There comes a moment in every queer child’s life when their young mind starts to stir. It might happen while watching a movie at a sleepover or in the quietude of a darkened theater. Staring at the screen, something curious and exciting occurs, a response that often cannot be defined because the appropriate words aren’t accessible yet.
For much of the past century, that was how LGBTQ fledglings confirmed they weren’t alone in their experiences: through popular culture, however imperfect it may be.
To say that cinema’s queer history is fraught would be an understatement. But even in the early days of Hollywood, LGBTQ audiences found kinship through movies and television. Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich kissed women on-screen in the 1930s, and filmmakers ever since have tackled queerness in profound, titillating and insulting ways.
By my count, there are four types of queer-awakening movies:
Coming-of-age depictions built around sex and romance, often involving characters who are discovering or coming to terms with their own potential queerness (“Heavenly Creatures,” “Pariah,” “Call Me by Your Name”)
Slice-of-life stories that show queer people embracing their identities in spite of the world around them (“The Boys in the Band,” “Longtime Companion,” “The Kids Are All Right”)
Megahits that bring queerness into the mainstream (“The Color Purple,” “Philadelphia,” “The Birdcage”)
Movies with camp eccentricities, gay icons or coded queerness (“Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” anything starring Judy Garland)
With Pride Month arriving, I wanted to know what shaped today’s LGBTQ directors, so I asked a number of filmmakers and showrunners to reflect on the first queer or queer-adjacent movie they fell in love with. Their selections had little overlap, spanning a variety of sensibilities — everything from “All That Jazz” and “The Wiz” to ”Midnight Cowboy” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” — and demonstrating the dynamism of the queer experience.
Below are the 40 responses I received, mostly by email. They are lightly edited for grammar, clarity and length.
Gus Van Sant (“My Own Private Idaho,” “Milk”)
His pick: “Pink Flamingos”
This film was, at the time (1972), an outrageous, willful, cheap crowd-pleaser. The crowd at the time was a very ragamuffin midnight crowd in New York City that showed me that the counterculture, in some places, had taken over and had its own values and brain. It was a gay culture essentially, but not a mainstream gay culture. It had a cast of gay pirates as far as I could tell, which was inspiring for me. It also showed that modern communication could be held in the hands of the gay fashion pirates: John Waters, Divine and Mink Stole.
Jill Soloway (“Transparent,” “I Love Dick”)
Their pick: “Working Girls”
As someone who really didn’t identify as queer or trans until waaaaay after I started seeing movies, I’ll talk about a movie that vibrated me to my very core. I wanna shout out Lizzie Borden and her 1986 film “Working Girls” (not “Working Girl” with Melanie Griffith!). Borden brought us straight into the heart of a brothel in Manhattan and just sat down in the lives of these amazing sex workers. Tupperware lunches and all. She answered my unnamed yearning to see content that did not come from the straight male gaze, that did not seek to flatter men. Seeing how Borden spent unfiltered time in the daily lives of sex workers was a very small but incredibly powerful bolt of lightning for me about the kind of work I wanted to do with art and film. Maybe I didn’t even quite know it yet. Maybe all I knew was that I was seeing something that no one had ever captured before. A kind of truth about being female and being human.
Bill Condon (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Dreamgirls”)
His pick: “Bonnie and Clyde”
One of the advantages of growing up in New York in the late ’60s was that lots of movie theaters were too run-down (or empty) to bother enforcing the ratings system. Which is how I managed to see “Bonnie and Clyde” four or five times as a 12-year-old, despite its R rating. It was the first movie I discovered on my own and the first I fell in love with. I was already a film geek, so I knew the movie was considered groundbreaking. But my personal obsession had more to do with the ambiguous sexuality of Clyde, as played by the stunningly beautiful Warren Beatty. Years later, I learned that in David Newman and Robert Benton’s original screenplay, Clyde was bisexual and involved in a ménage à trois with Bonnie and C.W. (played by Michael J. Pollard). Beatty ordered the subplot removed — but somehow enough of the intention survived that even a barely pubescent gay boy could revel in it. For this gift, as well as the introduction to the glorious icon known as Faye Dunaway, I will always think of “Bonnie and Clyde” as my first gay movie experience.
Jamie Babbit (“Silicon Valley,” “But I’m a Cheerleader”)
Her pick: “Heavenly Creatures”
“Heavenly Creatures” was a big inspiration to me. It shows lesbian love as wild, dangerous, even murderous! Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet give unbelievable performances, and Peter Jackson’s Claymation operatic orgy sequence was pure creative bliss for this Midwestern queerdo. “Heavenly Creatures” belongs on every dyke’s short list!
Steven Canals (“Pose”)
His pick: “The Color Purple”
Often overlooked when discussing the queer cinematic canon, Steven Spielberg’s film, based on Alice Walker’s sublime Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, has been one of my favorites since its release. In college, as I struggled with accepting my queer identity, I sought solace in film (despite rarely seeing accurate depictions of queer people of color). As I embraced my truth, “The Color Purple” was the first film to provide clarity. Though I’d seen it many times before, Celie’s journey, and specifically her kiss with Shug Avery, took on a deeper, richer meaning. Like that kiss did for Celie, the film empowered me to own my identity.
