1. Algie, The Miner (1912)
This ten-minute comedy directed by Alice Guy-Blaché centers on an effeminate city boy named Algie Allmore. He wishes to marry a rich man’s daughter, and is given one year to prove his worth as a man. So he travels to the Wild West, where he learns how to shoot a pistol, ride a horse, and mine for gold.
At first, Algie is mocked by cowboys for his flamboyant clothing and foppish mannerisms. He carries a dainty silver pistol and prefers to greet his fellow man with kisses on the lips, rather than the usual slaps on the back. Once he’s adapted to Wild West culture, he carries a six-shooter and interacts other cowboys in a traditionally masculine manner.
Algie develops a bond with his bunkmate, Big Jim—a bond that modern critics have interpreted as a romantic attachment. He becomes a wealthy miner and later returns home, taking Big Jim with him, to stake his claim to the girl he wants to marry.
Filmmaker Bret Wood has claimed that, given the female love interest, Algie is “Technically […] not a homosexual. This was 1912 and, even in the most forward-thinking film, some sexual orientations dared not speak their names. Instead, Algie's character is defined as gay through certain visual indicators of behavior and dress.”
He added, “The triumph of Algie, the Miner is not that Guy-Blaché made a Western with an evidently gay protagonist. Her true achievement was that she managed to tell this tale with broad comedy, without insulting its central character.”
2. A Florida Enchantment (1914)
Although it arguably has LGBTQ+ merit, there has been some debate as to whether A Florida Enchantment (1914) is a lesbian film, a transgender film, or the first documented depiction of bisexual characters in cinema.
The protagonist, an heiress named Lillian, is staying at a Florida resort hotel when she sees her fiancé, Fred, with another woman. Driven by anger and jealousy, she unpacks an antique box from Africa, which contains enchanted seeds that can transform people into the opposite gender.
Lillian swallows one of the seeds and transforms into a man named Lawrence. Though her physical appearance does not change, she loses interest in Fred, cuts her hair, wears men’s clothing, and begins courting female hotel guests. Interestingly, this does not raise eyebrows, as the women reciprocate Lawrence's flirtatious behavior.
Fred swallows a seed and undergoes a similar change. He behaves effeminately, flirts with male hotel guests, and later wears a dress. Unlike with Lillian, however, this behavior is met with fear and hostility. An angry mob assembles to chase him down, and he ends up running to the docks and jumping into the ocean to escape. The movie ends with Lillian waking up, revealing this was all a dream.
3. I Don't Want to Be a Man (1918)
In this German comedy film, a spirited teenage girl named Ossi Oswalda defies the gendered expectations of her strict uncle and governess. She takes part in activities that are prohibited for a lady, such as smoking, playing poker, and speaking to strange men on the street.
One day Ossi sneaks out on the town disguised as a man to attend a lavish ball. Though she believes being a man will be easier, she finds that it also comes with its share of challenges, such as the lack of chivalrous treatment.
At the ball, she runs into her employer, Dr. Kersten. They share cigars, get drunk, and end up exchanging kisses, implying bisexual or at least bi-curious leanings. They pass out in a taxi cab and are both dropped off at Dr. Kersten's house. Ossi sneaks out and runs home the next morning. Dr. Kersten goes to her house, finds her removing her disguise, and realizes who she is.
The two laugh about their drunken adventure and happily kiss. Ossi declares that she doesn’t want to be a man, because being a man is too exhausting. The movie ends there, with her conclusion that the rules that come with being female are not so bad.
4. Different from the Others (1919)
The German film Different From the Others (1919) centers on a successful violinist named Paul Körner who falls in love with one of his male music students. Another man sees them together and blackmails Körner, threatening to expose him if he doesn’t pay a hefty sum. This was during the era of Paragraph 175, a statute that criminalized homosexuality in Germany.
Eventually, Körner is outed, his career is ruined, and his family and friends abandon him. Körner commits suicide, and his young lover vows to dedicate his life to fighting Paragraph 175. (It was finally rescinded in 1994.)
Different From the Others was a financial success, despite protests and riots at many public screenings. The film was banned the following year. Over a decade later, the Nazi Party came into power and destroyed every copy they could find.
