Much has changed since our queer forebears fought for LGBTQ+ rights in the 1969 Stonewall riots. In fact, it could be argued that most of those rights have now been won. Gay marriage is now legal in the UK, same-sex couples can adopt children and the British government plans to abolish gay conversion therapy.
But are queer people now treated equally? No. Transphobia is rife in the media and violence against the LGBTQ+ community is on the rise. Things are not equal, and they might not be for a very long time. But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost.
Representation matters, and although it can’t change everything for the better overnight, positive LGBTQ+ role models still make a difference. And it’s not just about educating bigots. The right kind of representation can make marginalised groups feel seen. It can inspire people to live their truth. And in the right circumstances, positive LGBTQ+ characters can even save lives.
We here at Digital Spy think that’s something worth celebrating, and not only in Pride Month. The 50 LGBTQ+ characters we’ve chosen to rave about here deserve to be celebrated all year round for making us laugh, for making us cry, and most importantly of all, for inspiring people in the real world to make a difference.
(And if you’re upset that one of your favourites didn’t make the cut, we’re sorry, but also, take a moment to celebrate the fact that we even have more than 50 characters to choose from, because that certainly wasn’t the case back in 1969).
One of the biggest misconceptions that surrounds queerness is that children are too young to be queer and therefore exposing them to LGBTQ+ experiences is somehow inappropriate.
This kind of bigoted notion is exactly why Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar decided to feature gorgeously queer characters like Pearl and Bismuth throughout their cartoon. And that’s also why they fought so hard to do the impossible and broadcast the first same-sex wedding in animated history.
Together, Ruby and Sapphire are stronger than they are apart, and that’s why Garnet, a fused combination of the two, deserves to be celebrated here today. Also, her visor is just really cool.
Saeed Adyani / Netflix
Laura Jane Turner
After Judy’s no-good ex Steve ended up dead in Jen’s pool, the next relationship she developed was with a woman named Michelle. It was organic, tender and heartfelt, and saw Judy get some much-deserved happiness.
But there was no big coming-out speech. In fact, Judy never once felt the need to define herself or her sexuality. This type of casual representation may seem trivial, but it was a breath of fresh air for many of us.
Sadly, we still live in a society that assumes heterosexuality as the default. As a result, anyone that doesn’t explicitly out themselves as otherwise, or who is in a straight-passing (for lack of a better phrase) relationship, is usually assumed to fit that perceived ‘norm’. But life just isn’t like that – queerness is a beautiful and diverse rainbow of experiences, label or no label, each one of them as valid as the next.
In among its absurd twists and laugh-out-loud one-liners, Dead to Me highlighted that a person’s identity should never be assumed. Moreover, it does not need to be justified, defended or explained around. It can just be.
While coming out stories and the varied struggles of LGBTQ+ people are vital narratives that still need to be told, Judy’s journey was a simple yet powerful beacon of what we can strive towards.
Laura Jane Turner
Queer Asian representation is still sorely lacking on our telly screens, but Superstore is pushing that envelope – particularly through its beloved character Mateo Liwanag. He’s a gay Filipino man, and this is explored in great depth on the show and through his individual storylines. But, equally as importantly, Mateo is also afforded the same treatment as the rest of his retail store colleagues.
Actor Nico Santos called Superstore’s cast “one of the most diverse” on television (via Today), also pointing out that “people are waking up to the possibility of this becoming the new normal of just the world being reflected the way it is and the way it should be”.
From Ellen coming out in the ’90s to recent series like Modern Family exploring the idea of gay parenthood, sitcoms are arguably the most groundbreaking genre when it comes to on-screen depictions of modern LGBTQ+ life.
The first season of One Day at a Time, the now-cancelled reboot of the ’70s sitcom phenomenon, may tread familiar ground when it comes to Elena Alvarez’ (Isabella Gomez) coming out story, but it explores the trauma of the closet with an unexpected depth.
