15 LGBT Documentaries on Kanopy, Free Streaming Film Goldmine

As Al(aina) explained in their listing of some of the great queer films on Kanopy, Kanopy is for some reason one of the best-kept secrets in streaming. It has SO many rare, older, or otherwise hard-to-find films that you might think you’d need access to a university library to see, all in the privacy of your own home! Although it has lots of fun surprises, from recent films you saw in theaters (so much A24!) to niche archival footage from decades ago, one area it really shines is in your favorite genre and mine, DOCUMENTARIES. It has a vast and ever-changing LGBT Stories section within its documentaries genre (separate from its LGBT Cinema section, also robust and rewarding!), so much so that you could watch all of these 15 films that speak to queer womens’ lives or experience in some way and still have so much more to watch. You don’t need to pay a subscription fee for Kanopy, just use a library login! Not all libraries have Kanopy access, but if yours does, you are hot to trot, my friend. Much like the subjects of the documentary about same-sex ballroom dancing, Hot to Trot, discussed below! Just a little LGBT documentary humor for you.

Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart

This documentary sheds valuable light on all aspects of Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun, including the daunting challenge of securing investment and a venue for this production about a working class Black family, the casting process, artistic debates and finally its public reception. …Additionally the film reveals how central feminism was to her ideas and boldly acknowledges (using her diary entries) her same gender relationships and private lesbian identity before the appearance of the gay rights movement.

Changing Our Minds: The Story of Dr. Evelyn Hooker

During the repressive 1950s, Dr. Evelyn Hooker undertook groundbreaking research that led to a radical discovery: homosexuals were not, by definition, “sick.” Dr. Hooker’s finding sent shock waves through the psychiatric community and culminated in a major victory for gay rights – in 1974 the weight of her studies, along with gay activism, forced the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its official manual of mental disorders.

Startling archival footage of the medical procedure used to “cure” homosexuality, images from the underground gay world of the McCarthy era and home movies of literary icon Christopher Isherwood bring to life history which we must never forget. Dr. Hooker’s insights into gay marriage and the gay community (a term she coined), and the filmmakers’ winning approach make this documentary education at its most exciting and enjoyable. This Academy Award nominated film is narrated by Patrick Stewart.

Eileen Myles: An Interview

American writer, artist, performer Eileen Myles (b.1949) discusses the various philosophies that motivate her work, including the language of film, embodied performance, and the alienation evoked by bodily vulgarity. Myles links her wide range of artistic and literary practice with notions of abstraction, improvisation, and the mythology of gender, which she explores in relation to her own identity as a working, middle-class lesbian woman. She reflects on the significance of geographical locations, both New York City and San Diego, on her art, and shares how her past struggles with addiction have shaped her life and practice.

The Aggressives

A favorite of the film festival circuit, THE AGGRESSIVES is an insightful look at the little explored, yet highly dramatic subculture of lesbian butches as well as their “femme” counterparts who toe the line between gender definitions. This fascinating documentary features intimate and revealing interviews with six subjects.

Agnes Martin, Before the Grid

Agnes Martin is one of the most important artists of the twentieth century. Before she died in 2004 at the age of ninety-two, her paintings sold for millions of dollars and were displayed in the world’s greatest museums. Through interviews with friends, lovers and classmates who knew her well, insight is gained into Agnes Martin’s personality and the development of her creative process before she became known for her grid paintings.

Hot to Trot: The World of Same-Sex Ballroom Dance

The music… the spectacle… the costumes…the grace. Ballroom dance is enjoying a renaissance here in America, as well as abroad. Set in the swinging world of same-sex competitive ballroom dancing, this entertaining documentary goes inside that little-known world, following four men and women on and off the dance floor over four years. Not only an immersive character study, HOT TO TROT is also an idiosyncratic attack on bigotry against LGBTQ people.

Fish Out of Water

Inspired by the experience of coming out as a lesbian to her sorority sisters during her senior year at Vanderbilt, filmmaker Ky Dickens explores the Biblical passages used to condemn homosexuality in this informative yet entertaining documentary. Interweaving whimsical animation with enlightening interviews from both within the lesbian and gay community and as well with theologians from across the country, Fish Out of Water breaks down seven key passages from the Old and New Testaments – from Adam and Eve to Sodom and Gomorrah and the Purity Codes – while confronting the debate over translation and historical context that affect today’s interpretations of the Bible. Fish Out of Water is essential viewing for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of this contentious issue, or who is engaged in our national dialogue about faith, homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

Visible Silence: The Unspoken Lives of Thai Tomboys, Ladies and Lesbians

A rare glimpse into the unspoken lives of Thai toms, dees and lesbians striving for recognition, authenticity, and acceptance in a traditional Buddhist society. It is an intimate story of self and family, love and sexuality, and self-determination where conformity is prized. VISIBLE SILENCE highlights the experience of masculine women (toms) who visibly transgress gender norms, yet are bound to remain silent about who they really are. It gives voice to their unspoken truths.

Krudas

Krudas explores the lives and work of a Cuban lesbian couple who are hip hop singers and performers. The duo Krudas addresses issues such as women’s liberation, lesbian rights, female solidarity and racism. Their work is deeply engaged with feminism and strong ties to their African roots. Their songs represent an effort to upset semantics and syntax. Krudas conceive language itself as the root of female exclusion and thus summons men to engage in dialogue refusing to engage in any hierarchical structures.