Kyle Patrick Alvarez (“Homecoming,” “The Stanford Prison Experiment”)
His pick: “The Talented Mr. Ripley”
There’s hardly any way to praise this movie that hasn’t been done already, but this one was particularly special to me. It wasn’t the first queer movie I saw, but certainly the first I saw in theaters and on opening day. I was completely unaware of the story and unprepared for how sexual it was going to be. The way the story wove a queer character into a classic genre thriller stunned me. In a way, the movie’s accessibility also allowed me to appreciate the movie on the surface to people while also being able to covertly enjoy how gay it was (that bathtub scene). I could “hide” my appreciation of the movie behind its genre without giving myself away. It certainly contributed to the drive and interest I have in telling queer stories that intersect with otherwise more accessible filmmaking. The Trojan-horse quality of bringing an audience in on the basis of one expectation while delivering on a total other was what stuck with me the most.
Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “Carrie”)
I always say Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2” is my favorite movie and that it made me a director. “8 1/2” expressed desire in ways I yearned to express but had never seen in any art form. It burst open a door of opportunity of what could be done and how. I revisited this beloved movie during quarantine. I was stunned. It’s gorgeous, free, powerful and deeply reflective of my aspirations to make art about human relationships and sexuality, and also reflective of both my 13-year-old and current self.
I loved women. Marcello Mastroianni as Guido loved and was loved by women of all kinds, beauty idols he unearthed from prior cinema days. Marcello felt his desire and acted freely — in and beyond marriage. I wanted to move through the world as an elegant 1960s Italian male. Handsome Marcello, with his sweeping silver-fox hair, in his Martini slim-fit black suit, thin black tie, crisp white shirt and overcoat, became my avatar.
As Marcello visits a 1930s Italian spa, he recalls a seminal moment when desire led him and other boys to escape Catholic school and run down the beach. A full-bodied woman with voluptuous bosom and wild hair emerges from a stone hut. Young Marcello offers her a coin and asks her to “dance the rumba.” She slowly exposes her shoulders and mountainous breasts, then sways her hips and dances. The boys jump wildly as she pulls young Marcello into a dance and lifts him into the air.
Like Marcello and the boys (and the film itself), I was wild with excitement and desire ― sensual and sexual. And then it all comes crashing down. The priests, like Keystone Cops, scramble in, grab Marcello, then shame and castigate him. This is a traumatic moment. His desire is pure, but he is haunted by the feeling he is sinning in society’s eyes. He replays this memory over and over.
Of course, as straight men, Marcello, Guido and Fellini’s desire is codified as the norm, and that brings all kinds of benefits and ease regarding being comfortable in their gendered body and attracting women. But my homo and trans-ish 13-year-old self latched onto our commonality of shame and Fellini’s wonderful identification with and depiction of THE LOVER ― loving desire and the imagination. Society and many movies make you feel sexual desire is wrong. Not Fellini. He makes you feel it is oh-so-right. I had no homo and/or trans cinema examples when I was young, so I enveloped myself in Fellini, shapeshifting in order to satisfy my desire and express myself until I could make my own story, “Boys Don’t Cry.”
Adam Shankman (“Hairspray,” “The Wedding Planner”)
His pick: “Longtime Companion”
The year was 1990, and I was just coming out of the closet. Coming out to people outside of my inner circle was perhaps less painful for me than for others in that my family and close friends supported and loved me, but as a survivor of childhood sexual orientation trauma (better left for another article) and the terrifying reality of the exploding AIDS crisis, I was like a tiny rowboat being bludgeoned and buffeted about in a dark catastrophic storm. The port that I found during that time appeared in the brilliant Norman René-directed “Longtime Companion,” written by Craig Lucas.
The movie was frank, beautifully directed, emotionally devastating and, ultimately, a cathartic and hopeful master class in empathy, community and connection. The sensitive acting, the observational style of shooting, the music and that beautiful script became an anchor for me at a time when I was so confused and seeking a sense of safety and meaning when there was very little to be found in New York City, where I was living as a young dancer attempting to fulfill my own small dreams and discover how I fit into the world when I was told by society writ large that I was an aberration. It was a miracle. It depicted people like me struggling to be happy in an out-of-control and dangerous world. I will never be able to adequately thank the filmmakers and the studio for this movie.
Liz Feldman (“Dead to Me,” “One Big Happy”)
Her pick: “When Night Is Falling”
The first lesbian movie I fell head-over-combat-boots in love with was “When Night Is Falling.” Written and directed by Patricia Rozema, this offbeat, charming 1995 film about a beautiful Christian college professor who falls for an equally beautiful circus performer rocked my tiny gay world. I was 18, newly out of the closet, and I saw it three times at the Angelika, my favorite art house theater in New York City. I had never seen a lesbian movie before, let alone a lesbian love scene. And this lesbian love scene? This was an exquisitely shot lesbian love scene set against the backdrop of a dark, quirky Canadian circus. If I had to categorize it, “When Night Is Falling” is like Cirque du Soleil meets “Blue Is the Warmest Color” if it had been directed by a lesbian. And that is what makes “When Night Is Falling” so resonant: It’s shot from a lesbian gaze, and I can still picture it perfectly.