From the cultural conservatism of older Latino family members to strained relationships with the homophobic men of the family, One Day at a Time doesn’t sugar-coat its trauma, even as it handles its explorations with a lightness of touch. It makes Elena so much more than the live action Lisa Simpson clone she otherwise could have been.
Darryl’s journey from supporting character to bi-icon is one of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s crowning achievements. Bisexual people are rarely given the room to express and explore their sexuality in a way that doesn’t feel tokenistic in TV land, so the fact that CxG gave Daryl the space to come out in his own episode (despite his relatively low profile up to that point) is absolutely noteworthy.
The importance of that episode is amplified by the way older members of the LGBTQ+ community, and bisexual men, are nearly non-existent on TV – making Daryl’s journey and character arc doubly important. Ultimately, across the show’s run, Pete Gardner and the writers were able to give some much-needed representation while also having a ton of fun with this adorably dorky character.
Few people can forget the first time they saw Shane McCutcheon make her debut in the L Word. Although it was her sex appeal that attracted a lot of fans, Shane quickly became an iconic lesbian character for more than her flirtatious nature and good looks. Unashamedly out and proud, her character gave an in-depth portrayal that mainstream entertainment had previously lacked, especially when it comes to the trope of womanising lesbian.
Although she slept with a lot of women throughout the duration of the series, Shane was allowed to grow beyond the confines of ‘player’ and become a relatable character; she was shown to be more than her sensuality. For someone such as myself, who approached life in a similar way, it was refreshing to see that Shane’s character was given nuance.
Before characters like Shane, lesbian representation was limited, often struggling to break the mould of the stereotype it had been forced to become. By having a character who was as equally chaotic, sincere, loyal, and troubled, it allowed viewers to feel seen. We were given a chance to be understood as more than the popular misconception that all queer women are promiscuous.
Moreover, Shane allowed the show to challenge the notion that sexual ownership and assertiveness are traits to be ashamed of. Arguably, that’s why Shane’s inclusion in L Word: Generation Q was so well received – we were able to once again engage with a relatable character.
Grey’s Anatomy’s resident bisexual Dr Callie Torres has put the B of “badass” into LGBTQ+. Played by non-binary bi actor Sara Ramirez, Callie is a brilliant orthopaedic surgeon and an out-and-proud queer Latina. With 11 seasons of Grey’s under her belt, Callie is one of TV’s longest-running queer characters – and the first-ever accurate portrayal of my sexuality on screen.
As a teen, I jumped on Meredith Grey’s bandwagon early on and started watching the show in 2005. I didn’t immediately connect with Callie when she joined the series in its second season. However, this changed when she went through a confusing, relatable bisexual awakening in season five. I admired this woman who wasn’t afraid to love her body and enjoy sex, and seeing her figuring out who she was felt new and exciting for me.
As a late bisexual bloomer, I had no idea back then that I would relate to Callie so much after my own coming out. Just like Ramirez’s character, I’d always seen myself as *mostly* straight. Did I also think I could be gay after having been with a woman? Yes. Was that true? Hell no.
Callie being so outspoken about her bisexuality and defending it with friends, family and lovers anticipated what I’d deal with in my mid- and late-20s whenever I’d discuss my identity with both straight and gay people. I was sad to see her leave the show but glad she didn’t go out with a devastating death à la Grey’s tradition and got her happy ending.
’San Junipero’ remains one of the greatest Black Mirror episodes five years after release thanks to its heartbreaking romance, classic twist and compelling lead performances from Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as two young women in love.
Yorkie and Kelly’s love story, and the reveal that it is actually happening at the end of both characters’ lives, was a milestone for the sci-fi juggernaut. It’s the first (and last) time openly queer characters were featured on the show and has remained a classic for fans. Thanks to the technological twist at its core, the story of Yorkie and Kelly’s relationship feels expansive. We see them meet, fall in love, argue, and eventually stay together forever.
Laura Jane Turner
How to Get Away with Murder might have been a faintly ridiculous show on a lot of fronts, but when it came to representation it was not playing. In fact, its queer legacy is one that’s been celebrated by GLAAD, and Oliver’s storyline was a momentous part of that.
