A look back at the rich diversity of our lives: LGBTQ films from 2016

In a year that seemed to pit people against each other by the very intersections of our personal identity, 2016 also proved that storytelling can often be the glue that binds our humanity together at the seams. GLAAD President & CEO Sarah Kate Ellis wrote in a Guest Column within The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year:

"What we know to be true at GLAAD is that images matter. Onscreen images of diverse characters and storylines are usually society's first entree into understanding a community that doesn't look like them or act like them."

Entertainment media reflects who we are as a people; whether we exist with dignity as whole and complete individuals or are erased from the landscape and become invisible.  By empowering LGBTQ people to share their rich and diverse stories across all media platforms, we accelerate acceptance at home and across the globe, especially in places where simply being out can be a life or death proposition.

Here is a look at scripted and documentary films from this past year that shined a light on LGBTQ lives through the lens of race, culture, ethnicity, age and disability.


On the heels of the December 9 announcement that the Cherokee National would now recognize same-sex marriage, there was a resurgence of First Nation and Aboriginal LGBTQ documentaries and scripted film.  In Fire Song, Adam Garnet Jones created a powerful and deeply moving tale about a young, queer First Nations man forced to choose between his community and the world outside.  The film tells the story of Shane, a gay Anishnaabe teenager in Northern Ontario, struggling to support his family in the aftermath of his sister’s suicide, and maintaining a relationship with his secret boyfriend.


Over twenty years since Madonna brought together an incredibly gifted and diverse group of male dancers, choreographing explosive dance numbers in her acclaimed and controversial Blond Ambition Tour of 1990, Strike a Pose reunites survivors of this talented corps of artists to not only relive that seminal moment in culture, but to make sense of the many changes in their lives after the spotlight moved on.


Placing the power of music and dance front and center, ever-vibrant in its flamboyant optimism, the award-winning documentary KIKI follows seven queer youth-of-color from the Kiki ball community in New York City over the course of four years.  In righteously creative anger, they battle homelessness, illness and prejudice by gathering in ballrooms, on the streets and in subways to express their affirmation of life through the artistic activist subculture named the Kiki Scene.


The transformative power of music plays a central role in this festival favorite set in Cuba by Irish director Paddy Breathnach.  Against the backdrop of a Havana nightclub, VIVA explores the relationship between an estranged father and the son who dreams of being a performer in an effort to liberate his dreams as the two clash over opposing expectations of each other.


Featured within this year’s FiveFilms4Freedom series, a highly successful digital LGBTQ film festival pioneered by the British Council and the British Film Institute and promoted by GLAAD, Xavier (Brazil) is a short piece about a father who notices that his 11 year old son is paying as much attention to slightly older boys as he does to his drum set.  The boys and the father share their love of music, trust and family connection.


Often overlooked in film are the stories of LGBTQ seniors and elderly couples who defied society’s thoughts of what defined a “traditional” relationship by staying together for decades.  Cecil & Clark had been partners for 43 years, 8 months, 1 week and 4 days when shooting started for this short documentary.  We meet and get to know Cecil after Carl has been moved to a care facility for the onset of dementia, separated for the first time in their many years together.


How far would you go to be with the love of your life? The documentary Out of Iraq answers this through a journey of love, sacrifice and courage.  In 2003, in the midst of war, in a country where even being perceived as gay could mean a death sentence, two Iraqi men meet by chance and fall in love.  Nayef, a translator for the U.S. military, and Btoo, a soldier in the Iraqi army, face persecution – and possible death – if they stay in their homeland.  After obtaining a visa, Nayyef leaves his love behind, and what follows is a tale of love, commitment from afar and the desire to live and love without fear.


If there was a movie this year that warmed your heart with the infectious spirit of love, laughter and resilience, Margarita with a Straw was that film.  Out bisexual director Shonali Bose tells the story of an Indian teenager with cerebral palsy who ventures to New York City for the education and respect denied her in Delhi University.  With a scholarship to NYU, she meets and falls in love with a Pakistani Bangladeshi young woman who is blind.  The movie revolves around her love of family, those around her and, ultimately, her love of self.


GLAAD concludes this retrospective with three different films shining a light on similar core truths of identity, acceptance and family.  Set against New York City’s slick and cutthroat fashion world, global festival favorite  Front Cover  is a film by Hong Kong director Ray Yeung which tells the story of a Chinese American stylist Ryan Fu and Beijing film star Ning who over the course of preparing for a major photo shoot develop a mutual attraction, forcing both men to confront their own buried feelings on race and sexuality at a personal cost.


Mobilizing working-class transgender hairdressers and beauty queens, the dynamic leaders of the world’s only LGBTQ political party wage a historic quest to elect a trans woman to the Philippine Congress.  In Out Run, S. Leo Chiang and Johnny Symons document their historic journey to “Make Politics Fierce!”


Finally, one of the year’s most lauded films, winning the Special Jury Prize at Sundance and the Grand Jury Award at Outfest, director Andrew Ahn’s  Spa Night  follows David, a closeted Korean-American teenager who takes a job at a Korean spa to help his struggling family, only to discover an underground world of gay sex at the spa that both scares and excites him.  In a 2015 interview with NPR’s Code Switch, Ahn talked about bringing worlds together in this film:

“The film is a way for me to forge a queer Korean-American identity, to find these situations where the two cultures aren't separate, but they co-exist. It's this question of being whole. That for me is what causes the tension, and is the point of the film. Korean Americans, Asian Americans, are sexual beings, and some of them are gay.”