Stories are a slice of magic. Tales can transport us. Make us feel seen. Show us what’s possible.
That’s why representation matters, perhaps all the more in visual forms of storytelling like movies and television. When viewers look to the screen, they deserve to see versions of themselves authentically reflected back.
As long as television and cinema have existed, we’ve watched straight people laugh, fight, grow and fall in love. We wanted to zoom in on the best representation of LGBTQ relationships on-screen.
We asked LGBTQ filmmakers to share a movie or TV show with a nuanced, honest portrayal of queer partnership. Find their picks below.
Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Recommended by: Liz Sarnoff (she/her), an Emmy-nominated writer and producer whose credits include “Deadwood,” “Lost” and “Barry.”
Synopsis: Adapted from the 1964 novel “Desert of the Heart,” this film set in 1959 Nevada follows a college professor in the middle of a divorce who has a relationship with a younger woman.
“When ‘Desert Hearts’ was released, 19-year-old me went to the Quad in the West Village to see it at least five times its first month out. The movie gave me such hope, such optimism about the future — that it existed, with all these glorious women at its center, was so far beyond my expectations of the world at that time. Everything about the movie felt real — the attraction between them, the struggles they faced, and the simple desire we all have to find love.”
Recommended by: Aubree Bernier-Clarke (they/them), a filmmaker based in Los Angeles and Portland, Ore., and director of “A Normal Girl.”
Synopsis: After their mother dies, Lyn and Emma, two estranged Mexican American sisters, move back to their childhood neighborhood and grapple with their past.
“Watching the show ‘Vida’ was life-changing for me, in that it’s one of the first shows I’ve seen that celebrates butch bodies and portrays butch/femme relationships in a way that feels authentic to my experience. As a nonbinary [masculine] person who tends to date femmes, when I’ve looked to films and TV shows in search of a reflection of myself and my experience, what I often found was either tragic (‘Boys Don’t Cry’) or wildly unrelatable (Shane from ‘The L Word’). ‘Vida’ dared to cast actual nonbinary and queer actors in masc. roles that felt both credible and sexy. The show rejects stereotypes and instead portrays all of its queer characters as real, whole people — strong, complicated, flawed and lovable. I’ve never rooted so hard for an on-screen couple as I did for Emma and Nico.”
Recommended by: Guinevere Turner, a writer and actor known for “American Psycho,” “Go Fish” and “The L Word.”
Synopsis: Two young women — one working class, the other wealthy — develop a relationship over the course of a summer.
“I’ve always loved ‘My Summer of Love’ because the relationship between the two young women is so fraught and complicated and allows for the queer characters to be flawed, something queer characters don’t always get to be. It also shows universal themes, but with a queer lens — power dynamics in relationships where one person clearly has the upper hand, and the blind faith of young, obsessive love. Plus, it’s Emily Blunt’s first major film role and she’s deliciously wicked in it, making us feel like we would certainly fall for her and do whatever she thought was a good idea. I just appreciate queers behaving badly and things not necessarily ending l well, because we should be allowed to have representation where we are not always angels.”
Recommended by: Rosanagh Griffiths (she/her), director of the documentary short “Cindy,” which is screening as a part of the Athena Film Festival’s Come As You Are Shorts program in March.
Synopsis: When her parents and friend suspect she’s a lesbian, a high school cheerleader is shipped of to a boot camp to change her sexual orientation.
“An incredible piece of work on many levels; what might read as fun, frivolous, camp filmmaking is actually a smart and wholly authentic piece of queer cinema. It reframes the narrative of trauma around coming out and our relationships with our families, not by shying away from the real threat of conversion therapy, but instead platforming it as a potential reality, only to then strip it down through the mockery of a queer gaze. Our protagonist finds love, and the relationship that develops is one that feels authentic to being queer: A bond through shared experience of identity and chosen families, and ultimately giving us the happy ending we’re so often deprived of in cinema.”
Recommended by: Jamie Babbit (she/her), director of “But I’m a Cheerleader” and episodes of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Russian Doll.”
Synopsis: Abby, a down-on-her-luck 45-year-old, unexpectedly finds herself in a dynamic, transformative relationship with a younger partner.
“An authentic LGBTQ relationship on TV is the relationship between Abby and Chris on ‘Work in Progress.’ I love their complicated love story and the way they struggle through age differences and being from different queer generations. Abby is a neurotic butch lesbian who learns to show Chris, her trans, younger partner, who she really is. And Chris lovingly embraces all her faults and baggage.”
Recommended by: Ruth Caudeli (she/her), director of “Eva + Candela” and “Second Star on the Right.”
Synopsis: An Iranian American Brooklynite whose family doesn’t know she’s bisexual grapples with the fallout of a breakup.
“I think ‘Appropriate Behavior’ from Desiree Akhavan represents real bisexual relationships because it tries to erase labels and just portray human beings relating to each other. The characters have imperfections and the film shows real women loving each other without trying to be polite. And we are just like that, not perfect.”
Recommended by: Carrie Hawks (they/them), director, writer and animator whose films include the documentaries “Delilah” and “black enuf*.”
Synopsis: Sisters Lyn and Emma return to their childhood neighborhood and learn about family secrets after their mom dies.
“‘Vida’ on Starz had very realistic portrayals of queer relationships. Emma, the older sister, had difficulty with trust and intimacy, often substituting sexual exchanges for actual relationships. Once she met a caring person in Nico, it was too beautiful not to have complications. Even though they faced difficulties, you could see they really loved and cared for each other.”
Recommended by: Shari Frilot (she/her), senior programmer, Sundance Film Festival, and chief curator, New Frontier at Sundance.
Synopsis: Newlyweds Bertie and Fred are settling into life in France when Lane, the ex with whom they used to share a polyamorous relationship, shows up.
“This tipsy, moody dive into polyamory holds all of the gravity and complexity of sexual fluidity and triangulation, while maintaining the buoyant atmosphere of a hot summer adventure through the fields of Europe. Levitated by an intoxicating acoustic guitar soundtrack by Mahmoud Chouki, ‘Ma Belle, My Beauty’ is a breezy and meaningful journey through wine-drenched candlelit dinners, firelit vineyard parties, farmers markets and sunny hikes by the creek, as Fred, Bertie and Lane grapple with how to get what they want inside the messy soup of their desires, passions and life ambitions.”
Recommended by: Harri Shanahan (they/them), co-director of “Rebel Dykes,” a documentary about a group of friends in 1980s London, which is screening at the BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival in March.
Synopsis: This series follows the misadventures of Steven, “little brother” to the Crystal Gems, a gang of magical entities who see themselves as the guardians of the universe.
“It’s an animated series that even young children can follow and yet there’s a depth to the relationships between the Crystal Gems. They break up and remain friends, they co-parent with Steven’s dad, they carry old hurts sometimes, they support each other but they do fight sometimes, they are a family of choice in the way the rebel dykes in our film are a family, with all the complexity that family entails.”
Recommended by: Siân A. Williams (they/them), co-director of the documentary “Rebel Dykes,” which is screening at the BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival in March.
Synopsis: This series, adapted from novels by Armistead Maupin, originally aired on Channel 4 in Britain and delved into the lives of LGBTQ characters in San Francisco in the 1970s.
“Seeing the original Channel 4 series as a kid and then reading the books gave me glimpses of queer community and spaces where relationships can be sustained and evolved over decades.”