5 best queer movies from the '80s to watch during Pride Month

James Wilby lays with his head on Hugh Grant in Maurice
(Image credit: Alamy)

Because of social mores and Hollywood's Hays Code censorship guidelines in place until 1968, gay characters essentially did not exist on film. Even when someone "seemed" like they could be queer, it was vague enough to easily deny such an accusation. Homosexuality was not allowed to be depicted, so at most nothing went beyond subtext. When Montgomery Clift and John Ireland stroke each other's guns in 1948's "Red River," they're just two cowboys who really admire the other's prowess with a pistol. 

As attitudes evolved and the power of the production code waned, this started to change in the 1970s. Then, the 1980s saw many films put queer stories front and center. No longer were LGBT characters simply coded as "gay" — they were actually gay. Instead of romances being merely alluded to as subtext, they became the onscreen text. Below are five influential queer movies from the '80s that shifted gay storytelling that you can watch during Pride Month.

'My Beautiful Laundrette' (1985)

Set in Thatcher's London, Omar (Gordon Warnecke) and Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis) play two former more than boyhood friends, who reconnect as adults. They've ended up in wildly different places, but restart their romance when Omar recruits Johnny to help him fix up and manage a new laundromat. It's a mellow, slice-of-life dramedy with an ensemble cast, but the performance by Day-Lewis especially stands out, as does that scene with his tongue.

What's interesting about this one, is how chill Omar and Johnny are about their relationship and fluid sexuality. There are no trope-y struggles and self-loathing, and once they're together again, they are very supportive of each other. The movie is not about being gay, it's about a lot of things, and these two men just happen to be in a relationship together. It was and still is a refreshing depiction of a same-sex relationship.

Watch on Pluto TV 

'The Hunger' (1983)

Catherine Deneuve plays a stunning, immortal vampire who collects companions. When her latest, John (David Bowie), realizes after 200 years he's losing his eternal youth, he visits a doctor, Sarah, (Susan Sarandon) who studies aging. By the time Sarah reaches out, John is basically a conscious mummy stashed out of sight in a coffin. The vampiress decides to seduce Sarah and turn her as a replacement — cue a super long and sensual sex scene between the two women. 

While vampirism can be seen as a metaphor for addiction or the burgeoning AIDS crisis, the movie is very gay and homophobia does not exist. The opening scenes of the vampire couple seducing humans in a club while English goth rock band Bauhaus sings "Bela Lugosi's Dead" is so stylish, cool, sexy, and kitsch, that it really sets the tone.

Rent/buy on Amazon or Apple

'Parting Glances' (1986)

This was one of the first films to realistically depict the AIDS crisis, so it's missing the maudlin cliches that would later overtake the "AIDS movie" subgenre. It's a romantic comedy that stars Steve Buscemi in his earliest major role. He plays witty musician Nick, whose band is finally starting to get big on MTV and who also happens to have AIDS. His best friend and ex, Michael (Richard Ganoung) takes care of him. 

Michael's under extra stress because his boyfriend is leaving for a two-year-long work trip abroad, and the film follows Michael visiting Nick and going to farewell parties, and preparing for his BF to leave. This is on top of having suffered other losses to their friend group and community due to AIDS, and being terrified for Nick, who he still loves. 

AIDS is a part of these characters' lives, but it's not what this movie is about, which was and still is incredibly subversive. It's an important movie, and it's a good movie. However, it is bittersweet it's the only one director Bill Sherwood was able to make before dying young.

Watch on Tubi

'Maurice' (1987)

Ismail Merchant and James Ivory were both filmmakers and romantic partners. They spent decades together making period dramas, including the gay romance "Maurice." Set in Edwardian England, when homosexuality was still a criminal offense, it follows a young man named Maurice (James Wilby). After a chaste romance with classmate Clive (Hugh Grant), he's dumped because Clive is terrified of arrest or a ruined reputation. He retreats to the countryside, where he crosses paths with gamekeeper Alec (Rupert Graves), who's not afraid to love Maurice passionately and spend their lives together.

What's progressive about this film is it wasn't any different from Merchant-Ivory's similar films that featured heterosexual romances. Plus, it was released at a time when there was still a lot of stigma against homosexuality. The two lovers meet, fall in love, and after some misunderstandings, live happily ever after. 

Watch on Tubi

'Cruising' (1980)

Controversial upon its release, "Cruising" has since been reassessed in a more positive light. It stars Al Pacino, and a bunch of other guys who look like Al Pacino, as an undercover cop infiltrating the New York City BDSM club scene in hopes of catching a serial killer targeting gay men. But the film's origins are even more dramatic than the plot.

The movie was partially inspired by a series of murders involving patrons of gay leather bars being found dismembered in garbage bags dumped in the Hudson River. A similar scene opens up the film. Paul Bateson also went to leather clubs and was an imaging tech. He was convicted of another murder and was also the prime suspect in the serial killings. He also knew director William Friedkin from appearing in a hospital scene in "The Exorcist," and Friedkin consulted with him on "Cruising" as well. 

Rent/buy on Amazon or Apple

More from Tom's Guide

Freelance writer

Jenna is a freelance writer who covers TV, film, and all things pop culture. Her work has appeared on Teen Vogue, The Mary Sue, and Women & Hollywood, among other outlets. In her free time, she alternates between watching romcoms, romantic period dramas, and true crime, and is making her way through the list of movies on the National Film Registry.