Imagine if you will a world where you never saw yourself represented on television, in movies, in books, or anything other media that you see on the daily. The rare moments where you did, such a character was often the butt of a joke– something existing to insight laughter at their expense, a vague form of who you and others like you are, surrounded by an air of frivolous insensibility. Not quite a character, really. More of a prop.
This is the reality of most minorities, including LGBTQ people. Only around 17% of characters in major studio projects are LGBTQ. Thankfully, this is number beginning to rise steadily and representation is becoming more of a reality.
The lack of representation in the past has made a few key characters in cinema all the more memorable and sacred. In the last handful of years in particular we’ve watched LGBTQ characters snatch the attention of the mainstream in some of the most vital films of the decade.
Some of these characters may be a slight caricatures, without a doubt. However, their historical presence in cinema is important and their films remain essential LGBTQ viewing.
Without further ado, here are the 15 Best LGBTQ Characters In Movies, Ranked.
16. Damian – Mean Girls
Means Girls isn’t a queer film by any means, but it’s definitely a cult film beloved by gay culture. And why wouldn’t it be, with all of its quotable moments that are still hilarious today? Many of those quotes came from “too gay to function” Damian, the lovable friend of Janis and Cady. One could say Damian is the most memorable character of the film, if only for his zingy one-liners:
“She doesn’t even go here!”
“She asked me how to spell orange.”
“FOUR for you Glen Coco! You GO Glen Coco!”
“That’s why her hair is so big. It’s full of secrets.”
Daniel Franzese, the actor behind Damian, also has a web series with his mother about being a gay actor and growing up in an Italian family.
15. Violet – Bound
The 1996 crime thriller Bound is the first work of the Wachowskis. In the film, we follow Violet (Jennifer Tilly), who feels trapped in her relationship with gangster Caesar. She has an affair with ex-convict Corky and the two plan a scheme to steal millions of mafia dollars.
While Bound is definitely full of violence and sex and may not be for the faint of heart, it’s still an amazing thriller featuring a same-sex couple. It’s often difficult to find any piece of cinema boasting an openly bisexual woman like Violet and her character is something truly memorable.
A picturesque depiction of a woman trapped in a heteronormative relationship with an abusive man, Violet is a badass femme worth looking up to for her strength.
14. Carol – Carol
This 2015 romantic drama was adapted from a fifties romance novel by Patricia Highsmith. This same sex love story follows the titular Carol, an older woman suffering through a hard divorce as she begins to fall in love with a younger female photographer (Rooney Mara) who also appears to be closeted and trapped in an ugly relationship with a man.
The film is full of uncomfortable interactions with the men around them, which can border on cringe-inducing at times. However, the love story that blossoms between the two women is captivating and complicated.
Carol is so iconic because her trials and tribulations as a lesbian in the ’50s were fairly historically accurate– imagine losing your children and being forced into psychotherapy because of your sexuality. The way Carol survived is inspirational, and Cate Blanchett played her beautifully.
13. Ricky – Boy Meets Girl
In Boy Meets Girl, Ricky (played by transgender actress Michelle Hendley) is a trans girl in the middle of Kentucky with dreams of going to New York City and becoming a fashion designer. She meets a young woman named Francesca, who is engaged to a man, and an unexpected affair happens between them.
Ricky is one of very few transgender characters played by a transgender actress in a feature film. However, this isn’t the only reason she’s made the list. Michelle Hendley’s portrayal of a lost trans girl struggling to figure out her life and relationships in the notoriously homophobic and transphobic South is both chilling and affecting. The film overall is an incredibly emotional one with swerving plots that just about any LGBTQ person could relate to.
12. Nick – Parting Glances
Parting Glances is one of the most essential LGBTQ films of all time. Released in 1986, it provided a view of the lives of American LGBTQ people during the height of the AIDS crisis through a realistic lens.
Parting Glances follows the lives of gay couple Robert and Michael, but the most memorable character of the film is without a doubt Steve Buscemi’s Nick. Nick is Michael’s ex whom Michael still loves and cares for, and is living with AIDS.
