Lesbian Films that Broke Barriers

"But I'm a Cheerleader"/Lions Gate Films

As a self-proclaimed LGBT movie buff, you could imagine my profound surprise to find that one of the first noted lesbian films dates all the way back to 1931; over 37 years before the Stonewall Riots and eight years prior to World War II. Letting that sink in, I reminisced on all the lesbian-themed films I have ever seen. The list was extensive. However, keeping in mind the sheer impact that some of these movies had over others, I went on a quest to discover which specific films left a lasting impression not only on myself, but on the LGBT community and society at large.

Mädchen in Uniform
Story By: Christa Winsloe

Mädchen in Uniform was a film well before its time. Daring to be bold in a time of oppression and persecution, this film broke numerous barriers and explored the forbidden relationship between a young, female student and her female teacher. Chaste kisses and longing looks of desire are the extent of the physical relationship shown on screen, but for the 1930s, this was dangerously taboo.

Desert Hearts
Story By: Natalie Cooper

Although between the 1930s and 1980s the quantity of content increased, the quality faltered until 1986 with the release of Desert Hearts. Considered one of the first films to positively portray lesbian sexuality, Desert Hearts quickly gained a cult following, and rightfully so. The story takes place in Reno, Nevada in the 1950s, where the “quickie divorce” is booming. A well-respected professor, looking for divorce, finds herself in said “Divorce Capital of the World”, and ends up meeting a free-spirited young woman whose brazen advances she reluctantly gives into.

Story By: Lana Wachowski & Lilly Wachowski

In 1996, sisters Lana and Lilly Wackowski brought us Bound. The Wackowskis would later go on to create the Matrix series and V for Vendetta, among other household titles. But, before these notable Blockbusters, there was Bound, the story of a mobster’s girlfriend and a former prisoner who meet, fall in love, and concoct a plan to steal from the mob. Still a foreign concept, the film was not a coming out story, rather, it seamlessly told the story of two characters’ primal attraction for one another and the immediate trust they shared.

But I’m a Cheerleader
Story By: Jamie Babbit

1999 was a complex year for lesbian film. It gave us But I’m A Cheerleader, a light-hearted, comedic approach to the all too serious issue of gay conversion camps. The story follows a popular, blonde cheerleader as she is blindsided by her family and friends and whisked off to True Directions to cure her gay tendencies. The camp accomplishes quite the opposite as the cheerleader falls hard for the resident aloof, “bad girl” of the group.

Boys Don’t Cry
Story By: Kimberly Peirce & Andy Bienen

1999 also gave us Boys Don’t Cry, a very raw, intensely disturbing look at the true story of Brandon Teena and the violence he suffered at the hands of those close to him for being transgender. A series of events starting with a risky love affair with a local girl, seals Brandon’s fate.

Saving Face
Story By: Alice Wu

When Saving Face, the story of a Chinese American surgeon who falls for a dancer, was released in 2004, it was praised as being the first Hollywood movie to center on Chinese American characters since the Joy Luck Club. For the LGBT community, this was even more significant because it was the first time Asian lesbians were represented in film.

Blue is the Warmest Color
Story By: Abdellatif Kechiche

Blue is the Warmest Color shook the LGBT community with its release in 2013. Not only did this film win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, it was also the first time both main actresses shared the honor with the director. Although this feat sparked conversation, it was the extremely graphic and extensive sex scene that spawned a barrage of articles, comments and reaction videos.

Story By: Phyllis Nagy

Although Rooney Mara was dubbed the winner of the Cannes Best Actress Award, and Cate Blanchett was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, Carol was snubbed a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2016. This omission further proved the stance the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had toward both females, and films focused on LGBT characters and relationships. The uproar the omission caused was pivotal in forcing content creators to speak up, rally together, and question the archaic, close-minded views of those in positions of power within Hollywood.