LGBTQ History Month: 5 Essential Documentaries

October is LGBTQ History Month. Here are five documentaries that teach us the extraordinary accomplishment of activists for equality.
October is LGBTQ History Month. Here are five documentaries that teach us the extraordinary accomplishment of activists for equality. Benson Kua
October marks the beginning of LGBTQ History Month, a four-week look back on the events that have molded a community around the globe. Though June is over and the corporate hacks have pulled back on their pandering pride campaigns, there is still much to be celebrated about a community that has remained resilient even in the darkest of times.

Whether you are queer or a faithful ally, there are stories, told through documentaries, that shine a light on a colorful history. From the beginning of the modern-day queer rights movement, the AIDS epidemic, the growing ballroom scene that brought a community from out of the dark and a local bar in Fort Worth, these stories matter; they’re accessible and still vastly underrated.

The Times of Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk was well into his 40s when he decided to speak out and encourage a community to come out. Elected as one of the first queer state officials in America in 1977, Milk’s life and activism are captured in this candid documentary. Stationed in San Francisco’s historic Castro District, Milk garnered a movement in the city’s growing LGBTQ population and spoke of giving hope to the people who were still not ready to come out.

Milk was a former private-sector worker and Republican businessman who knew how to win over moderates and labor workers outside of his community. While remaining unapologetically himself, stigmas were erased and tolerance rose.

Milk’s life was covered in the 2008 film Milk, which gained Sean Penn an Oscar for the titular role. The Time of Harvey Milk’s non-dramatized version of his life gives a more authentic sense of who Milk truly was, through interviews with friends and former colleagues. Though his life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet only 11 months into his first term as a city supervisor, his message of hope remains.

How to Survive a Plague

Amazon Prime

Imagine this: A deadly disease strikes and kills thousands of Americans; all the while the Federal Government refuses to acknowledge its severity. The year is 1981, and AIDS has entered the United States of America.

The fight for queer equality took a fatal turn as HIV and AIDS claimed the lives of gay men across the country. In How to Survive a Plague, grassroots activists recount their experience in fighting for equitable health care access, the destigmatization of gay sex and a simple acknowledgment from their elected officials. The AIDS epidemic rose along with LGBTQ organizations like ACT UP and advocates from medical professionals like Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Countless lives are still lost to AIDS every day. But medical advancements have been made and visibility has eroded many prejudicial mindsets thanks in part to the activism and stories told in How to Survive a Plague.

Paris Is Burning
There is a moment in Paris Is Burning when two young gay boys stand outside the streets of New York City and explain what they are doing out so late at night. They have no family back at home. Being out in the streets where queer sex workers and drag performers tower with a demanding presence, is the closest thing these young boys have to family.

Family. That’s what Paris Is Burning is about, as the documentary shines a light on the ballroom scene in New York that today mirrors the plot of the FX hit series Pose. It's a largely Black and Afro Latinx scene, and the film tells the stories of vulnerable folks who have somehow found their way to New York. That ballroom hosts pageants, drag shows and music, allowing these undeniable groups of misfits to feel alive and accepted by people who love and look the same way they do.

Paris Is Burning is queer storytelling at its best. The culture rooted in the ballroom scene has now entered the mainstream without much acknowledgment as to where it began. That’s a shame. In order to really appreciate queer culture, Paris Is Burning is required viewing.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

One of the most prominent events in LGBTQ history was the Stonewall riots in 1969. Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender sex worker and self-identified drag queen, helped mobilize the riot when police officers raided the Stonewall Inn. Frustrated, Johnson and hundreds of queer folks fought back, increasing the visibility of the modern-day queer rights movement.

Yet for years after, despite her heroism and activism, Johnson continued to endure discrimination, as did most transgender people. She was found dead in 1992. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson investigates her cold case, which officials deemed a suicide. Friends and local activists attempt to help recount the events surrounding her death while looking back at the work and impact she made for trans people — especially trans people of color.

In light of the recent deaths of Black trans women in Dallas, it’s important to remember the risk and bravery it takes to simply be oneself. Say their names; the deaths and lives of Marsha P. Johnson, Chynal Lindsey and Muhlaysia Booker must be remembered.

Raid of the Rainbow Lounge
Amazon Prime

The fight for queer liberation doesn’t only happen in the streets of New York City of San Francisco. Fort Worth’s Rainbow Lounge, back before it burned to the ground, was a spot for local queer Texans to gather and express themselves without confiding to the heteronormative nature of suburban Texas.

The protected bubble that was the Rainbow Lounge was raided on June 28, 2009, 40 years after the Stonewall Riots.

Raid of the Rainbow Lounge describes the night when Fort Worth police conducted a violent incursion on the nightclub’s patrons, leaving several injured and one hospitalized. The documentary covers the struggle between local LGBTQ activists and the City of Fort Worth with local officials and police representatives refusing to acknowledge any wrongdoing.

Times have changed and reforms have been made in the city. Yet that raid, decades after Stonewall, only occurred 11 years ago. The LGBTQ community continues to face societal setbacks —  from the Pulse nightclub massacre to Supreme Court Justices voicing favor of repealing marriage equality. The struggle continues today, but with help from our past, we can learn from the lessons of yesterday and apply them to tomorrow.
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Jacob Reyes is an arts and culture intern for the Dallas Observer. At his alma mater, the University of Texas at Arlington, Reyes was the life and entertainment editor for the student publication The Shorthorn. His passion for writing and reporting includes covering underrepresented communities in the arts.