The first openly gay television character was on the 70s sitcom “All in the Family.” The show introduced Steve, a gay, former football player who defied everyone’s expectations when he came out to his friends.
Although the show used harmful and homophobic language — the main character was a bigot — the core idea battled stereotypical notions of what a gay man “should” look like. Steve entered the show once to make a point and challenge viewers, but his inclusion in mainstream media catalyzed a revolution of LGBTQIA+ representation in television and film. Here are six more recent movies and shows that have also had meaningful impacts:
1. “POSE” — Trans Representation
Ryan Murphy’s drama “POSE” centers around the ball culture of 1980s New York. Trans woman Jenny W, who wanted to use an alias, spoke about her relationship with the show.
“They use trans actors for trans characters which isn’t done a whole lot, and when it is done, they’re often side characters and they don’t get a ton of screen time,” W said. “This show is entirely about trans experiences, while it also does not only focus on the trauma of being trans.” Rather, “POSE” focuses on everyday experiences and a sense of family.
When asked how LGBTQIA+ people or youth who have yet to come out, or fear coming out, can benefit from POSE, W responded, “I think it will show some people that there is a community out there and that it’s possible to come out. Especially if your family is not supportive, it’s possible to find a new family, and there are other ways to have a fulfilling life that you don’t get to see very often on television.”
2. “Broad City” — Bisexual Representation
Bisexual characters rarely have the screen time or portrayals they deserve. They tend to be cast as people who can’t decide their sexuality or are greedy and narcissistic. Arguably worse is the trope where bisexual characters learn they’re straight after a same-sex romance.
Slice of life comedy “Broad City” avoids this harmful depiction. The show follows the lives of two friends exploring New York City in their 20s. Bri Spieldenner, a pansexual woman, stated that “Broad City” represents her life’s philosophy.
“[“Broad City”’s] rare, honest examination of bisexual female friendship doesn’t focus their entire personalities on their sexuality. The show inspires women to love other women, through friendship and romantic love,” she said. “That’s my idealized friendship. I mean, it’s my life.”
3. “Glee” — Gay Representation
Although this show paints some of its gay characters as biphobic, it formed a solid foundation for LGBTQIA+ representation of gay (and trans) characters in the 2010s.
“‘Glee’ was the first show to show me that who I was is okay. As cliche as that sounds, it’s genuinely crazy how a silly show with two stereotypical gay characters can get you out of some dark places,” said Danny Davalos, a gay man. “When I felt alone, living through this fictional story was everything. Seeing myself represented helped me come to terms with myself. Seeing characters come out to their parents made me find the courage to do the same. Seeing characters be confused and told by their peers that it’s okay to be confused made me feel okay about being confused myself, you know?”
Davalos implied that while “Glee” has some positive representations, the show borders on melodrama and doesn’t have to translate full truths.
“There is a fine line between reality and fiction, and you have to realize that at the end of the day, visual media has the purpose of catering entertainment,” he said. “Setting up unreachable expectations is a side effect of that, and that’s why we love films and shows like this so much. They allow us to fantasize about what we don’t have but wish to. This might be toxic in a way, but very important.”
4. “High School Musical” Franchise — Gay Representation
“High School Musical” debuted its first film in 2006. The movie showcased two talented protagonists, a basketball star and a math wiz, who fell in love and bonded over their mutual adoration of performing. The franchise never assigned specific LGBTQIA+ identities to its cast; however, a lot of LGBTQIA+ people found self-acceptance in its expressive characters and musical numbers.
“‘High School Musical’ was one of the first movies that I saw as a child to have a male character whose sexuality was up to the audience’s interpretation,” said Jake Wesselkamper, who identifies as a gay man. “The creators of the movie gave the character Ryan very bright and colorful outfits as well as a very outgoing [and] flamboyant personality. Seeing a character like this at the age of ten influenced myself and many others in the LGBTQIA+ community in a positive way because it showed young kids that you can be yourself no matter what anyone else thinks or says.”
5. “Carmilla” Franchise — Bisexual, Queer and Non-Binary Representation
French author Sheridan LeFanu wrote “Carmilla,” a vampire love story, years before Dracula surfaced. With its queer narrative, the 1872 novel positioned itself well ahead of other 1870s literature.
Screenwriters adapted “Carmilla” into several movies and short series. The most popular adaptation was the 2014 web series with the subsequent movie in 2017. Aside from queer tones, the show includes a non-binary character, La Fontaine, played by a non-binary actor, Kaitlyn Alexander.
La Fontaine’s exquisite knowledge leads the group through intense missions and dangerous excursions. La Fontaine’s close friend struggles with their identity in the first few episodes, but soon accepts them for who they are. The story moves away from revolving around La Fontaine’s labels, or the lack thereof.
Like “Broad City,” “Carmilla” represents a marginalized group, but it doesn’t focus the story on La Fontaine’s identity. Instead, the show focuses on the characters’ undying love for puzzle-solving and scientific experiments. Their friends accept them, and they navigate daily life together.
6. “Faking It” — Intersex Representation
Another year with historic firsts was 2014 when MTV depicted the first intersex protagonist on television. MTV’s original show “Faking It” included Lauren, an intersex character, in its tale of female friendship and identity acceptance.
“Intersex” describes people whose bodies fall outside of the male/female binary. While this can show up in many ways, one example is someone being born with both ovarian and testicular tissues. While doctors assign these people a sex at birth, that person may (or may not) have a different gender identity.
One story arc in “Faking It” is about Lauren coming out and accepting her identity. She visits an online support group, a real organization entitled interACT, to speak with other intersex people.
interACT advocates against doctors trying to change these children’s bodies as doing so neglects bodily autonomy. It pushes for progress, provides support and love to the intersex community, and amplifies intersex voices in the media and public eye.
The actress who played Lauren, Bailey DeYoung, is not intersex; however, “Faking It” took this information into consideration and wrote in an intersex actor to play an intersex character. interACT’s Amanda Saenz, a youth member of the group, played Raven, the first intersex actor in an intersex role. Raven and Lauren met up in the show to help find an intersex foundation for the community.
Positive LGBTQ+ Representation Moving Forward
While LGBTQIA+ representation in movies and shows is increasing, we still run into problematic tropes, such as the infamous “bury your gays.” This trope paints queer characters as objects of suffering, insisting on giving them frequent deaths and endless pain. Meanwhile, straight counterparts in the media succeed in life and live without this degrading media portrayal of a meaningless existence. We also see LGBTQIA+ people as shticks, objects of fetishization, or one-dimensional side characters.
Queer media has room for improvement. More queer actors should be cast in queer roles for accurate depictions of their experiences, but at least we’re moving forward. According to a BBC study, the amount of representation in televised media in 2022 broke records with 12 percent of all characters in television identifying as LGBTQIA+.
We may have a long way to go until LGBTQIA+ people are all represented in an honest and respectful fashion, but until then, shows such as “Broad City,” “Glee,” and “POSE” as well as films such as “Carmilla,” “High School Musical,” and “Crush” serve as positive portrayals for those who identify as LGBTQIA+.
Women AdvaNCe compiled a list of Pride Month events happening this June! You can check it out here.
Gabrielle Reeder is a freelance journalist from Tampa, Florida. Her interests lie in music, entertainment, social issues, and anything and everything relating to horror movies. When she’s not writing you can find her at a Billie Eilish concert or solving a Rubik’s cube.