Luckily, 40 minutes of footage was saved by sexologist Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, who both co-wrote and appeared in the film. In 2011, it was bought by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, who worked to restore those 40 minutes for modern audiences.
The Archive's director, Jan-Christopher Horak, has said, “The view of the film is at least 50 years ahead of its time. It takes the view that homosexuality isn’t a sickness or a pathology, it’s in fact just another expression of human sexuality.”
5. Salomé (1923)
Salomé (1922) is the first film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name. It portrays a retelling of the Biblical story of Princess Salomé, who seduces her stepfather, King Herod of Judea, and convinces him to execute Saint John the Baptist.
The ladies of the court were all played by men in drag. Outside the palace, two effeminate male characters stand guard, touching and leaning on each other in ways that imply a romantic relationship. One of them shows jealousy when the other speaks to Salomé.
This film was the passion project of Russian-American actress Alla Nazimova, who financed, produced, co-directed, and starred in the film. Nazimova, who was open about her relationships with women, has been credited with coining the phrase “sewing circle” as a code referring to closeted lesbian and bisexual actresses. Her romantic partners included director Dorothy Arzner and Oscar Wilde’s niece, Dolly Wilde.
Some claimed that Nazimova insisted on casting only gay and bisexual actors in Salomé “in honor of Wilde,” who was gay himself. One of the extras did confirm that a good amount of the cast was gay or bisexual, though not all of them. Her friend Natacha Rambova, who designed the set and costumes, was rumored to be her lover.
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6. Michael (1924)
Based on Herman Bang’s novel Mikaël (1902), this film’s title character is the young lover of a famous painter named Claude Zoret. Unbeknownst to Zoret, Michael has doubts about their relationship due to their age difference. So when a beautiful countess approaches Zoret to have her portrait done, she and Michael begin an affair.
Michael leaves Zoret for the countess, stealing his money and sketches in the process. Distraught, Zoret retreats to his studio and paints his magnum opus: a portrait of a man lying alone on a beach in Algeria, where he and Michael first fell in love. Soon after, he becomes deathly ill.
His friend Charles, who has secretly loved him for years, sends a message to Michael telling him that Zoret is dying, but the message is intercepted by the countess. Zoret dies with Charles at his side, with his last words being, “Now I can die in peace, for I have seen true love.”
The first adaptation of this novel was a Swedish film entitled The Wings (1916), which toned down the romantic nature of Michael and Zoret’s relationship, and instead had them competing for the countess’s affections.
7. Sex in Chains (1928)
Sex in Chains (1928) begins with a young newlywed, Franz Sommer, being convicted of manslaughter after pushing a man who was flirting with his wife, Helene. The man bangs his head and dies, resulting in Sommer being sentenced to three years in prison.
During his time behind bars, Sommer bonds closely with his cellmate, Alfred Marquis. They sit together during a prison church service, where the preacher delivers a sermon about resisting temptation. That night, as they lie in their separate beds, Marquis tells Sommer he loves him and extends his hand. Sommer takes his hand and gets into Marquis’s bed. The scene then fades into an exterior shot of the prison.
Sommer is released from prison and returns home, where he confesses to Helene that he doesn’t love her anymore. Helene confesses that she had an affair. Intending to commit suicide, Sommer reaches for the gas valve on the heater and tells Helene to leave. She refuses, and they die together.
The film’s stance on homosexuality is debatable. On one hand, the two men’s relationship seems to result purely from the isolation of prison life, and Sommer ultimately repents for it by taking his life. However, their affection for each other is portrayed as genuine. During the church service scene, Marquis secretly writes both their names in a prayer book, showing a level of devotion to Sommers beyond the basic need for intimacy.
8. Pandora's Box (1929)
Though the lesbian character in the German film Pandora’s Box (1929) is not the protagonist, she nonetheless leaves a lasting impression. The story is about Lulu, a free-spirited party girl and mistress of the wealthy Dr. Ludwig Schön. Her friend, Countess Augusta Geschwitz (or Anna, as she’s called in some translations), is defined as a lesbian by her masculine clothing and obvious unrequited love for Lulu.