Nick is the witty and upbeat gay man anyone would imagine thriving in the ’80s. Perhaps it is the energy that surrounds him that makes him such an iconic character– he’s in the middle of a love triangle full of honest communication and love that would have, in other circumstances, be filled with distress, anger, and betrayal.
11. Vanessa – Gun Hill Road
In the 2011 drama Gun Hill Road, ex-con Enrique (Esai Morales) is released from prison and returns home to his family. The return is full of drama– his wife has had an affair while he was incarcerated, and his child is transitioning as a transgender woman.
While the plot is a bit worn, Vanessa shines in the film over the other characters. Her actress, Harmony Santana, is also a trans woman. The connection definitely shows in one of the most honest and emotional portrayals of latinx LGBTQ life in film. The relationship between an openly trans latina woman and a black man was also hailed for breaking stereotypes– something we rarely get to see in cinema.
Vanessa’s life is full of trials and hardships, of course, but her story is told with a level of understanding and gentleness unlike similar cinematic portrayals of trans women.
10. Alike – Pariah
Many fans of the 2011 art drama Pariah believe it is the greatest lesbian film of all time. We can see why– there is not much to dislike about the film, which received overwhelmingly positive critical reviews. The film has it all– representation of queer people, a (mostly) supportive father figure, people of color, and the decision to leave abusive relationships. Plus, the cinematography is unbelievable.
Alike, the protagonist of Pariah, is a butch lesbian who lives with a homophobic mother and police offer father. While Alike’s father is mostly supportive of her identity, her mother is in strict denial. The movie follows Alike as she tries to navigate her sexual identity, intimacy, heartbreak, and survival. Adepero Oduye portrays Alike with stark emotion and legitimacy.
9. Megan – But I’m a Cheerleader
It’s not often that one can see a satirical romantic comedy starring lesbians that also shines a humorous (but still serious) light on abusive conversion therapy. The 1999 film But I’m a Cheerleader stars a young Natasha Lyonne as Megan, a high school cheerleader who is sent to conversion therapy because her family thinks her vegetarianism and love of Melissa Etheridge are signs of homosexuality.
While she is ultimately gay, Megan is one of the few femme lesbians in cinema even today– and the ditziness and innocence of her character is both endearing and hilarious.
More often than not, lesbians are depicted in one of two ways in film– butch and masculine or sultry and seductive. Megan is neither– she’s a typical teen girl. Her presence in the film was definitely refreshing.
8. Hedwig – Hedwig and the Angry Itch
Originally a rock musical production, Hedwig and the Angry Inch saw a 2001 film adaptation that quickly gained a cult following despite bombing at the box office. The film follows the story of Hedwig, a transgender German vocalist who endures trials and hardships throughout her life and struggles to make it big with her band The Angry Inch after her ex-lover steals all her music.
Hedwig is such an important character because she highlights the viciousness of transphobia in culture and dangers of unlicensed gender confirmation surgeries. She also has a complex gender identity and relationship to her body that we rarely get to experience in film. Hedwig tells an important tale while being absolutely hilarious and visually stunning. Plus, that hair dress is still legendary.
7. Mike – My Own Private Idaho
This 1991 adventure drama is a cult classic starring a young Keanu Reeves and the late River Phoenix. My Own Private Idaho is a simple (yet heartwrenching) film. It follows two street hustlers who go on a trek to find the estranged mother of Mike (Phoenix).
It’s heavily implied that Mike is gay when he confesses his love for Scott– and his rejection as both a gay man, a poor man, and an abused prostitute is hard to stomach. Phoenix portrays the dejected and chronically ill young man intimately and Mike is without a doubt one of the most iconically tragic gay male characters of all time.
“If I had a normal family and a good upbringing, then I would have been a well-adjusted person.“
6. Dr. Frank-n-furter – Rocky Horror Picture Show
It’s a bit impossible to put together a list of iconic LGBTQ characters without including the sweet transvestite From Transexual, Transylvania– Dr. Frank-N-Furter.