Charles Rogers (“Search Party,” “Fort Tilden”)
His pick: “Addams Family Values”
I feel pretty lucky to have grown up a gay kid in the early ’90s. There was this window of time from the mid-’80s to mid-’90s when movies embraced camp and went back to their Blake Edwards origins. We perfected the genre but then for some reason acted like none of it ever happened and made way for a big wave of self-conscious boy humor that’s still with us today. But for that brief and exquisite period, we got “Addams Family Values.”
Not only is it one of the few instances of a sequel being better than its original, it’s also a pitch-perfect lesson in camp. Writers are often told that if you have a crazy world, you need a normal character to see it through the eyes of, but in “Addams Family Values,” even the normal characters are as crazy as the Addamses. There’s a scene wherein Joan Cusack’s character spends her first night at the Addams’ (on the exact same evening that she interviews to become their nanny) and is locked in a terrifying jail cell for a bedroom. Lo and behold, her first instinct is to cozy up on her soiled cot in a silk peach nighty and sexily feed herself chocolates. She just so happens to catch a news segment on the small TV in her room explaining that her character is a highly wanted professional black widow, which just makes her grin deliciously and slip another chocolate into her mouth. I mean, could there have been a better comedy for queer kids at that time? As queer artists, we get to orient our audience in a world they might not feel welcome in if it were real, giving them a little taste of how we felt when we were little. Even though this movie might not be overtly queer, a lot of things are that way, and there is something very special about that.
Andrew Haigh (“Weekend,” “45 Years”)
His pick: “Beautiful Thing”
In 1996, I was 23 and still deep in the closet. I was working as an usher at the National Film Theatre in London, and “Beautiful Thing” by Hettie Macdonald was having its world premiere at the Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. I’d organized to be working that day so I could see it without having to buy a ticket. I figured having to buy a ticket would give me away. The film itself is wonderful — hilarious, heartfelt and genuine. When the movie ended, and everyone was up in their seats cheering, I sat there with tears running down my face. It was the first time I felt that being openly gay was an actual possibility for me, and, more than that, it could be a beautiful thing. I came out to everyone soon after. So thank you to The Mamas and the Papas for their soundtrack and to Hettie Macdonald for the film.
Justin Simien (“Dear White People,” “Bad Hair”)
It’s not overtly queer, but between Diana Ross’ periwinkle house dress, a plot centering on the acquisition of a pair of pumps and Ted Ross’ boy-diva version of the Lion, “The Wiz” awakened some part of my queer heart that can never quite go back to sleep. The Emerald City sequence alone might be why I’m gay, or at least why I know in my heart that being gay is beautiful. Something about a near 10-minute sequence of fancy Black people (and robots, I think) discoing to Quincy Jones and shading each other via rap in the perpetual worship of the traffic-light colors told me not to be afraid. OK, maybe it was little overt.
Andrew Fleming (“Dick,” “The Craft”)
His picks: “That Certain Summer,” “Cabaret,” “Cruising” and “After Hours”
I remember watching the ABC Movie of the Week “That Certain Summer” with my mother. It was slow and talky, but Martin Sheen was so handsome. That same year, my mother took me to see “Cabaret” (was she trying to make me gay or what?). That movie rocked my world; it was filled with witty and pretty young people having sex with each other and not worrying about who was gay or straight. I think I unconsciously managed to re-create that three-way relationship in college, and then I made a movie out of it, but that’s another story.
Looking back, it wasn’t until “Cruising” that I felt like I’d seen myself or a world I wanted to inhabit. It was sexy and not the least bit scary — I’m sure in part because my sister was dating Richard Cox, who played the killer. Not kidding. Anyway, I moved to Greenwich Village the year after “Cruising” came out and went to places like The Anvil and The Mineshaft. The Village was great back then. Of course, it would all change very soon, but it was beautiful while it lasted. One gay on-screen moment I will never forget was when Martin Scorsese showed two hot leather-clad men seriously making out in a bar in “After Hours” with nonchalant straight men standing around them. I had such a crush on those gay guys. That movie was a mixture of artful insanity and dark humor that I’d never seen before. I think I have been trying to make that movie ever since I first saw it.
Dustin Lance Black (“When We Rise,” “Virginia”)
His pick: “My Own Private Idaho”
I left home at 17, headed for college in Southern California, deeply in the closet and desperately in love with River Phoenix. With hundreds of miles between us, my mom could no longer police my video rental choices. So, my first L.A. pick was Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho.” I didn’t know there was anything queer about it, just that River was in it. In went the VHS tape. Out came River and Keanu pinching nipples. Torso, Honcho, Male Call and Joyboy magazines came to life. My eyes were saucers. Then, a heartbreaking campfire admission that my own caged heart understood all too well. A call to action. This was the first LGBTQ film I ever saw. It freed me. Sixteen years later, Gus and I would team up to make our own queer films. Queer dreams can come true. Thank you, River.
