The 10 Best Movies About Queer Chosen Families

From the belting bohemians in "Rent" to the bus-driving drag queens in "Priscilla," these gems prove that true kinship transcends genetics.

While Thanksgiving is often associated with family togetherness (and more recently, fist-shaking arguments over Donald Trump), queer people understand better than anyone that we don’t have to be genetically bound to people for them to feel like kin.

That was something director Doug Langway and I wanted to celebrate in BearCity, our 2010 gay rom-com about a young man, Tyler (Joe Conti), who finds love, acceptance, and brotherhood (and lots of hot hairy daddies) within the bear community. By 2016’s BearCity 3, the final entry in what had become a trilogy, our characters were having children, reconciling a death, supporting ex-boyfriends during hard times, and forging new and deeper bonds. (Did I mention how hysterically funny Stephen Guarino and Brian Keane are as couple Brent and Fred?)

Even William Friedkin’s seminal 1969 film adaption of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band—a campy, imminently quotable, dark AF dramedy about seven bitchy queens who read each other to filth and wallow in self-loathing during a birthday party—was a trailblazing prototype of the “chosen family” genre (whether or not it has aged well is another question). There have been dozens more of these types of movies since, with at least slightly better-adjusted, self-accepting protagonists.

On that note, to celebrate “Chosen Family” month here at NewNowNext and perhaps bring a few under-the-radar titles to your attention, we’ve rounded up 10 queer chosen family–themed must-sees for your viewing pleasure. So cozy up, read on, and then go watch with your friends—or, as it were, your family.

  1. My Own Private Idaho (1991)

    River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves play Mike and Scott, a pair of Portland, Ore., hustlers who form a brotherly bond while navigating tricks—and the former’s fits of narcolepsy—in Gus Van Sant’s Shakespeare-inspired third feature, which kicked off a subgenre of hustler-focused chosen family films that include 1996’s Johns (its director, Scott Silver, co-wrote this year’s Joker), 1999’s The Velocity of Gary (starring Thomas Jane, Salma Hayek, and Vincent D’Onofrio), and 2004’s Mysterious Skin (adapted by Gregg Araki from Scott Heim’s novel).

    FUN FACT: Phoenix rewrote the film’s most affecting scene, which established Mike as unambiguously gay—and in love with Scott.

  2. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

    In this Aussie road-trip hit, which launched a stage musical of the same name, Sydney drag vet Tick (Hugo Weaving), trans widow Bernadette (Terence Stamp), and troublemaking newbie queen Adam (Guy Pearce) grab a bus and cross the country for a set of gigs at an outback resort. Along the way they encounter drag-curious Aboriginals, homophobic rednecks, a kind mechanic (Bill Hunter), and Tick’s estranged wife and (gasp!) young son while mixing in some incredible lewks and numbers set to ABBA, Gloria Gaynor, and CeCe Peniston. Priscilla’s success (it won an Oscar for Best Costume Design) helped pave the way for 1995’s Hollywood quasi-reimagining To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.

    FUN FACT: Bette Midler was a producer of the 2011 Broadway version, while super-sassy K-pop star Jo Kwon (of 2AM) co-starred in the 2014 Seoul production.

  3. Chocolate Babies (1996)

    NYC filmmaker Stephen Winter’s audacious feature debut revolves around a tightly knit clique of pissed-off, HIV-positive activists who regularly assault conservative city officials: edgy, alcoholic leader Max Mo’ Freak (claude e. sloane); trash-talking sexual compulsive Larva (Dudley Finlay); transgender junkie prostitute Lady Marmalade (Michael Lynch); Max’s feminist sister Jamela (Suzanne Gregg Ferguson); and Max’s Asian-American lover, Sam (Jon Lee), who throws a wrench in the works when he becomes sexually involved with a closeted councilman (Bryan Webster) he interns for. Winter pulled this moving, outrageous, visionary, politically urgent work together on a shoestring, but it has sharp, memorable dialogue and a cinematic rhythm reminiscent of Spike Lee’s 1980s films. You’ll likely shed a tear during its final moments.

    FUN FACT: The entire movie is available to stream or download for free on Winter’s Vimeo channel.

  4. Love! Valour! Compassion! (1997)

    The film version of Terrence McNally’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play about longtime gay friends—including a married couple, a blind man struggling with fidelity, and a horny Puerto Rican dancer—united over three summer holiday weekends at a lakeside house is an intense, emotional watch that perfectly blends comedy, tragedy, and a healthy share of male nudity. It retained most of the original off-Broadway and Broadway productions’ cast (Justin Kirk, Stephen Spinella, John Benjamin Hickey, and John Glover) but Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander famously stepped into the Nathan Lane role of flamboyant, lovelorn HIV-positive showmo Buzz. Glover, playing British twins—the prickly, bullying John and kindly James—is especially powerful and convincing, and the brothers’ CGI-free confrontation during the last act will have you reaching for the tissues.

