Happy Pride y’all! For thems not in the know, June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Pride Month, with 2019 being the 50th annual celebration in the U.S. This dates back to the Stonewall Riots in 1969, when drag queens and transgender people lead a fight against a police raid of a gay bar in New York City. That kicked off the LGBTQ civil rights movement that has helped queer people gain a measure of freedom and security to be our authentic selves in public.
Obviously, our work isn’t done, and it’s still not safe for many LGBTQ people to be out where they live. The current U.S. administration is trying to push back legal gains (and the situation is even more dire in some countries), so we have to remain vigilant and vote for local, state, and national leaders and laws to help safeguard our rights.
One place that’s made amazing strides is film and TV representation. In historical media, LGBTQ characters were once completely ignored because the past was assumed to be heterosexual (and white, as we’ve mentioned in other posts). But actual research has turned up tons of evidence to the contrary, and filmmakers are starting to get the hint. The past year, in particular, has seen a range of frock flicks with queer storylines, including some high quality productions.
So here’s an attempt to catalog LGBTQ historical movies/TV series, plus ones with a major queer character and storyline. Not all of them are spectacularly good or happy for queer representation, but if you look through the production dates, you might get an idea of how far we’ve come!
I’ve listed them chronologically by historical setting, up to the 1960s or so, since that’s how we tag things here on the blog. Click any highlighted title for our review.
16th-Century to 18th-Century Queer Frock Flicks
Upstart Crow (2016-) — 1590s, Shakespearean sitcom
Caravaggio (1986) — 1610s, Italian painter Caravaggio
Orlando (1992) — 1600s-1880s, adapted from the novel by Virginia Wolfe
Juana Inés (2016) — 1650s, Mexican scholar & nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
Queen Christina (1933) — 1650s, Swedish Queen Christina
The Girl King (2015) — 1650s, Swedish Queen Christina
Stage Beauty (2004) — 1660s, British stage actors & Charles II’s court
Versailles (2015-2018) — 1660s-1670s, French court of Louis XIV
The Miniaturist (2018) — 1660s-1680s, adapted from the novel by Jessie Burton
The Favourite (2018) — 1700s, British Queen Anne & her court
Black Sails (2014-2017) — 1710s, pirate drama series
Outlander (2014-) — 1740s, adapted from the novels by Diana Gabaldon
Harlots (2017-) — 1760s, London brothels
Farewell, My Queen (2012) — 1780s, adapted from the novel by Chantal Thomas
19th-Century Queer Frock Flicks
Taboo (2017-) — 1810s, British War of 1812 drama
This Charming Man: Beau Brummell (2008) — 1810s, British fashion-setter Beau Brummell & Lord Byron
The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister (2010) — 1810s-1830s, British land-owner Anne Lister
Gentleman Jack (2019) — 1830s, British land-owner Anne Lister
Albert Nobbs (2011) — 19th-century, based on a novella by George Moore
Desperate Remedies (1993) — 19th-century, New Zealand comedy
Olivia aka The Pit of Loneliness (1951) — 19th-century, adapted from the novel by Dorothy Bussy
The Sea Purple aka Viola di Mare (2009) — 19th-century, Italian romance
Wild Nights With Emily (2019) — 19th-century, American poet Emily Dickinson
Fingersmith (2005) — 1860s, adapted from the novel by Sarah Waters
Taboo aka Gohatto (1999) — 1860s, Japanese samurai
Affinity (2008) — 1870s, adapted from the novel by Sarah Waters
Total Eclipse (1995) — 1870s, French poets Paul Verlaine & Arthur Rimbaud
Tipping the Velvet (2002) — 1880s, adapted from the novel by Sarah Waters
Mystère à la Tour Eiffel (2017) — 1880s, French murder-mystery
Cynara: Poetry in Motion (1996) — 1880s, British artists
The Music Lovers (1970) — 1880s, Russian musician Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky,
Wilde (1997) — 1880s-1890s, Irish writer Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde (1960) — 1890s, Irish writer Oscar Wilde
The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960) — 1890s, Irish writer Oscar Wilde
The Happy Prince (2018) — 1890s-1900s, Irish writer Oscar Wilde
Lizzie (2018) — 1890s, American Lizzie Borden’s murder trial
Murdoch Mysteries (2008-) — 1890s, Canadian detective series
Penny Dreadful (2014-2016) — 1890s, British gothic horror
Colette (2018) — 1890s-1910s, French author Colette
Elisa y Marcela (2019) — 1890s-1920s, Spanish women Elisa Sánchez Loriga & Marcela Gracia Ibeas & their attempt at marriage