Dr. Frank-N-Furter is the star of The Rock Horror Picture Show, the legendary musical that made waves throughout the seventies and onward, further resurging in popularity when it was revived in a movie remake in 2016. The doctor (played by Laverne Cox, Tim Curry, David Bedella, and a slew of others in live stage performances) is a mad scientist from another planet determined to create the perfect sexual creature.
While her sexual escapades are pretty much the only thing she cares about, Frank is still a charismatic, downright hilarious, charming, and seductive character. Dr. Frank-N-Furter is truly unforgettable and still recognizable in the mainstream to this day.
5. David – Longtime Companion
Another major film about the LGBTQ experience during the AIDS crisis is Longtime Companion. Unlike any film before or after it, its look into the AIDS crisis was painfully realistic and intimate, particularly when it came to the deterioration that occurs from dying from the disease.
The film follows the lives of various people who struggle to survive the early beginnings of the AIDS crisis in America. The title of the film is taken from The New York Times‘ descriptor for the partners of queer people who succumbed to the disease during the eighties.
Bruce Davison nabbed an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the compassionate and loving David, the lover of AIDS-stricken Sean.
The scene where David tells Sean to “let go” will make even viewers with the strongest composure melt into a puddle of tears.
4. Alexandra – Tangerine
Tangerine made headlines for being one of the first feature-length films to be shot entirely with an iPhone. This 2015 comedy-drama is much more than its evolved tech, however– the story and actresses that depict it make Tangerine likely to gain cult status. It’s also one of the very few films out there starring two trans women as the leads (with both characters portrayed by trans actresses).
In Tangerine, transgender sex worker Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) gets out of a brief prison stint to find that her boyfriend has been cheating on her. The film can be a little too traumatic for some, as the trans women involved are victims of abuse and mistreatment throughout the film. However, the emotional authenticity of Alexandra (Mya Taylor), coupled with her hilarious wit and deliberate attitude, makes her incredibly fulfilling to watch.
3. Angel – RENT
Who could forget the lovable Angel from RENT? Angel’s character is still considered to be one of the most controversial characters of the stage production and film due to her ambiguous gender identity– fans argue that she is either transgender or a drag queen, and it isn’t really mentioned in the film or production. Perhaps this ambiguity is one of many reasons why Angel is such an interesting character.
Angel is a caring and kind street drummer who finds Tom Collins after getting beat up on the street. She is HIV+ and one of the very few LGBTQ characters with a known HIV+ status in cinema.
Angel’s character is so vital to LGBTQ cinema because she was a lovable yet honest portrayal of a trans/gay person living with HIV during the AIDS crisis of the early nineties.
2. Andrew – Philadelphia
Tom Hanks nabbed an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Andrew Beckett in this 1993 American drama. Philadelphia was the first of its kind– it was the first mainstream movie to acknowledge the existence of HIV and AIDS, as well as homophobia.
The film follows Andrew, a closeted attorney who is wrongly fired from his law firm because his AIDs diagnosis becomes known. He struggled to find anyone to represent him and constantly deals with homophobic behavior from the people around him as his health deteriorates more and more. Eventually, a homophobic but sympathetic attorney named Miller agrees to take his case.
Andrew was a very realistic portrayal of a working man trying to exist in a homophobic world while trying to hide any evidence of his illness– something that no one, ever, should have to take on. His strength is nothing short of inspiring and humbling.
1. Chiron – Moonlight
Moonlight is one of the most memorable coming of age dramas of all time, nabbing Golden Globes and Academy Awards left and right. The awards were well-deserved, and Moonlight is the first film with an all-black cast and an LGBTQ theme to win Best Picture.
Chiron, the star of the film, is a very important person. He begins as a small withdrawn boy dealing with his mother’s addiction and surviving poverty in Miami. As a teen, he’s a victim of relentless bullying– his first sexual experience ends in betrayal and assault. As an adult, he’s a clearly lonely man with intimacy problems that all queer people, particularly gay men of color, suffer through. His storyline feels irrevocably unfair, but it is a reality for many LGBTQ people.
Who is your favorite LGBTQ character in cinema? Let us know in the comments!