His relationship with Connor was central, with the pair fast-becoming fan favourites, but Oliver’s status as a HIV+ man was particularly groundbreaking, largely because there is a severe lack of positive depictions of HIV on our screens. After his diagnosis, Oliver went about his life happily and normally – or as normally as it got for any of them, what with all the murders! His relationship with Connor flourished, and they got their happy ending. Other shows (13 Reasons Why, we’re looking at you) could learn something.
Laura Jane Turner
Showtime’s Billions made history when it cast Asia Kate Dillon for its second season, making them the first non-binary actor to have a starring role on US TV. Dillon’s character Taylor Mason – a smart and ambitious intern, ready to shake things up in the male-dominated space of finance – was also non-binary, marking a groundbreaking moment for gender non-conforming representation on TV.
Their portrayal highlights the importance of authenticity. “That a non-binary character was going to be on a show like Billions, on a network like Showtime, and they were going to be integral to the plot and their gender identity was just one of many parts that made up the character – that really drove me to want to play this part,” Dillon explained to EW back in 2017. “I feel very proud to represent something on television that hasn’t been represented before. I know it would have meant a lot to me, as a younger person, especially.”
Ron Cephas Jones delivered a new perspective of not only what it means to be a Black and bisexual man, but an elderly, Black and bisexual man as William Hill – father to Randall Pearson (Sterling K Brown) in This Is Us.
Although William’s time on the show was short-lived (let’s not talk about that tear-jerking sendoff), there was never any doubt for his first love Laurel, Randall’s mother, his devotion to his partner Jessie (Denis O’Hare), and the new-found relationship he formed with his son Randall – but most of all, the everlasting impression he made on his granddaughter Tess, which helped her to realise her self-identification and to come out to her family in the season three finale, as well as remaining a championing voice for the LGBTQ+ community.
Laura Jane Turner
In the early 2000s, Betty Suarez’s nephew Justin was the gay representation that many young people craved and whose coming out storyline inspired a generation. He was larger-than-life and self-assured, embracing his love of fashion and musicals from a young age and showing others that you can be yourself unapologetically.
Actor Mark Indelicato is said to have opened up about the fan mail he received while on the show, revealing that a lot of kids who felt they didn’t fit in had reached out to him to say how much Justin had helped them.
Kieron McCarron/Jack BarnesBBC
Ben Mitchell has been a mainstay on Albert Square on and off for nearly 25 years. Across those three decades, the first son of Walford has delivered more meme-worthy lines than most (“you need slapping down”) and has been portrayed by a cavalcade of actors. But those aren’t the only reasons Phil Mitchell’s progeny will go down in history.
Ben’s identity as a gay man, from bullied schoolboy to revenge-seeking hardman to fiancé, has always been tied to his plot lines and his popularity. During Ben’s adolescence and childhood, he was the perfect foil to Phil’s extreme toxic masculinity, and their rocky relationship would go on to provide the lion’s share of Ben’s character development.
Over the subsequent years, their father-son bond has grown in a way that, while not being glamorous, feels reflective of the way LGBTQ+ people are often forced to rebuild their family dynamics.
In recent years, Ben’s popularity and storylines have been more closely tied to his romantic relationships. First there was his teenage love Paul Coker, who was tragically murdered because of his sexuality as part of a storyline that shined a grim light on violent homophobia. Nowadays, Ben is most famous for being one half of social media power couple #Ballum, alongside the formerly-closeted (and currently-a-police-officer) Callum Highway.
Ben’s involvement in the #Ballum saga also gave the EastEnders writers a new angle to explore sexuality and coming out – which triumphantly includes Phil Mitchell punching an angry homophobe square in the face.
Euphoria’s Rue Bennett doesn’t have a big coming-out moment. Those two words don’t pass her lips at all across the show’s 10 episodes. Her sexuality is never announced, it just is, which makes her such an important addition to the roster of gay characters on telly.