Nisha Ganatra (“The High Note,” “Late Night”)
Her picks: “Henry & June” and “Heavenly Creatures”
We were such little kids, and we should not have been watching these movies, but I think someone who ended up being my girlfriend snuck them away from her parents’ shelf: “Henry & June” and “Heavenly Creatures.” We watched them around the same time. Those two movies felt like intense girlfriend relationships. With Kate Winslet in “Heavenly Creatures,” of course, you’re like, “Who is this brilliant person?” And “Henry & June” has a smoky Uma Thurman coming out of that gauzy lens and kissing the other woman. Those two movies made a pretty big impact.
Jeffrey Schwarz (“Tab Hunter Confidential,” “I Am Divine”)
His pick: “The Boys in the Band”
I love “The Boys in the Band,” the film version of Mart Crowley’s play about a group of pre-Stonewall gay friends gathering for a drunken birthday party. The first time I saw it as a closeted teenager on late-night TV, it was kind of terrifying, since I didn’t know any gay people, and these guys seemed positively miserable and reveled in tearing each other down. But now I can see the humor, the brilliantly drawn characters, the friendship and camaraderie and a vividly depicted time capsule of the moment right before gay liberation exploded.
Paris Barclay (“In Treatment,” “Glee”)
His pick: “Midnight Cowboy”
I was 13 years old when I slipped into the Nortown Theater in my hometown of Chicago Heights, Illinois, to see “Midnight Cowboy.” Had I known it received its X rating due to the “homosexual frame of reference” and “possible influence upon youngsters,” I likely would have gone sooner.
I was clearly a precocious and curious kid, and though I had very little experience with the kind of situations that exploded before my eyes in that film, it transfixed me. The questions of identity, the rueful intertwining of sex and money and most of all the love affair between these two haunted, confused and deeply flawed characters just blew my still-in-formation mind. There was so much in that film I hadn’t seen but wanted to —and most of it was tawdry, dark and, to me, extremely attractive.
As a storyteller now, I look back on it and realize: Director John Schlesinger, writer Waldo Salt and that amazing cast took me on quite a trip into a whole other world with blazing words, music and searing, unforgettable images. That film has influenced me more than it should’ve, perhaps. And I’m OK with that.
Rose Troche (“Go Fish,” “The L Word”)
Her pick: “All That Jazz”
I grew up very sheltered with no idea I was gay. I cut school one day to go to the M&R Fine Arts Theatre in downtown Chicago. In the darkness of that salon, I watched a whole new world unfold. There were drinks, pills, cigarettes and women, but that’s not what struck me most. It was the bodies, straight and gay, intertwined together with the passion of a unified goal — the notion of performance so important to many of us. There was the angel of death, the confessional, where the knowledge of personal transgression sat alongside the awareness that all will be done again. There were nontraditional relationships, strong partnerships and self-made families. That day, I sat in the darkness and saw a version of love that was forgiving and tolerant. That day, in many ways, I saw a preview of my life to come.
Craig Johnson (“Alex Strangelove,” “The Skeleton Twins”)
His pick: “This Boy’s Life”
In 1993, I was 16 and closeted and went to see a movie called “This Boy’s Life.” Set in the 1950s and far from a “queer” film, it contained a small moment where a teenage Leonardo DiCaprio is playing piano with his only friend, the bullied town “sissy” Arthur Gayle. The two boys sit close to each other, plunking away, singing with abandon when, in a brief moment of pause, Arthur leans over and kisses DiCaprio’s character on the cheek. DiCaprio is taken aback — how will he respond? He smiles knowingly and continues to sing and play piano. He doesn’t freak out. He doesn’t punch Arthur. And while he doesn’t return the kiss, he “gets” it.
For 16-year-old me, the same age as the characters, the moment was electrifying. I had never seen two boys share a kiss on-screen before, let alone a kiss without dire consequences. They weren’t struck down by lightning. The Earth didn’t swallow them up. I remember leaving the theater with a spring in my step. The scene was pure possibility, a crack in my entirely heterosexual teenage world, and it contained for me the life-altering revelation that these secret thoughts I’d been harboring could actually happen in real life, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
Alice Wu (“The Half of It,” “Saving Face”)
My favorite movie of all time is “Tootsie.” Though not consciously “queer,” it was queer for me for two reasons. Reason No. 1: Upon seeing Jessica Lange on a horse — galloping in slow-motion — preteen me had a full-on “gay moment!” Which I promptly repressed. Reason No. 2: There is a scene when Dustin Hoffman, in drag as Tootsie, discovers he is to share a bed with the unwitting Jessica Lange for the weekend. Just two gals on a sleepover. His panic at being unmasked — both as a man and as a man attracted — echoes, I realize, my own adolescent panic at sleepovers. That potent mixture of pajamas and secrets and unfamiliar sleeping arrangements seems dangerous for anyone closeted about, well, anything. Looking back, I can see how a closeted tween Asian baby dyke might find commonality with a middle-aged straight neurotic Jewish man, both trying to make their way in the world disguised as the most harmless of “women.”