20th-Century Queer Frock Flicks
Another Period (2015-2018) — 1900s, American reality TV parody
Daughters of the Dust (1991) — 1900s, African-American women & their families
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) & (2018) — 1900s, adapted from the novel by Joan Lindsay
The Rainbow (1989) — 1900s, adapted from the novel by D. H. Lawrence
The Color Purple (1985) — 1900s-1940s, adapted from the novel by Alice Walker
Carrington (1995) — 1910s, British painter Dora Carrington & writer Lytton Strachey
Death in Venice (1971) — 1910s, adapted from the novel by Thomas Mann
Maurice (1987) — 1910s, adapted from the novel by E.M. Forster
Nijinsky (1980) — 1910s, Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky
Bessie (2015) — 1910s-1930s, African-American singer Bessie Smith
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) — 1910s-1930s, British diplomat T.E. Lawrence
Babylon Berlin (2017-) — 1920s, German underworld drama
Cable Girls aka Las Chicas del Cable (2017-) — 1920s, Spanish telephone operators
The Danish Girl (2015) — 1920s, Danish artist Lili Elbe
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (2012-2015) — 1920s, adapted from the detective series by Kerry Greenwood
Portrait of a Marriage (1990) — 1920s, British writers Vita Sackville-West & Violet Keppel
Vita & Virginia (August 30, 2019) — British writers Vita Sackville-West & Virginia Woolf
Women in Love (1969) — 1920s, adapted from the novel by D. H. Lawrence
Brideshead Revisited (1981) & (2008) — 1920s-1940s, adapted from the novel by Evelyn Waugh
Frida (2002) — 1920s-1940s, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo
Professor Martson and the Wonder Women (2017) — 1920s-1940s, American comic-book author Bill Martson, his wife Elizabeth, and their partner Olive Byrne
Another Country (1984) — 1930s, British spy Guy Bennett
Bent (1997) — 1930s, German concentration camp drama
Cabaret (1972) — 1930s, Weimar Republic musical drama
Christopher and His Kind (2011) — 1930s, British author Christopher Isherwood
De-Lovely (2004) — 1930s, American composer Cole Porter
The Handmaiden (2016) — 1930s, Korean version of Fingersmith
Henry & June (1990) — 1930s, American author Henry Miller, his wife June, & French writer Anaïs Nin
Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) — 1930s, adapted from the play by Tennessee Williams
Upstairs Downstairs (2010-2012) — 1930s, British upper-class family drama
Victor / Victoria (1982) — 1930s, American musical comedy
Waiting for the Moon (1987) — 1930s, American writer Gertrude Stein & her partner Alice B. Toklas
Farewell My Concubine (1993) — 1930s-1970s, Chinese performers in the Peking Opera
Aimee & Jaguar (1999) — 1940s, German World War II romance
Borstal Boy (2000) — 1940s, Irish poet Brendan Behan
Bomb Girls (2012-2014) — 1940s, Canadian women working at a World War II munitions factory
Entre Nous (1983) — 1940s, French World War II tragic romance
The Imitation Game (2014) — 1940s, British scientist Alan Turing
The Night Watch (2011) — 1940s, adapted from the novel by Sarah Waters
Another Way aka Egymásra Nézve (1982) — 1950s, Hungarian journalists in a political-romantic drama
Bletchley Circle: San Francisco (2019) – 1950s, British & American detectives
Breaking the Code (1996) — 1950s, British scientist Alan Turing
Carol (2015) — 1950s, adapted from the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
Daphne (2007) — 1950s, American author Daphne du Maurier
Ed Wood (1994) — 1950s, American director Ed Wood
Far From Heaven (2002) — 1950s, American melodrama
Gods and Monsters (1998) — 1950s, American film director James Whale
Masters of Sex (2013-2016) — 1950s, Americans Dr. William Howell Masters & researcher Virginia Ellis Johnson
Reaching for the Moon aka Flores Raras (2013) — 1950s, Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares & American poet Elizabeth Bishop
Tell It to the Bees (2018) — 1950s, adapted from the novel by Fiona Shaw
Tom of Finland (2017) — 1950s, Finnish artist Touko Valio Laaksonen
The World Unseen (2007) — 1950s, adapted from the novel by Shamim Sarif
Call the Midwife (2012-) — 1950s-1960s, British nuns & midwives
A Single Man (2009) — 1960s, adapted from the novel by Christopher Isherwood
The Women of Brewster Place (1989) — 1960s, African-American women
Battle of the Sexes (2017) — 1970s, American tennis player Billie Jean King
Behind the Candelabra (2013) — 1970s, American musician Liberace
Milk (2008) — 1970s, American politician Harvey Milk
What queer-themed frock flicks would you add to the list? Any historical shows with LGBTQ characters or storylines missing?
