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The Best LGBTQ+ Characters in Independent Film History

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Jonathan Groff and Corey Stoll in C.O.G.

Casey De La Rosa

It’s June, y’all, which means the LGBTQ+ and their friends, families, and allies are putting on their tank tops, taking to the streets, and waving their rainbow flags. And though the “Do we still need Pride?” debate rages on, it’s hard for a young-ish person like me to believe that not so long ago—and still in some parts of our country and the world—it’s not okay to be who you are, 365 days a year.

We’ve made huge advancements in being recognized as an important part of our communities, and we have a lot of people to thank for that: Those who fought (sometimes literally) for our rights when we had none, those who proudly lived their lives in full view when most people didn’t want to see us, and the artists who told personal gay stories on stage and screen, without regard for their careers.

There’s no doubt in my mind that seeing stories and characters in film and on television teaches audiences both straight and gay about what LGBTQ+ life can be like. With that in mind, let’s take a look at five of our favorite LGBTQ+ characters from Sundance-supported films.

Alike (played by Adepero Oduye) in Pariah

Seventeen-year-old Alike is torn between the conservative world she came from and the gay life she’s drawn to, with its thumping music, go-go dancers, and same-sex cruising. Most LGBT people are all too familiar with this rift, which is authentically portrayed and perfectly personified by Alike and her struggle for self-discovery.

Ben Cooper (played by Bradley Cooper) in Wet Hot American Summer

Just as good as Salute Your Shorts (the summer camp-set Nickelodeon series I watched on repeat for most of the ‘90s), Wet Hot American Summer is overflowing with fun characters and raging libidos. Ben is focused on producing and choreographing the greatest talent show on earth but finds time to have hilariously sexy goodtimes with his boyfriend (played by Michael Ian Black) in the sports shed. Later they have a beautiful hippie commitment ceremony in the happy ending every gay boy dreams of.

James (Del Herbert-Jane) in 52 Tuesdays

Opposite of Tilda Cobham-Hervey’s heartrending performance as 16-year-old Billie in 52 Tuesdays is Del Herbert-Jane’s equally stoic portryal as a mother named James undergoing gender transition. 52 Tuesdays follows the invariable challenges facing Billie and her mother throughout the transition, during which Billie stays with her father, Tom, for a year and is restricted to seeing James only on Tuesdays. Most fascinating of all is the film’s incredible attempt at authenticity–it was shot exclusively on Tuesdays for 52 consecutive weeks.

Chaz Bono In Becoming Chaz

As difficult as I imagine it is to be in a body you don’t identify with, undergoing gender reassignment surgery must be an even more difficult decision. Chaz does just this and bravely shares her transformation with us, from hormone shots to top surgery. Intimate and nakedly honest, many LGBT people identify with the humanity and courage it takes for Chaz to ultimately embrace his true self.

Curly (played by Corey Stoll) in C.O.G.

If you’re lucky enough to have seen this not-yet-released movie by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, you’re probably already laughing. C.O.G. marks the first film adaptation of David Sedaris’ brilliantly offbeat work so it should come as no surprise that the friendship between David (Jonathan Groff) and Curly left me at once amused, embarrassed, somewhat horrified, and guiltily wanting more. In a pivotal scene, we learn about Curly’s unique, um, hobby, and as one friend described his reaction to me, “I can never un-see that.” He’s right, and you won’t forget Curly either.

Orlando (played by Tilda Swinton) in Orlando

Tilda Swinton plays Orlando, an ageless character who faces changing sexual identities and gender roles over the course of 400 years – from the time when women couldn’t own land to the time of equal rights. Orlando is a witty and intelligent exploration of that progress, and while it shows us how far women’s rights have come, it also makes me think of the work that is yet to be done for LGBTQ+ rights.


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Sundance Institute Piloting Direct Individual Support for Mediamakers Through the Sundance Institute | Humanities Sustainability Fellowship

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life in general, and halted production and distribution for many creatives, the nonfiction field was plagued by issues of sustainability. For several years, sustainability has been an urgent and vigorous topic of study, debate, and organizing, as more and more filmmakers find it difficult, if not impossible, to make a living solely on the basis of their creative work. 

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