Queer Films That Changed Our Lives

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Queer Films That Changed Our Lives

Last weekend, the New York Times asked over a dozen gay men, two lesbians, and one “v” about “the gay film that changed [their lives].” Dismayed, but not at all surprised, by the piece’s blatant lack of diversity (not to mention its egregious butchering-aka-“editing” of Mx. Bond’s piece), we decided to do our own survey on life-changing queer cinema. We put out a call to filmmakers and cultural commentators to answer the question "What film first informed and shaped your budding queer conscious?" We are grateful for the responses that we recieved in such a short time frame.

Cheryl Dunye, Writer, Actor, Director (Watermelon Woman, The Owls, Mommy Is Coming)

One very influential LGBT film for me is Black is, Black Ain't. I constantly refer back to this moving documentary for the style and tone that Marlon Riggs and his collaborators used to include so  many voices about blackness in such a powerful and expansive way.

Sarah Schulmanauthor of The Gentrification of the Mind; screenwriter of The Owls and Mommy is Coming; co-producer United in Anger: The History of ACT UP

The first important lesbian images in cinema for me were: Liv Ullman and Bibi Anderson in Ingmar Bergman's Persona, particularly the moment where their intensity of feeling burned up the celluloid and (the great) Dominique Sanda as the lesbian wife of an anti-fascist professor in Bertolucci’s The Conformist.

Mx. Justin Vivian Bond, performer and author of Tango 

I have found myself thinking about Marlon Riggs’ film Tongues Untied a lot lately. I first saw it in the Castro Theater in San Francisco 1991 and was deeply affected by its poetic, forceful and unflinching portrayal of the experience of men of color in America. As a feminine white queer I found it resonated very deeply with my own experience as well and continues to do so. Twenty years later on we have an African-American president in Washington and a national conversation about gay marriage is under way but even today low-income, deeply religious communities continue to persecute their children for the same “reasons” they did in this amazing revolutionary film.  I would encourage anyone, gay or straight to watch not only for the political and social issues it addresses but more importantly, to me, for the haunting beauty of the words of Essex Hemphill. [This is the original entry that the NYT then edited; read more about this entry at v's blog.]

Nicole Conn, Writer, Director (Claire of the Moon, Elena Undone, A Perfect Ending)

[T]he film that changed my life in terms of saying, “OK, that's what I'm going to do—be a filmmaker,” was Desert Hearts. But the film that changed my sense of what it means to be in love as a lesbian and how I wanted to tell a lesbian story was Entres Nous, a beautiful French film by Diane Kurys. Entres Nous, like so much Euro film, is full of tiny details, scenes that don't do what every screenwriting teacher barks to her class of novices, "if it doesn't move the story forward, cut it." I happen to believe those moments add texture, level, and nuance that are so often much more interesting than an oft-repeated formulaic "hit-the-act-breaks by the page number." 

Susan Stryker, queer historian, trans-activist, artist, filmmaker

When I was 11, I saw in my hometown newspaper, The Lawton [Oklahoma] Constitution, an ad for a film called I Want What I Want; it was illustrated with a picture of a male-bodied person standing in front of a full-length mirror, and seeing in it a female-bodied reflection. I knew then that I wasn't the only person to have had that wish! I snuck into the movie and thought it was really boring, but it still changed my life. 

Karen Tongson, author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries, professor at USC, lover of cats and karaoke

The tough and tawdry Eileen Brennan puts J.A.P. goddess Goldie Hawn through her paces while they're both wearing Army uniforms—what could be more tingly and lesbionic, especially to an immigrant kid newly landed in the U.S. from the Philippines?!? Though not explicitly a gay film, Private Benjamin (1980) gave me tingles despite (or perhaps because) of its imperialist uplift narrative: Private Benjamin leaves her old money behind to fashion a new homosocial world, and an independent, worldly, feminista self. Of course, all of this involves joining the U.S. Army; but the Army is where she meets a bunch of other cool girls in hot uniforms who—unlike the men in her life—won't abandon her because she's weak, or cheat on her because she's strong.

Guinevere Turner, Writer, Actor (Go Fish, Watermelon Woman, The Owls, The L Word)

The first LGBT movie that really informed my gayness was Desert Hearts, but not really because of the movie itself. I was 18, in college, and escaping my life by going to a screening in the middle of the day. (I still do this.) I didn't even look to see what the movie was. I just sat down and started watching. As I realized it was a movie about lesbians, I looked around and saw all these lesbian couples—women I saw every day on campus and suddenly I realized "oh—THAT'S why they are always together!" and I was so fascinated and intrigued by the audience that I barely watched the movie. It was a moment of deep influence because it was my first realization that movies create community—that they bring like-minded people together in a very real way that no bar, party, or even activist group ever could. I'm not even sure how Desert Hearts ends.

Comments [3]

Jenny Aisenberg's picture

when night is falling

...I love that movie too, so much! most of the films we've compiled are on my top queer films list, but that's one I usually don't hear about from anyone else. also, moon, we both had our first sweet lady kisses the same year...it was 10th grade for me! ;p

"We're all born naked. The rest is drag."
--RuPaul (appropriating Judith Butler for the masses...)

Grace Moon's picture

the 10th grade! Oy vay!

the 10th grade! Oy vay!

tweet tweet @gracemoon

Jenny Aisenberg's picture

what can I say? I was

what can I say? I was precocious ;p

"We're all born naked. The rest is drag."
--RuPaul (appropriating Judith Butler for the masses...)