Matt Tyrnauer (“Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood,” “Where’s My Roy Cohn?”)
His pick: “The Conformist”
In 9th grade, my film teacher, Jim Hosney, showed us Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece “The Conformist.” I found it beguiling for a number of reasons, not least the themes of sexual ambiguity among its main characters. Stylistically, it is still unmatched for cinematography, set and costume design. Its visual depictions of the architecture of fascist Rome (government offices in EUR, art deco interiors, and belle époque villas) made me want to visit that city, which became the backdrop for my first film, “Valentino: The Last Emperor.” It was “The Conformist” that first showed me the high Italian style that I’ve always admired, as lit by Vittorio Storaro. It’s a movie that was very daring in its time for having gay and lesbian themes. Today, these aspects of “The Conformist” would be considered far too subtle, but to late-20th century sensibilities, and those of this 9th-grader, they packed a lasting punch.
Darren Stein (“Jawbreaker,” “G.B.F.”)
His pick: “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”
“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” just may be the queerest feature film ever to be released by a major studio. Unabashedly camp and less concerned with narrative logic than letting “the mood take you” and “giving yourself over to pleasure,” “Rocky” is one of the most daring, outlandish and transgressive films ever made. There still hasn’t been a performance quite as dynamic, kinky and satanically singular as Tim Curry’s “Sweet Transvestite” Frankenfurter. And the seduction of Brad is still one of the most erotic sex scenes ever put on film, titillating while being shot entirely in silhouette. The film was such a challenge for the 20th Century Fox marketing team that they resorted to abstract taglines like “A different set of jaws” and “He’s the hero. That’s right — the hero!” ”‘Rocky’ isn’t just a movie — It’s a state of mind.” “Sensual daydreams to treasure forever” indeed.
Wash Westmoreland (“Still Alice,” “Colette”)
His pick: “My Beautiful Laundrette”
It was actually my girlfriend’s idea to go see “My Beautiful Laundrette,” which was the 1985 art-house hit in the U.K. I was in my second year of university, still trying to be straight. She was way ahead of me. I was not even able to decode the way Daniel Day-Lewis and Gordon Warnecke stared out from the poster with so much promise.
The film itself is a document of ’80s Britain, brilliantly written by Hanif Kureishi and delivered with trademark populist savvy by director Stephen Frears. Its point of view from within the British Asian community was revolutionary. Its style was funny and fresh and moving, and its story tackled racism, sexism, homophobia and classism head-on. It was woke!
When I think back on the experience of watching this film in my mind’s eye, I imagine my mouth dropping open. The story of two people — a former National Front bovver boy and his Asian British childhood friend — re-encountering each other as young men, feeling an attraction and then following through with joy! It said EVERYTHING. It was incredibly groundbreaking in terms of representation, light years ahead of anything shown on TV. Daniel Day-Lewis was so appealing with his donkey jacket, his Lewisham accent, his two-tone hair, and Gorden Warnecke, so handsome and eager and closeted-like-me!
In the movie’s most famous scene, the launderette’s opening day, Shirley Anne Field and Saeed Jaffrey are waltzing in the front while the two clandestine male lovers are going at it in the back. Day-Lewis takes a swig of Moët champagne and spits it into Warnecke’s mouth. Game over. This was the hottest thing I had ever seen in my life. It still is! I had entered the cinema a closeted student nerd, but I walked out a newly hatched gay man, pure as freshly done laundry and raring to go.
Daniel Karslake (“For They Know Not What They Do,” “For the Bible Tells Me So”)
His pick: “Another Country”
Even though I’m a documentary filmmaker, and “Paragraph 174” and “The Celluloid Closet” were extremely formative for me, the first queer film that changed my life and ultimately led me to come out to myself and to the world was a narrative feature called “Another Country.”
As an undergrad at Duke in the mid-’80s, I was deep in the closet, but I had just met a boy at the university down the road, and our first lunch together was absolutely electric. Because I was so deeply closeted myself, I thought, “Well, I just think he’s really cool, and I just want to be his friend,” when much more was happening beneath the surface for both of us. Just a couple of days later, I rented a VHS copy of “Another Country” (thank you, Blockbuster!), and I watched it over and over in my dorm room. The film is set in an upper-class private boys school in Britain, and when James Harcourt and Guy Bennett (played by Cary Elwes and Rupert Everett) meet for a first lunch date, the scene is both wildly romantic and rife with sexual tension. It was that moment when I realized that my feelings for the boy from Chapel Hill were about much more than friendship. Within that week, he became my very first boyfriend.