Thanks for this list!
I don’t remember any lgbt content in Babylon Berlin except a visit to a gay club by the two presumably straight leads. Which is disappointing because Weimar Berlin was basically the birthplace of various modern queer identities. granted I only got halfway through the second season.
ETA: there’s also the female character that performs in make drag, she didn’t seem to be queer off stage or part of the Community of cross dressing afab people or butch lesbians that existed at that time and her only relationship is with a man.
A few are more for the settings — Taboo shows a molly house (gay male prostitution), for example.
Thanks for the list. Did I miss Tipping the Velvet?
Disreguard response re Tipping the Velvet as I revisited the list and saw it. Mea culpe.
And Victoria was not included. Lord Alfred and Drummond beat hunk footman and trapped duchess any day.😇😀
Was Lord Alfred and Drummond in the second season? I skipped that one :(
Holy Moley! You totally forgot one of the biggies. Madmen! From Sal to Bob, to Peggy’s lesbian flirtations, homosexuality and queer life was handled very matter of fact.
Wow, all the Madmen-obsessed folks I know never mentioned that! (I tapped out of the series after one episode, so I had not idea.)
Do we have to call them queer? Basically all of these films depict people who lived at a time when that was used as a slur against them. Wouldn’t it be better to just say “LGBT frock flicks”?
Not particularly, as queer has been a reclaimed term by the community for decades and is also largely the preferred term in academic circles (“queer theory,” “queer studies,” “queer aesthetic,” “queer gothic,” “queer camp,” etc. etc.) both for its inclusiveness of all queer identities and because retroactively applying terms like “gay” or “homosexual” or “trans” onto historical periods and persons when those terms didn’t exist can be rather sticky. Queer (read: non-heteronormative/non-cisgender/non-gender binarist), conversely, functions as an abstracted umbrella.
Queer is also a preferred term for many members of the community who don’t otherwise feel their identities neatly labelled/categorized (queer is my preferred term/identity tag) or who want to, again, reclaim the radical history and activism the word queer connotes (“We’re here, we’re queer”/”Not gay as in happy, but queer as in fuck you”).
Also, frankly, “gay” has been/still is used as a slur, so that anti-“queer” argument doesn’t hold water for me. “Don’t use queer” is also a discourse that’s currently being perpetuated by folks like the Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists/TERFs (ie transphobic members of the queer community), acephobes, biphobes, and other queer exclusionists, so it sets my hackles up (obviously not accusing you of any of those attitudes, just giving some context as to why, as a queer person, I actually found a list of “queer” frock flicks pretty refreshing).
AMEN! Seconding this beautifully written response (count me in for someone else who identifies as queer– and besides, “gay” was the slur that I heard growing up!) and praise for this list!
Thank you! I was going to say that we’ve reclaimed “queer” & for that matter, in many of the historical periods depicted in these films, the words “lesbian” & “gay” just didn’t exist to describe same-sex desire.
For example, Anne Lister didn’t describe herself as lesbian but she wrote extensively of her sexual affairs with other women. The word ‘lesbian’ didn’t mean female homosexual until 1870 & Lister died in 1840!
Also, I use ‘queer’ & ‘LGBTQ’ interchangeably here on the blog to be inclusive bec. there are ppl with more identities than a specific word or letter can define.
Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)–1930s(?) America
That’s on my watch list — I’ve heard it’s kind of coded, but wasn’t sure.
While it is coded (we’ve come a fair piece since 1991) in that there’s no F/F kissing or sex, it’s definitely on my list. Mary Stuart Masterson’s character cross-dresses male and clearly identifies as not-cis-female, there is a suggestive-to-almost-there scene at a swimming hole, and the F/F couple end up living together and raising a child together.
I’ve also read the book, which is NOT coded. It is blatant that This Is a Non-Hetero-Normative Romantic Relationship and That Is Fine.
Now I need to add the book to my list as well, thanks :)
And of course, Visconti’s « the damned » with its queer character and the infamous SA gay orgy, and « Ludwig » about the gay bavarian king
Haven’t heard of those, interesting!
Their Finest (2016) – 1940s
I NEED to know what show/film belongs with the pic under the 16-18 century etc headline. I MUST know who that girl is. P.S. this site is so addictive!
That’s Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz in The Favourite!