, their reflections on that heartbreaking time, and how the community bonded during that time of crisis. We Were Here is available to stream on Netflix.

We’ve Been Around (2016) – This series of documentary short films celebrate the lives of transgender pioneers throughout history. Episodes cover the Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR) co-founded by Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, Little Axe, Lou Sullivan, Albert Cashier, Lucy Hicks Anderson, and Camp Trans. We’ve Been Around will be acknowledged with a Special Recognition award at the 28th Annual GLAAD Media Awards; all episodes are available at WeveBeenAround.com.


And the Band Played On (1993) – Based on the book of the same name, And the Band Played On is an account of the doctors who investigated the early stages of the HIV and AIDS epidemic. The film shows the involvement of gay activists in the discovery of AIDS, and how many scientists were being stymied by lack of funding, institutionalized homophobia, and red tape. The Emmy-winning film And the Band Played On is available to stream on HBO Go and HBO Now.

Freeheld (2015) – This scripted film starring Ellen Page and Julianne Moore is based on the documentary of the same name about police Lieutenant Laurel Hester (Moore) who fought for her pension benefits to be extended to her partner Stacie Andree after she passed away. The documentary won the Best Short Documentary Oscar in 2008, and the adapted film was GLAAD Media Award- nominated. Freeheld is available to buy on Amazon or iTunes.

The Imitation Game (2014) – The film tells the story of mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), who created a decryption machine that cracked Nazi codes during WWII and eventually helped end the war.  That machine also happened to be a foundational invention for modern computers, but despite his monumental contributions to history, the fact that Turing was gay and publicly prosecuted for it long kept him from being recognized and celebrated by the public. Earlier this year in the UK, an act called the “Alan Turing Law” pardoned about 49,000 gay and bisexual men convicted under historical laws that criminalized them based on orientation. The Imitation Game is available to stream on Netflix.

Kinsey (2004) – The story of Alfred Charles Kinsey, Kinsey details how he went about conducting one of the first studies in human sexuality. Kinsey is most famous for creating the Kinsey scale; he was one of the first in the scientific community to promote the idea that there was more to sex and attraction than just exclusively straight or gay. Kinsey is available to purchase on iTunes.

Milk (2008) -  The Oscar-winning biographical film on Harvey Milk's life, Milk details the story of Milk's growing involvement in San Francisco politics and how he became one of the most prominent gay rights activists before his assassination. Milk honors his legacy as the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, and shares his legacy with a bigger audience. Dustin Lance Black, who created When We Rise, wrote Milk and told the story of another notable gay figure in the biopic Pedro about The Real World cast member Pedro Zamora. Milk is available to stream on Netflix.

This is only a fraction of the media that share some of the notable stories of LGBTQ history. When We Rise (airing at 9/8c on ABC Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday) chronicles the history of the LGBTQ community from the 1970s up to modern times through the stories of several advocates fighting for change in San Francisco and across the country.