Things have changed a lot when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation over the last few decades, but it’s taken a lot of work behind the scenes from people pushing to make it better. From the moral panic films of yesteryear to the pioneering works of the New Queer Cinema all the way up to the present day, it’s been a long and winding road to get better representation on our screens. As we continue to push for better diversity in portrayals of LGBTQ+ people, it’s always timely to take a moment to think about how truly far we have come by celebrating a few of our favorites.
Nicole Maines has been doing incredible work on Supergirl as the superhero Dreamer, but fans of Maines’ work should not miss her in Bit. Our protagonist Laurel arrives in LA ready to make a new start after years of upheaval only to run into a small group of queer feminist vampires. Taking the delightful subgenre of the “lesbian vampire” and giving it new life by injecting humor and parody into the mix, Bit is a romp through genre tropes that is never afraid to let its hair down and party.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2020)
The story begins with an art teacher named Marianne, surprised when one of her students pulls out her Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Her students ask for an explanation as to who the painting is of and why it was kept hidden in a back room. We are sent to the past, in which Marianne first met the object of the painting, a young woman named Heloise who was pulled out of her convent to be wed to a man she’s never met. Marianne is commissioned to paint Heloise so that her future husband will know what she looks like before he agrees to marry her. As Marianne and Heloise fall in love, their doomed affair takes on epic proportions, ultimately becoming a commentary on the nature of storytelling and why the erasure of women’s history matters. From beginning to end, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an absolute masterpiece.
Among the most critically-acclaimed LGBTQ+ movies of all time, Moonlight takes us through the painful homophobia that shaped our protagonist Chiron’s early years. Nicknamed “Little” and bullied by an abusive mother as well as kids at school, Chiron’s life is a struggle that he only survives by becoming hard as nails. Years later, he has a chance to make things work with his crush from his early years, but learning to let down his defenses again with someone who truly hurt him after years of hardship becomes his biggest challenge yet.
The Handmaiden (2016)
Sarah Waters has long been known for creating queer, nonlinear historical fiction novels. Her book Fingersmith was adapted to film in 2005, but it gained a new life as The Handmaiden in 2016. Making some changes to tighten up the plot, switching the locale to Japan-occupied Korea, and infusing more explicit sexuality into the mix, The Handmaiden manages to improve on what was already a pretty great movie. When a young worker becomes tied up in a plot to institutionalize a rich man’s niece and steal her money, she has only to follow the plan that has been laid out for her by the wicked Count Fujiwara. Yet, after meeting the enigmatic Hideko and falling under her spell, everything changes, and the two find themselves struggling to free themselves of an oppressive system in which powerful men subjugate and use women to further their own plans.
Freshly out of a brief stint in jail, Sin-Dee Rella is infuriated when her friend Alexandra informs her that her boyfriend Chester has been cheating on her while she was away. Sin-Dee vows revenge, but that’s not exactly what this movie is about. Focusing on the lives of Black trans sex workers, Tangerine gave us a painful, beautiful, tragically hopeful and unbelievably real take on day-to-day life for the women that our society tries its hardest to forget about. Captivating performances and compelling character arcs are just the icing on the cake for this incredible film.
All About My Mother (1999)
After Manuela’s teen son dies tragically young, she travels to find his other parent, a trans woman named Lola who she never told about their child. Reuniting with her old friend Agrado, Manuela meets a dynamic new cast of characters while trying to process her profound grief. Pedro Almodovar is known for creating subversive art films with hearts of gold, and that’s exactly what makes All About My Mother work as well as it does. These characters struggle and they aren’t perfect, but there is a sincerity of experience that carries us through.
Teenage Alike slowly comes into her own as a butch lesbian while dealing with aggressive homophobia at home. Her parents care about her but they struggle to accept her. Yet, even as Alike must learn to draw boundaries and distance herself from the people who have hurt her, Pariah is much more about her story of growth. Watching Alike learn to experience the new euphoria that comes with her newfound expressions of queerness is nothing short of revelatory. Incredible cinematography, insightful dialogue, and devastating performances from its cast make Pariah a film that is impossible to forget.