We love it when people scream their queerness from the rooftops but equally, we dig it when no explanation is necessary, with no resistance or fanfare. There’s space for every aspect of the queer experience to be reflected on-screen, and Rue is here to show you that there is no one-size-fits-all approach when telling LGBTQ+ stories.
Ryan O’Connell’s portrayal as a fictionalised version of himself in Netflix’s Special is unique, not just because of the show’s focus on a gay man with cerebral palsy, but because of the sheer amount of self-deprecation that it contains. As “Ryan Hayes”, we see O’Connell (who also created and wrote the show) confront a range of hilarious problems due to both his sexuality and his disability.
Across 10 episodes, and in 15-minute segments, he bickers with co-workers, deals with body-image issues in the glamorous world of Los Angeles and learns how to manage a particularly chaotic boss.
Among the jokes, the show also finds other ways to be both progressive and heartfelt. The episode where Ryan loses his virginity to a sex worker is a particularly tender moment, dispelling both Ryan’s own prejudice and the audience’s with ease.
Mitch Hewer might not have found the same success as some of his other Skins co-stars, and by that, we mean no disrespect to all of the Britannia High loyalists out there. But still, his character Maxxie meant more to an entire generation of queer men than all the other characters combined.
Looking back, Skins spoke to British teenagers in ways that few other shows have managed to replicate since. And for a lot of struggling or closeted queer teens, Maxxie in particular spoke to their own personal experiences at a time when positive LGBTQ+ role models were few and far between.
Warner Brothers / Sergei Bachlak
The Arrowverse has been responsible for a lot of credible firsts on TV, but perhaps none are more important than Dreamer, the first trans superhero ever depicted on screen.
First introduced in Supergirl’s fourth season, Nia Nal really is a dream come to life for so many comic book fans who have longed to see themselves represented in the stories they love. It also helps that The CW cast Nicole Maines, an inspiring trans activist who fights for LGBTQ+ rights out of costume too. Dreamer and Nicole herself are the heroes we need right now.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine may be known for its slapstick yet heartfelt humour, but it also deals with some heavier hitting issues. For Rosa Diaz, coming out as bi was an important character arc. That it was developed by the actress who plays Rosa, Stephanie Beatriz, who is herself bisexual, makes it all the more meaningful.
Rosa brings a level of reality to the life of bi characters. She isn’t portrayed as “slutty” or “greedy”, and her relationships with men and women are taken as seriously as each other. The fraught relationship with her parents isn’t ham-fisted or naive, but rather complex, and full of growth. She makes no bones about who she is, and for that reason she’s worth celebrating.
As the first Black lesbian superhero on TV, Nafessa Williams’ Anissa Pierce made TV and LGBTQ+ history. Anissa, or Thunder, is unapologetically her – an activist who stands up against police brutality and fights for Black lives, a queer woman with superhuman abilities (and she’s anything but afraid to use them), a loving daughter and sister, and, most of all, a lesbian woman who boldly understands and is unashamed of her sexuality. A rarity in modern television.
Feel Good manages to pack so much into 12 short episodes, and its nuanced, raw, full-fledged examination of queer love and relationships is essential viewing. Drawing from the same influences as Mae Martin’s personal stand-up shows, the power of this semi-autobiographical series is only heightened by its unrelenting honesty.
Mae’s ability to capture the joy and tension of new love, with all its ups and downs, can’t help but make you think. And their deconstruction of addiction, recovery and identity (“I’m not just an addict, I have my very own dazzling personality”) captures why detailed, nuanced representation is so vital.
Not only was Xena a warrior of inimitable strength and compassion, and who one fights for justice, she has been cited by many as a trailblazing feminist and lesbian icon, paving the way for characters like Buffy and Sydney Bristow of Alias. Though now the ambiguity of her and Gabrielle’s relationship might be termed queerbaiting, it was truly more subtext that eventually was confirmed as canon by Xena herself.
She told Lesbian News that Xena was: “Gay. Definitely… [I]t wasn’t just that Xena was bisexual and kinda liked her gal pal and they kind of fooled around sometimes, it was, ‘Nope, they’re married, man.’” That outspokenness and pride defined Xena, and is what makes her so iconic.
