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Five Great Documentaries About Recent Queer History

Updated on August 12, 2013
I normally look more enthusiastic than this, I promise.
I normally look more enthusiastic than this, I promise.

Learning About LGBT+ Love

I'm a baby queer: I only recently came out as not straight, and I have barely started the process of learning about the vast group of diverse people encompassed by the queer community. Part of that learning process is finding out who came before, hearing their stories, and expressing gratitude for the work they did to make the world safer for today's queer kids. I deeply appreciate the people whose stories are told in the following five films.

[Warning: Some of these documentaries are "not safe for work". All of them cover homophobic and transphobic material that may be triggering. Proceed with caution if you are sensitive to those things. Kids In Mind is a good resource to use when evaluating whether a film will upset you.]

Gendernauts: A Journey Through Shifting Identities

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Gendernauts was made by the inimitable Monika Treut in the late 1990s, and it is about the time when it was filmed. The Wikipedia article offers a good one-sentence summary of the movie: "It shows us a group of artists in San Francisco who live between the poles of conventional gender identities." These individuals offer the viewers a glimpse into their lives and identities as gender non-conforming people.

I chose to list Gendernauts first because queer identities are heavily reliant on ideas and structures of gender. In fact, without gender (and specifically the oppressive gender binary), queerness does not exist! Unfortunately, due to this reliance on constructed gender concepts, many queer identities and spaces exclude or are hostile to trans* people. Gendernauts is a movie that profiles individuals who challenge commonplace assumptions about gender with their very existence. By sharing their realities on film, these people can help expand or explode the viewer's own ideas about gender.

With all that said, I want to note that the film's profile on Monika Treut's website is actually quite transphobic: "[Gendernauts] is a film about cyborgs, people who alter their bodies and minds with new technologies and chemistry, with an emphasis on biological women who use the male sexual hormone testosterone." Characterizing trans* people as "cyborgs" is horrifyingly wrong; trans* people are just as human as cis people. That bears repeating: trans* people are regular human beings. Furthermore, "biological women" is outdated terminology--the word "women" cannot be divorced from gender; it is a word that both denotes and imposes gender. "AFAB" or "assigned female at birth" is a much more accurate and respectful term. Furthermore, the idea that there are "biological women" and trans women, that these are two separate categories of kinds of women, is simply absurd. Trans women's bodies are just as biological as cis women's bodies. In addition, describing testosterone as "the male sexual hormone" is also offensive, for similar reasons: many trans women and trans*feminine people produce testosterone; using the word "male" to describe their bodies is harmful. Linguistic protection of the legitimacy of trans* identities is crucial to building a safer, happier world.

So anyway, Gendernauts is kind of transphobic, even though it's a groundbreaking movie about trans* identities. Still definitely worth watching, in my opinion.

We Were Here: The AIDS Years in San Francisco

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Like Gendernauts, We Were Here is a film about queer people in San Francisco, but We Were Here is about the lives of cis gay men two decades earlier. The documentary is a deeply touching, tragic film that pulls together anecdotal interviews and archival footage to tell the story of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. The movie's website reads, "We Were Here documents [...] the 'Gay Plague' in the early 1980s. It illuminates the profound personal and community issues raised by the AIDS epidemic as well as the broad political and social upheavals it unleashed." Although this summary paints in broad strokes, the film is most brilliant when it creates intimacy between the subjects and the viewers. The men on my screen cried for their lost friends and lovers, and I cried with them. As the website says, "[We Were Here] opens a window of understanding to those who have only the vaguest notions of what transpired in those years." Watching this documentary allowed me to pay my respects to some of the people who lived and worked in that terrifying time, and to better understand the continuing struggle for healthcare justice for AIDS victims, whether they be queer or straight, and for all LGBT+ people.

Paris Is Burning

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Wikipedia's introductory summary of Paris Is Burning is basically perfect: "Paris Is Burning is a 1990 documentary film directed by Jennie Livingston. Filmed in the mid-to-late 1980s, it chronicles the ball culture of New York City and the African American, Latino, gay and transgender communities involved in it. Many members of the ball culture community consider Paris Is Burning to be an invaluable documentary of the end of the 'Golden Age' of New York City drag balls, as well as a thoughtful exploration of race, class, gender, and sexuality in America."

Perhaps, after reading that, you are wondering what "ball culture" means. I would explain, but I would rather tell you to go watch Paris Is Burning right now. No, seriously, watch it. It's a really, really, really good film.

Mutantes: Punk Porn Feminism

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According to The Austin Chronicle, "Mutantes: Punk, Porn, Feminism [...] follows the rise of pro-sex feminism through the Eighties and Nineties with a dozen interviews of [sic] scene pioneers who sought to debunk the implied nature of the porn industry. Peppered in are adult film clips that paint an unapologetic picture. It's an illuminating thesis on power and the role of women in pornography, often written off by classic feminism as inherently counter to the movement." The film's director is Virginie Despentes, a French writer, filmmaker, and former sex worker. You may be thinking, "Hey, this movie sounds like it has more to do with sex work than queer history!" Au contraire, my friend. For one thing, the two are inextricably linked: there have always been queer sex workers and sex work has always involved queer people. For example, what do you think homeless queer youth do to support themselves? Furthermore, the late great Marsha P. Johnson comes to mind as an important activist for LGBT+ rights who also happened to be a sex worker. If you want lots of pages to read, there is "Sex Work and Queer Politics in Three Acts", an article by Svati P. Shah. I can't totally vouch for that article, because I haven't read the whole thing, but what I did read seemed on point.

Anyway, Mutantes is an interesting documentary. Check it out.

Queens of Heart: Community Therapists in Drag

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The Queens of Heart website describes it thus: "This [...] documentary brings to the screen the first psychological study of drag performance, set in the oldest surviving female impersonation club in the United States. Seventy-five year old Darcelle XV comforts and confronts her audiences, from the brides gone wild and their nervous male companions, to gays and lesbians celebrating a step in coming out. [Queens of Heart] takes viewers behind the scenes, showing how the work of drag requires a deep understanding of human psychology." If that doesn't make you want to watch this documentary, I'm a little confused as to why you read this far in my article.

And. . .

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You're read about all five of the documentaries that I had in mind. Let me know what you think of my list? Or, better still: watch the films, then come back and tell me what you think of them!

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