The Watermelon Woman (1996)
Cheryl Dunye is easily one of the most important filmmakers in LGBTQ+ cinematic history and her feature The Watermelon Woman is rightfully considered a classic. Becoming obsessed with an actor who played stereotypical “maid” roles referred to in credits only as The Watermelon Woman, Cheryl dives into the vaults in hopes of finding out more and ends up learning a lot about herself along the way. Commenting on racism as well as homophobia in the mid-’90s while never forgetting to celebrate the individual joys of Black queerness, The Watermelon Woman manages to be equal parts endearing, complicated, and hilarious all while operating on a shoestring budget.
The Boys in the Band (2020)
An adaptation of the groundbreaking 1968 play and the subsequent 1970 film, The Boys in the Band was brought to a new generation with the 2020 remake. Our protagonist Michael is attending his friend Donald’s birthday party, but Michael invites a friend from college who doesn’t know he’s gay. This leads to a night of revelations that tell us everything about where the characters are at and what they’re all going through as gay men in the late ‘60s. Part of what makes The Boys in the Band such an incredible film is the way it shows an ensemble of actors having unique and individual stories while focusing on a single night in which they just so happen to be gathered together in celebration. The 2020 remake was able to include an openly-gay cast, which adds an extra authenticity.
Easily one of the most underrated superhero shows, Black Lightning combines great acting, solid scripts, a soundtrack to die for, and an element of the fantastic to create one of the CW network's very best. All the characters on this show are a lot of fun, but there’s no overselling eldest Pierce child Anissa and her partner Grace, whose romance mostly took a backseat to the more pressing world of superheroics for the first couple seasons. As Grace’s complicated and traumatic backstory was revealed, the trials were too much and the two broke up, but ultimately reunited. Grace and Anissa are a complicated couple who have experienced a lot of ups and downs, but by resisting giving them a pat love story, Black Lightning has given us one of the more compelling combined character arcs in television.
Legends of Tomorrow
While a lot of shows struggle to portray a single queer character or relationship, Legends of Tomorrow has spent six seasons delivering a handful of TV’s very best. From the hopelessly romantic Avalance (Ava Sharpe and Sara Lance) to the doomed connection between John Constantine and Desmond and the epic love of Leo and Ray, this is a series that truly shows up for the gays. A constantly rotating cast, bizarre cosmic threats, and a willingness to embrace the weirdness of superheroes infuse Legends of Tomorrow with a sense of humor and fun, but its characters are what makes it truly great.
If Buffy the Vampire Slayer's powers waited until she was in her late twenties to kick in after she’d made a whole lot of catastrophic life choices, she’d be Wynonna Earp. A descendant of Wyatt Earp granted with a magical demon-killing gun called Peacemaker, Wynonna and her sister Waverly team up to protect the world from various demonic threats. There’s a lot going on with this series and it is a true delight from beginning to end, but there’s no denying that a major part of its appeal is the love story between Waverly and Nicole Haught. When we meet Waverly, she’s in a dead-end relationship with a guy that doesn’t treat her right, but by the end of the series she’s married the love of her love and gained a profound sense of confidence and inner peace, making hers one of the most genuinely positive coming out stories in genre.
Lingua Franca (2019)
Following an undocumented Filipino trans woman named Olivia as she evades dangerous anti-immigration law enforcement and cares for an elderly woman named Olga, Lingua Franca covers so many complicated identity issues so effortlessly that it’s nothing short of stunning. Equal parts beautiful and devastating, covering issues of transphobia as well as harmful anti-immigration laws, Lingua Franca centers on incredible performances and seemingly minor interactions that tell us everything about how difficult it is for Olivia simply to get by day-to-day.
Based in sitcom genre tropes established decades back with shows like Green Acres, Schitt’s Creek might have been a flash-in-the-pan if it weren’t for the incredible comedic timing of longtime comedy partners Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy, raw talent from relative newcomers Dan Levy and Annie Murphy, and the truly stunning level of heart that went into the series. Beginning as a somewhat lightweight comedy in which a rich family is thrown into poverty, it ended as one of the most sincere sitcoms of all time. Managing to be one of the funniest shows to air in recent years while including a beautiful love story between main characters Patrick and David is just one reason why Schitt’s Creek will go down in TV history.
Get the What to Watch Newsletter
The latest updates, reviews and unmissable series to watch and more!
Sara Century started writing through personal and music zines and pretty much just ran with it. She loves a lot of things, including but not limited to pets, comics, museums, libraries, and horror novels. She's the co-host of the podcast Bitches On Comics and the co-founder of the Decoded Pride queer speculative fiction anthology.