John Krokidas (“Kill Your Darlings,” “Star”)
His pick: “Body Double”
When I was 6 and most of my friends were obsessed with “The Muppet Movie,” I made my mother take me to see “Nine to Five,” bought the soundtrack on vinyl and watched the movie over 50 times before I turned 7. How no one, including myself, knew I was gay is beyond me. But my fate was sealed at 12 when I programmed my VCR to secretly record Brian De Palma’s “Body Double” late at night, and then watched the scene in which Frankie from the band Frankie Goes to Hollywood leads Jake, the hero of the movie, into a sex club and performs the song “Relax” while being trampled on by a dominatrix surrounded by sweaty dancing leather-men. Jake walks through a bathroom door labeled “SLUTS” to find Melanie Griffith in a leather-studded catsuit and matching thong gyrating and asking him if watching her ride an invisible pole makes him hot. The song then climaxed, as did Jake, and at that moment, I knew the Land of Oz really did exist and I just needed to find the yellow brick road to lead me there.
Jason Moore (“Pitch Perfect,” “Sisters”)
I was 17 years old when “Maurice,” directed by James Ivory, first showed me the beauty and possible longevity of a male relationship. Released in 1987, as the scope of the AIDS crisis was coming into focus, the film’s quiet grandeur, painterly visuals and breathless romance showed me a path of acceptance and love to aspire to. The call to action of the story is not only to know who you are but to actually make choices to live as your authentic self, and this imperative stuck with me as I went off to college. Like Maurice, I fell in love with a man and embarked on my first relationship. It would be a few more years until I came out and lived openly, but the promise of happiness at the end of Ivory’s film gave me the confidence to hope for my own.
Rhys Ernst (“Adam,” “Transparent”)
His pick: “Velvet Goldmine”
I saw “Velvet Goldmine” around age 16, and it was one of the first times I remember being impacted by a film’s formalism: how it was shot and edited, and how it used different cinematic modes to tell a story. A period piece shot in the style of the era it depicted, “Velvet Goldmine” uses cinematic devices such as handheld Bolex footage, star filters, balletic crane shots and a healthy dose of 1970s-style zooms to create a kaleidoscopic collapsing of time and characters, both historical (from Oscar Wilde to David Bowie) and fictional. The film is unapologetically queer in how it plays with masculinity, androgyny, gender and sexuality as all being fluid ingredients in a delicious candy-colored stew. It also manages to not be especially about those themes. In an era in which entire storylines were vehicles to simply display a same-sex kiss (good for representation but boring for filmmaking), Todd Haynes made queerness central yet incidental to his visionary and genre-bending work.
Michael Lannan (“Looking”)
His pick: “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story”
Like most people, I first saw “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” on a 10th-generation videotape. I had heard about it for years, but in a pre-internet world, it was a rare animal that you may or may not be lucky enough to see. When I finally found it in some dark corner of my small Midwestern college library in the mid-’90s, it jolted my brain in a number of ways. This tragic female character seen through a queer lens spoke to my own deep loneliness as a closeted 18-year-old. It was super camp and somehow extremely emotional at the same time. I found it entertaining, but it also made me feel sincere sorrow for Karen. It introduced me to a world of gorgeous music while also deconstructing the sparkling Southern California polish of it. Perhaps most important, it was punk and DIY in a way that dazzled me. The lawsuits against the film were legendary and made Todd Haynes feel like this magical queer outlaw hero wielding creativity and humor against the deadening forces of corporate America. It taught me that there are no rules. Resourcefulness — not resources — made great storytelling. Everyone, including me, had the power to conjure this kind of magic. Permission was not required.
Rebecca Sugar (“Steven Universe”)
Her pick: “Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie”
In high school I did something no one should ever do: I watched the “Utena” movie before watching the “Utena” series. I had no idea what was going on, but the one thing that was clear was that the main character seemed to be bisexual and genderqueer, like me. And the movie seemed to be saying that if you just tried hard enough, cared hard enough and fought hard enough, you could rocket off into the future, past all the high school bullshit, naked on a street luge with the person you love. I couldn’t understand the movie, but I could understand that no piece of media had made me that promise before.
Stephen Cone (“Princess Cyd,” “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party”)
His picks: “Philadelphia,” “The Object of My Affection,” “Torch Song Trilogy” and “Beautiful Thing”
I came of age in Florence, South Carolina, a medium-sized city just a stone’s throw from the Darlington Raceway. My Dad was (and is) a Southern Baptist minister. An oft-cited formative experience of mine was when my dad took me to see “Philadelphia” when I was only 13. We both loved the film, and I remember no moralizing or sermon afterward. We simply went home. That’s the technical answer to the question posed here. And yet …
Just a handful of years later, I was leading a Bible study at school while on the weekends digging deeper into queer and independent cinema, both at the theater with my closest friends (“The Object of My Affection”) and on my own during the rare periods when my family was away (“Torch Song Trilogy”). But the movie that opened queer cinema, and queerness, up to me most fully was Hettie Macdonald’s “Beautiful Thing,” viewed on VHS at my friend Diane’s.