    FUN FACT: In a 2012 interview, Alexander recalled shooting the final scene, in which the entire cast goes nighttime skinny-dipping in an icy quarry: “If you saw the ‘shrinkage’ episode of Seinfeld, I will tell you there were no longer seven men standing there. There were seven women. You have never seen guys desperately tugging, pulling, stretching…”

  5. The Broken Hearts Club (2000)

    Before queering up DC’s superheroes and the teen rom-com genre (see: Love, Simon), Greg Berlanti made his feature film debut with this ensemble comedy about a group of besties wrestling with West Hollywood 20-something gay-male angst. They include Dennis (Timothy Olyphant), an aspiring photographer who wants something deeper than hookups; the neurotic Howie (Matt McGrath), who keeps his ex-boyfriend Marshall (Justin Theroux) dangling while looking for someone hotter (the irony!); Cole (Dean Cain), a shameless player who brings impressionable baby gay Kevin (Andrew Keegan) into the fold; and Taylor (a scene-stealing Billy Porter), who completely malfunctions after being dumped. At times the movie can feel a bit Boys in the Band-y with all its self-flagellation and infighting, but this bunch doesn’t need blood to stay tied together.

    FUN FACT: Late Frasier star John Mahoney (who was gay IRL) plays the club’s de facto den mother and softball coach.

  6. Punks (2000)

    Premiering alongside The Broken Hearts Club at 2000’s Sundance Film Festival, Patrik-Ian Polk’s (Noah’s Arc) directorial feature debut focuses on a group of queer West Hollywood black men. Marcus (Seth Gilliam) is a hot fashion photographer in search of real romance, which he’d love to find with his charming, sexy, down-to-earth neighbor Darby (Rockmond Dunbar). Trouble is, Darby has a girlfriend (Vanessa Williams—no, not that one)… at least for now. Meanwhile, after breaking up with his philandering French beau, the fork-tongued, HIV-positive Hill (Dwight Ewell) has begun to “marinate” in sexual freedom with half the town, and glamorous drag queen Chris/Crystal (Jazzmun) is balancing ego clashes with her performance group The Sisters and her secret relationship. And poor little rich party boy Dante (Renoly Santiago) needs to learn when playtime is over. Drama, laughs, music, and fierce routines collide in this warm and witty gem.

    FUN FACT: The role of Miss Smokie was originally written for RuPaul, but it ultimately went to fellow queer nightlife and recording artist legend Kevin Aviance.

  7. Bear Cub (a.k.a. Cachorro) (2004)

    Madrid’s bear scene is the backdrop for director Miguel Albaladejo’s dramedy about Pedro (José Luis García Pérez), a commitment-averse, HIV-positive dentist with a robust (and explicitly depicted!) sex life who assumes custody of his 9-year-old nephew, Bernardo (David Castillo), when his irresponsible mother (Elvira Lindo) ends up in prison. Soon, Pedro and his network of hirsute friends are embracing the kid and rallying against Bernardo’s estranged, judgy grandmother Dona Teresa (Empar Ferrer), who attempts to snatch the boy away.

    FUN FACT: Bear Cub sprung from Albaladejo’s lyrical, dialogue-free 1996 short film of the same name, which you can watch on Vimeo.

  8. Rent (2005)

    Thanks to the late Jonathan Larson’s iconic, award-winning 1996 Broadway musical about queers and bohemians in 1989 downtown NYC (loosely based on the opera La Bohème), we know exactly how many minutes make up a year. But more than that, this movie adaptation from Chris Columbus (who directed the first two Harry Potter films) stars most of the original production’s cast, including Anthony Rapp as filmmaker Mark, Adam Pascal as HIV-positive rock musician Roger, Idina Menzel as Mark’s queer ex-girlfriend Maureen, Jesse L. Martin as HIV-positive professor, and Wilson Jermaine Heredia as his drag queen lover, Angel. The best news? Given that it’s available on streaming, Blu-ray, and digital, you can watch it anytime, anywhere right now.

    FUN FACT: Spike Lee was reportedly attached to the project in 2001. Also, Rapp recently announced his engagement to his boyfriend, Ken Ithiphol. Congrats!

  9. Leave It on the Floor (2011)

    A predecessor to Pose, director Sheldon Larry (Noah’s Arc) and writer-lyricist Glenn Gaylord’s Paris Is Burning–inspired musical is set in Los Angeles’ ballroom scene and follows a young, homeless gay African American, Brad (Ephraim Sykes), who becomes entangled with two star members of the fictitious Eminence House, Princess (Phillip Evelyn) and Carter (Andre Myers). A powerhouse both dramatically and vocally, L.A. drag personality Miss Barbie-Q portrays house mother Queef Latina, and James Alsop is a veritable scene-stealer as the pregnancy-obsessed transgender character Eppie Durall.

    FUN FACT: Two Beyoncé collaborators, composer Kim Burse and choreographer Frank Gatson Jr., added wattage to the musical numbers, while members of L.A.’s real-life ball community were involved both on and off screen.

  10. Tangerine (2015)

    Shot on an iPhone 5S, director Sean Baker’s uproarious, energetic, and surprisingly tender comedy trails Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), an L.A. transgender sex worker just released from the clink who spends Christmas Eve with her bestie Alexandra (Mya Taylor) in pursuit of her pimp boyfriend (James Ransone), who’s cheating on her with a cis female. Shit gets pretty grim in this one, but we’re stans, fam.

    FUN FACT: Trans actress Taylor has kept busy since Tangerine, with roles in AMC’s Dietland and Thom Fitzgerald’s upcoming drag club dramedy Stage Mother, also starring Lucy Liu, Adrian Grenier, and Jacki Weaver.

Main image: (L-R): Jesse L. Martin, Rosario Dawson, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, and Anthony Rapp in Rent.

Lawrence is a New York-based travel and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Time Out New York and The New York Post.
@LawrenceFerber