The women slow-dance together at a party, with Augusta leaning her head against Lulu with a melancholy expression. Afterward, Lulu mingles with other partygoers while Augusta stands off to the side, staring at her longingly. A man offers her a dance and she refuses, then quietly leaves the party.
Later, a violent confrontation between Lulu and Dr. Schön ends with a gun accidentally going off and killing him. Augusta attends Lulu’s trial and is devastated when she’s sentenced to five years in prison for manslaughter. When Lulu plans to flee the country with Dr. Schön’s son, Augusta lets her use her passport so she can get away.
Alice Roberts, the actress who played Augusta, was not aware that her character was a lesbian until filming began, and was resistant to the idea of playing her. The director, Georg Wilhelm Pabst, convinced her to pretend she was staring longingly at him instead of Lulu, which helped make her performance more authentic.
9. Mädchen in Uniform (1931)
Mädchen in Uniform (1931) is notable not only for being an LGTBQ+ film, but also for having an all-female cast.
This German film centers on Manuela, a rebellious teenager who is sent to an all-girls Catholic school. She develops a crush on her teacher, Fräulein von Bernburg, who seems to reciprocate her feelings. In one scene, von Bernburg makes her way down the rows of beds in the dormitory, giving her students goodnight kisses on the forehead, and when she reaches Manuela, gives her a kiss on the lips.
Later, realizing Manuela lacks clothes to wear, von Bernburg lends her one of her own petticoats. Manuela breaks down crying and confesses her love for her teacher. Von Bernburg says she loves her too, but can’t give her special treatment because it would make the other girls jealous.
Unfortunately, the school’s headmistress disapproves of von Bernburg’s laid-back approach to teaching and her close relationships with her students, particularly Manuela. The headmistress forbids them from speaking to each other, and later fires von Bernburg when she sees Manuela leaving her office. Devastated, Manuela attempts suicide by jumping off a high staircase, but is luckily rescued by her classmates.
Madchen in Uniform was remade in 1958. Despite the strict regulations of the Hays Code, the remake contains a scene where teacher and student share a kiss while running lines for Romeo and Juliet. Most recently, the film Loving Annabelle (2006) was based on Mädchen in Uniform, and is far more explicit in its portrayal of a forbidden relationship between a Catholic schoolgirl and her teacher.
10. Queen Christina (1933)
Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) was known for her rejection of gender norms, with her masculine clothing and mannerisms, her refusal to marry, and her enthusiasm for sports and hunting. She had several female lovers, including an Italian singer, a French noblewoman, and lady-in-waiting Ebba Sparre.
The biopic Queen Christina (1933) takes several liberties with her story, the biggest one being the fictitious romance with Spanish envoy Antonio Pimentel del Prado during the Thirty Years’ War. In real life, Christina never had relationships with men, and Antonio was married when he first met her.
However, the film still portrays her wearing men’s clothing, turning down marriage proposals, and going hunting on horseback. When she first meets Antonio, he mistakes her for a male servant due to her appearance.
Not only that, Christina’s interactions with Ebba Sparre indicate a romantic relationship. They greet each other with a kiss on the lips, and Ebba begs her to go on a sleigh ride with her. Christina refuses due to her royal duties, but promises to take Ebba on a trip to the country.
Despite its inaccuracies, Queen Christina arguably still has LGBTQ merit, as Christina is portrayed as bisexual and gender-nonconforming.
Honorable Mention: Manslaughter (1922)
Though the general plot of Manslaughter (1922) doesn’t qualify it as an LGBTQ+ film, it is nonetheless notable for containing the first same-sex kiss in cinema history.
The main character, Lydia, is a spoiled rich girl who spends her days drinking and partying. While she’s taking part in a drunken pogo-stick race at a New Year’s party, there’s an extended fantasy sequence depicting an orgy in ancient Rome. During this scene, two women can be seen kissing.
Critics interpret this sequence as an exaggeration of Lydia’s lifestyle, meant to foreshadow a destructive outcome. She later runs over a policeman due to her careless driving, and changes her ways during her time in prison.