Tommy O’Haver (“Ella Enchanted,” “Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss”)
His pick: “Making Love”
Growing up in Indiana, I didn’t have much exposure to queer cinema. There was a night watching “Suddenly, Last Summer” with my mom and thinking that there was something very peculiar going on. But it wasn’t until I caught “Making Love” one late night on Cinemax that I realized there were other people in the world just like me. And the fact that it starred Harry Hamlin, who I had developed my first screen crush on after “Clash of the Titans,” certainly did not hurt.
Marja-Lewis Ryan (“The L Word: Generation Q,” “6 Balloons”)
Her pick: “Fried Green Tomatoes”
Oh, “Fried Green Tomatoes.” I love everything about Fannie Flagg, but there’s one scene that gives me the gayest feels: Idgie Threadgoode’s (a very hot Mary Stuart Masterson) brown pleated pants billowing in the Southern breeze. Bees swarm her as she carries a jar of honey from their hive. She presents it to Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker), who reacts with a mix of awe and concern. After she puts up a fight, Parker looks up at Masterson from just below the brim of her ridiculous hat. In a questionable Southern accent, she says, “You’re just a bee charmer, Idgie Threadgoode. That’s what you are. A bee charmer.” And my gay insides melted. It’s so good, you guys! It’s romantic and loaded and queer AF. Also, Kathy Bates wraps herself in cellophane and Cicely Tyson murders a racist with a frying pan. There’s really nothing not to love. I’m gonna go watch it again right now. Happy Pride! Towanda!
Stephen Dunn (“Little America,” “Closet Monster”)
His pick: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”
Superheroes always seemed so mundane until I discovered Buffy Summers. Long before all the “Slay, queen!” and “Yaass, mamas,” there was nothing on TV that reflected my own queerness. But there was something about this witty, blond teenager kicking monster ass in tight red leather pants and an Yves Saint Laurent jacket that hit me like a stake in the heart. It wasn’t until season two that the show truly revealed itself as a queer metaphor when Buffy “came out” to her mom as a slayer. “Have you tried not being a slayer?” her mom asks, triggering thousands of homos around the world. Buffy was a regular teen with a dark secret, and so was I. But as the show went on (giving us one of the first, and arguably most devastating, queer TV romances with Willow and Tara), “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” made me realize that my “secret” was also, in its own way, a superpower that allowed me to conquer my own demons.
Yance Ford (“Strong Island,” “Trial by Media”)
His pick: “The Facts of Life”
When I was growing up, all my queer characters lived in between the storylines of various TV shows. The show that stands out to me most is “The Facts of Life.” The character Jo was so obviously a dyke. Seriously, a 16-year-old with a motorcycle? I was so jealous. Whoever wrote the character Jo knew exactly what they were telegraphing, and I was picking it up! It’s amazing how a little queer subtext (intentional or not) can make such a difference. I also picked up how Tootie, Blair, Natalie and Mrs. Garrett made a big deal to love Jo as is. The show was not a work of cinematic genius, but, like many TV shows in the ’80s, it also tried to deal with issues like sexual assault, class and race. I give them props for trying.
The traits Jo got ridiculed for — “not feminine enough” (from girls) or being too much of a tomboy (from guys) — hit me. I attended the same all-girl Catholic school from second to 12th grade. It was like a second home for me. At home and in school, I was the overachieving, athletic closeted queer kid who was too busy to date boys. My second excuse for not going out with guys was my parents. My folks were all about school, and I was able to hide behind that. I had great friends (like the Four Musketeers in “The Facts of Life”) and we had fun, but hiding for so long was lonely and difficult. Thankfully, the school was run by a loving order of nuns who never taught homophobic nonsense.
The toll hiding takes is real. Watching a character who felt to me like she was in the closet and living a similar life prompted me to ask what I would accept for my life. I decided that, no matter the cost, I would not live my life in hiding.
Joshua Safran (“Soundtrack”)
His pick: “Longtime Companion”
The first queer film that impacted me on a molecular level was “Longtime Companion.” I had gotten into the habit of going to movies by myself after school (and sometimes during school). All I knew was that “LC” was about gay men when I bought my ticket; what I didn’t know yet was that I was one of them, too. I’d been sexually active with men, but always told myself it was “easier to experiment” than form a romantic bond with a girl, something I thought I’d get to later. In the back of my mind, I’d hoped “Longtime Companion” would contain sex scenes that would satisfy my hidden interests, but as I sat in the Carnegie Hall Cinema, it wasn’t the film’s brief sex scenes, nor its no-holds-barred depiction of the decimation of AIDS in a(n affluent, mostly white) queer community that hit me hardest — it was Stephen Caffrey in a cutoff sweatshirt singing and dancing to the title song of “Dreamgirls” as he unpacks the new apartment he’s just moved into with his partner (Campbell Scott).
