Gay Card: 10 great documentaries

Our picks from a slew of don’t-miss films chronicling gay history through real-life stories and footage

By Mike Fleming

In our ongoing effort to help you get, keep or renew your gay card, there are more documentaries than we could list here that should definitely be on your Netflix list.

That said, we enlisted the help of NewNowNext and After Elton to choose just 10 – and one to grow on – from the varied genres and topics available in their exhaustive list. Cue up your wish list for our top picks of gay-themed docs that you simply don’t want to miss.

adonis_factorThe Adonis Factor

This long, hard look into the masculine physical ideal that many gay men pursue piles on the chiseled bodies and probes topics including plastic surgery, steroids, the gay porn industry, circuit parties, and the pros and cons of living one’s life as eye candy.

Trembling Before G-d

A revealing look at gay and lesbian Orthodox and Hasidic Jews who struggle to reconcile their sexual identities with their devout faith. Filmmaker Sandi Dubowski returned to the intersection of faith and sexuality for his 2007 film A Jihad for Love.

how_to_surviveHow to Survive a Plague

A stunning portrait of the emergence of ACT UP in the early days of the AIDS crisis, Plague documents the lengths to which its activists would go to demand government action in regards to the testing of AIDS medications. Its impressive use of footage from the trenches makes this an essential chronicle of a painful yet pivotal time in gay rights history.

Stonewall Uprising

This 2010 documentary about the formative event of the gay liberation movement notably uses archive newscasts and “special reports” on homosexuality to demonstrate how gays and lesbians were viewed and treated by the media prior to the historic 1969 rebellion in Greenwich Village. We also recommend the documentaries Before Stonewall and After Stonewall.

gay-sex-in-the-70s-posterGay Sex in the ‘70s

Focusing its steamed-up lens on the period between when the Stonewall Rebellion liberated New York City’s gay community and AIDS brought it to its knees, Joseph F. Lovett’sgleefully hedonistic doc is a fascinating look at a sexual revolution unlike any other. Mustaches, machismo, and muscles abound.

Small Town Gay Bar

Filmmaker Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy, Red State) produced this documentary by Malcolm Ingram exploring the culture of gay bars in the rural American South. The film chronicles the gay communities struggling for acceptance in the shadow of overwhelmingly conservative landscapes, and the refuge that their gay bars provide. They also have a heck of a good time.


Straight documentary provocateur Kirby Dick (This Film Is Not Yet Rated) turns his lens on the destructive hypocrisies of closeted gay politicians who lobby for anti-gay legislation in the United States in this 2009 film.

Paragraph 175

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman co-directed this 2000 film chronicling the lives of the handful of known survivors of Germany’s Paragraph 175, the sodomy provision of the penal code that led to over 100,000 men being arrested and imprisoned or sent to concentration camps between 1933 and 1945. Rupert Everett narrates this harrowing and essential look at one of the darkest times in history for gays and lesbians.

paris-is-burning-film-images-dee5bca5-1f99-4c16-bc57-e91c96372b9Paris is Burning

Jennie Livingston’s boundary-smashing glimpse into the “drag ball” scene shines the light on some of the queer community’s most underrepresented – yet most fabulous – members: gay and transgender men of color who stage and compete in elaborate cross-dressing pageants. According to our voters, Paris gets 10’s across the board.


The Times of Harvey Milk

Decades before Sean Penn earned an Oscar for playing him, Rob Epstein’s Oscar-winning 1984 documentary honored the life of Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official. Using both archival footage and original interviews, the film chronicles Milk’s rise from a Castro Street activist to his assassination at the hands of rival politician Dan White.

celluloid_closetThe Celluloid Closet

Based on gay activist and media critic Vito Russo’s groundbreaking book, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Peabody Award-winning documentary examines homosexuality in American film from the classics of Old Hollywood to New Queer Cinema, as well as the struggles of gay and lesbian filmmakers and stars. Choice clips from touchstone films and interviews with Hollywood allies like Susan Sarandon and Whoopi Goldberg make Closet an informative and wonderfully entertaining landmark in the study of gay visibility in entertainment.

Click for more of the 25 Greatest Gay Documentaries via NewNowNext and AfterElton.

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