A Union in Wait

Ryan Butler’s A Union In Wait takes a very personal look at Wake Forest Baptist Church members Susan Parker and Wendy Scotts, and the controversy that would make their private life anything but private. In 1997, the couple decided they wanted to have a union ceremony in Wake Forest University’s Wait Chapel, but the university told them no. Susan Parker, Wendy Scott, their church, and many others joined together to fight the school’s decision in what would become a controversy that divided a community in North Carolina and made national headlines.

Choosing Children: Launching the Lesbian Baby Boom

Hailed as a pioneering achievement when it was first released in 1984, Choosing Children dramatically challenged the assumption that being lesbian means you can’t be a mom. Six lesbian-headed families make decisions about how to become pregnant, navigate the process of adoption, whether to involve men in parenting, and address reactions from relatives, doctors and schoolmates. In so doing, they helped redefine what “family” means and opened the door for everyone to consider parenting, regardless of sexual orientation.

The Revival: Black Lesbian Poets and Feminist Thinkers

This documentary chronicles the US tour of a group of Black lesbian poets and musicians, who become present-day stewards of a historical movement to build community among queer women of color. Their journey to strengthen their community is enriched by insightful interviews with leading Black feminist thinkers and historians. As the group tours the country, the film reveals their aspirations and triumphs, as well as the unique identity challenges they face encompassing gender, race, and sexuality. This is a rarely seen look into a special sisterhood – one where marginalized voices are both heard and respected.

The Same Difference

A compelling documentary about lesbians who discriminate against other lesbians based on gender roles. Director Nneka Onuorah takes an in-depth look at the internalized hetero-normative gender roles that have become all too familiar within the African American lesbian and bisexual community. This film features many queer celebrities, including actress Felicia “Snoop” Pearson from the critically acclaimed HBO drama The Wire, and Lea DeLaria from Orange Is the New Black, living daily with opinions about how identity should be portrayed. Onuorah’s engaging documentary shines a light on the relationships and experiences within the queer black female community, intersecting race, gender and sexuality.

The Passionate Pursuits of Angela Bowen

Award-winning filmmaker Jennifer Abod provides a window into the life of Angela Bowen, a woman who grew up in inner city Boston during the Jim Crow era and went on to become a classical ballerina, legendary dance teacher, black lesbian feminist activist organizer, writer and professor. For six decades Bowen has influenced and inspired untold numbers, speaking out as strongly for the Arts, and Black and Women’s Rights as she has for LGBT Rights. Candid, compelling, and inspiring, PASSIONATE PURSUITS depicts Bowen’s life across the decades, with archival footage, timeless musical selections, photographs and interviews.

Regarding Susan Sontag

This is also on Al’s original list, but how can you leave it off! You can’t.

From her early infatuation with books to her first experience in a gay bar; from her early marriage to her 15-year relationship with legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz, REGARDING SUSAN SONTAG is a fascinating look at a towering cultural critic and writer whose works on photography, war, illness, and terrorism continue to resonate today.

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1077 articles for us.

11 Comments

    • Regarding Susan Sontag is so so good. I can’t wait to watch the rest of these.

      I visit my local library at least once a week and I didn’t know this was an option. I keep being astonished by the resources libraries provide. So much love for the librarians in my life and the librarians out there doing the good work.

    • I’m looking but what I’m seeing is claims of trans erasure in a think piece about Hillary Clinton and the sexism directed at her during the campaign that contains a weird, poorly executed vagina metaphor about misogyny something-something my brain is too soupy to grasp possibly because I’m tired, but also possibly because my brain wants nothing to do with the 2016 presidential campaign ever again and is trying shut down.

      Eileen does use they as pronoun seems to in favor of telling people who whine it’s not proper grammar to shove it.

  1. Oooohh…this is my wheelhouse, so here’s some more docs you can watch on Kanopy:

    The Strange History of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – A History of U.S. Military’s Ban on Gays and Lesbians

    Suited – A Custom-Suit Company in NYC Helping LGBTQ Clients Embrace Their Identities

    Gendernauts: A Journey Through Shifting Identities

    Tiny and Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women

    Framing Lesbian Fashion

    Last Call at Maud’s

    T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s

    Lavender Limelight: Spotlight on Lesbian Filmmakers

    No Secret Anymore: Founders of the Modern Lesbian Civil Rights Movement

    The Paper Mirror

  2. Twenty minutes ago I’d never heard of Kanopy. Now I have a huge list. Thanks, @alarae, @internrachel & @bakoelsch

    Is it weird that whenever I get my local-taxes breakdown and I see the line for our library, I get all happy? Not like happy that it’s so small, because it’s not that small and honestly I think it should be bigger, but actually delighted to be paying that particular tax? I frickin love our library.

  3. “Framing Lesbian Fashion” is…WooOOoWWw. Let’s just say, I took a lot of screenshots.

    Nobody mentioned that “Watermelon Woman” or “The Early Works of Cheryl Dunye” are also on Kanopy? C’mon.

    “The Aggressives” was really interesting, especially if you were of age in/around NYC in the late 1990s/early 2000s and want to reminisce about that time and place.

    I love Kanopy!

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