The idea that being queer didn’t have to mean furtive, shameful sex for the rest of my life, but partnership, cohabitation, domesticity, the freedom to dance on your own — these things hadn’t occurred to my teen brain. I left the film mourning all we’d lost and were continuing to lose, but also with the growing idea that a full life was possible to me, lived in public with (most of) the same options my parents were granted. I came out to myself two years later and to everyone else the year after that.
Katja Blichfeld (“High Maintenance”)
Her pick: “High Art”
When I was in my early 20s, with one foot still in the closet, a woman I was “hanging out with” showed me “High Art.” It was definitely a means of seduction, and it definitely worked. While our ensuing relationship didn’t last long (like Radha Mitchell’s character, I had a boyfriend at home), the filmmaking left an indelible impression. I was totally enthralled by Lisa Cholodenko’s stylish version of New York City life in the ’90s, and it didn’t take long for me to decide that’s where I needed to be, too. It would be years before I fully came out, but “High Art” remained in my consciousness and begged repeat viewings. Never before had I seen such a nuanced, realistic portrayal of queer sex and romance.
Michael Mayer (“The Seagull,” “A Home at the End of the World”)
His picks: Judy Garland’s catalog
I fell in love with Judy Garland when I was 3 years old. From “The Wizard of Oz” to “Meet Me in St. Louis” to “A Star Is Born,” the chemical reaction she caused in my inchoate sense of self was electrifying. As I grew older and began to recognize my gay identity, the connection I felt to all things Judy increased exponentially. By the time I was an adult, and “The Judy Garland Show” was aired regularly on PBS as a massive fundraiser, I became aware that in some very real sense Judy had incorporated a strong gay male sensibility into her own performances. The circle was complete, and to this day I couldn’t tell you what came first: Dorothy or the Friend of Dorothy.
Ryan White (“Visible: Out on Television,” “Ask Dr. Ruth”)
His picks: “The Real World” and “The Times of Harvey Milk”
I was a child of the ’80s and ’90s, so I was the MTV generation. That’s what we watched every day when we came home from school. My first memory of authentic LGBTQ representation was “The Real World,” which had an LGBTQ character every season. That was mind-blowing for a young gay boy in Georgia. It didn’t matter how different that person was from me — I would devour every season to see what happened in his or her life, and it also made me fall in love with nonfiction. A few years later, in college, I saw the masterpiece “The Times of Harvey Milk,” and it galvanized something in me, not only to come out myself, but also to seek a career as a documentary filmmaker because I knew I wanted to tell stories like that.
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (“UnREAL”)
Her pick: “The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love”
“The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love” completely changed my life. That combined with “Bound,” the 1993 Cindy Crawford/k.d. lang photo shoot in Vanity Fair and the serendipitous miracle of k.d. lang herself walking into the little hippie coffee shop where I worked sent a lightning bolt through my body and left me standing on scorched, undeniably gay earth. These beautiful artifacts and moments not only ignited my queerness but also spelled out a specific butch/femme dynamic that would shape my sexuality and inform much of my adult life.
Bruce LaBruce (“L.A. Zombie,” “Otto; or, Up With Dead People”)
His pick: “That Cold Day in the Park”
When I was a teenager, a movie called “That Cold Day in the Park” played on late-night Canadian TV. It was the first Robert Altman movie I ever watched. As I was raised on a farm, international movies became my window to the world. The movie I devoured with my eyes that night certainly rocked my world, the story of a “spinster” (Sandy Dennis) about whom the tagline on the poster asks, “How far will a 32-year-old virgin go to possess a 19-year-old?” Ms. Dennis picks up a boy shivering on a park bench and takes him home, runs him a hot bath, dries his clothes for him and then locks him in the guest bedroom. What follows is a disturbing, psychosexual mind-fuck featuring glimpses of nudity and, to an innocent farm boy, a compendium of fetish and perversion that quite suddenly, perhaps even prematurely, opened up my sexual imagination. At the end of the movie, the spinster hires a female hooker, locks her in the guest bedroom with the boy and listens at the door. After that, well, let’s just say the movie does not end well. I remember thinking to myself, “This must be what pornography is like.”
I was so deeply influenced by the movie that for my first feature as a director I decided to remake “That Cold Day in the Park” and apply the story to a punk hairdresser, played by me, who falls in love with a skinhead, played by my boyfriend at the time, Klaus von Brucker. The movie was called “No Skin Off My Ass.” I cast G.B. Jones as the older sister of the skinhead, preserving the quasi-incestuous relationship of the boy in the Altman film with his older sister. When I made my first pilgrimage to L.A. to show the film at Outfest, someone brought Richard Miles to the screening, the gay author of the novel upon which the Altman film is based. His novel is very much gay in tone, much more camp and more in tune with hustler psychology. (Altman essentially reduced the gay content of the novel to vague subtext; my version “re-queered” it.) I was nervous as hell, figuring he would hate this dirty little no-budget Super 8 porn film made without any rights, but afterward he told me he loved it and that he preferred it to the Altman version! It remains one of the best reviews I ever received. Mr. Miles gave me a hardcover copy of his book as a gift, which he signed to me with the words, “You got it right!”
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