Growing up in the late 1990s/early 2000s, being gay wasn't something that I discussed with my friends or family, and certainly never with anyone at school. We were, of course, still living under the shadow of Section 28 (Section 2A in Scotland) at the time, which essentially banned the 'promotion' of homosexuality by local authorities. It goes without saying that LGBT education was not part of the school curriculum.

As soon as I left school, I made it my mission to find out more about the gay community that I knew I belonged to but hadn't yet had any exposure to. I probably should have got in touch with a local LGBT youth organisation, but there was no way that I would have been brave enough to do that back then, and so I turned to films - still my preferred method for finding out about most things!  

Here are five films that, although only form a tiny part of LGBT cinema history, were certainly life-changing for me:  

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) - Dir. Stephen Frears  

Featuring a very early performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, this film tackles so many issues in the relatively short space of 98 minutes - from race and sexuality to class and capitalism in Thatcher's Britain of the 1980s. 

Maurice (1987) - Dir. James Ivory  

Based on the 1914 E.M. Forster novel that remained unpublished (the author's decision) until after his death in 1971, this film adaptation follows the titular character through his days at university and into his adult life as he moves through upper-class Edwardian society. Along the way, and although in secret, Maurice stays true to who he is, even while seeing some of his peers imprisoned and his former lover/best friend (played by Hugh Grant) enter into marriage to keep his sexuality hidden.  

Longtime Companion (1989) - Dir. Norman René

This one's a bit of a hidden gem. Longtime Companion was the first widely released theatrical film to deal with the subject of AIDS and, although critically acclaimed, remains lesser known than other works that tackle the issue. Similar to It's a Sin, the film follows the lives of a group of friends between 1981 and 1989 and the effect that the epidemic has on their lives, while the title comes from a euphemism used by The New York Times throughout the 80s to describe the surviving same-sex partners of those who lost their lives to the illness. 

Philadelphia (1993) - Dir. Jonathan Demme  

Possibly the best-known film about the AIDS epidemic due to Tom Hanks's Oscar-winning performance as a gay lawyer who becomes embroiled in a bitter discrimination case after his employer dismisses him upon learning that he has contracted the disease. Bruce Springsteen's 'Streets of Philadelphia' from the soundtrack still gives me the shivers to this day!  

Beautiful Thing (1996) - Dir. Hettie Macdonald  

A landmark gay coming-of-age film - set on a London housing estate during a heatwave - that has aged a lot better than some of the imitators that followed (at least in my opinion). It also boasts an incredible soundtrack full of absolute belters by Mama Cass/The Mamas and the Papas! I was at the same stage of my life as the two main characters when I first watched it, and possibly more than any other film on this list; Beautiful Thing gave me the feeling that I wasn't alone and that things do indeed get better.

Today, we have a lot more information at our disposal and don't need to be so heavily reliant on hunting down films and books to connect with our past. But of course, films remain a great source of knowledge and entertainment, and maybe now is the perfect time to watch, re-watch and review these films and take a bit of comfort in how far we've come since then. 

On a side note, I can remember watching Jacob's Ladder in my Higher Religious, Moral & Philosophical Studies class, which was more than a little disturbing at 16. Funny how no-one at the school thought we'd need protecting from that!

Gavin McNee

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