Titus Andromedon might not be the title character in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but he’s undoubtedly the main event. His penchant for histrionics is endlessly entertaining to behold and he needs little to no excuse to burst into song – his parody of Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ is Grammy-worthy. ‘Peeno Noir: An Ode to Black Penis’ is a masterpiece.
Titus is a true individual who bangs the drum for flying your freak flag all day, every day because there is no greater power on this earth than being your authentic self. When in doubt, be more Titus.
Doctor Who’s stellar series 10 is a cosmic love story – not between the Doctor and a companion (for once), but between Pearl Mackie’s wide-eyed adventurer Bill Potts and Heather, the girl she falls for at St Luke’s University. Sure, over the course of their relationship one of them becomes a Cyberman and the other transmogrifies into sentient oil, but every couple has bumps in the road, right?
Bill was the long-running BBC show’s first openly gay regular companion, and someone a large section of the show’s fanbase could identify with. (Mackie herself told Digital Spy that the character was “a huge catalyst” in helping many viewers come out to their families.) Crucially, Bill wasn’t a shape-shifting alien or a time-travelling superhuman – she was just a girl serving chips in a canteen before she got swept up in the Doctor’s orbit, like so many viewers have too.
There’s a humanity to Mackie’s performance that elevates the series to its warm and inclusive best. The scene in which Bill brings a nervous date home only to be interrupted by the actual Pope emerging from the TARDIS works because we’re rooting for Bill to find happiness just as much as we are the Doctor to save the world.
What’s more, Bill and Heather get something that’s depressingly rare for an LGBTQ+ couple in sci-fi fantasy shows – a happy ending, as the pair go off to travel the universe with one another before settling down and growing old together.
The importance of Kwame’s sexual assault storyline in Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You cannot be overstated. It’s a reality that vast swathes of gay men have endured and yet pop culture has largely given it a wide berth. Alongside that, you have those who do not report what has happened to them for fear of judgement, prejudice and ridicule.
Sadly for Kwame, his experience with the authorities is How Not to Treat Victims of Rape and Sexual Assault 101. It demonstrates exactly why so many gay men are reluctant to vocalise what they have suffered, and it should be broadcast in police stations up and down the land to prevent such occurrences from not only becoming a rarity, but extinct altogether.
Theo’s path to coming out as trans is one that’s informed by his past as much as his future. Early on in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, he’s able to communicate with Dorothea, a pioneer ancestor from his family’s history. Dorothea challenged convention, wore men’s clothes and served as a springboard for Theo to explore his own identity.
The moment of Theo’s actual “coming out” among friends is low-key, a simple acknowledgement of a new name, and that’s one of the things that makes it feel so refreshing; that coming out no longer needs to define a person’s journey or identity but can simply be the next step forward.
There’s a moment in Sex Education when Eric, who is usually the life and soul of every party, dazzling and effervescent with a laugh that could power the National Grid, loses himself. He becomes unrecognisable following a traumatic ordeal that shakes his foundations to the core. He is in pain and we are, too, as the light that once burned so brightly within him is almost extinguished. Almost.
But after a chance encounter and some serious soul-searching, there is no doubt in Eric’s mind that he will live his life the way he wants to, haters be damned, and he throws on an emerald green gele and some heels and marches into prom with his head held high.
”Everyone loves you,” says Mrs Effiong to her son. Never have truer words been spoken.
The will-they, won’t-they relationship between Patrick and Richie in Looking was one of the most frustrating in recent TV history. Patrick, played by Jonathan Groff, didn’t come out until college but his entire life out of the closet has been defined by the lingering anxieties from when he was inside it; a strained relationship with conservative parents back in Denver, to the stress of conforming to a body type the gay community would see as ideal.
Richie (Raúl Castillo) has an even more frayed relationship with his father due to the lingering homophobia of his deeply religious family just outside the city. Their attempts to bond, such as in the Andrew Haigh-directed season one standout ‘Looking for the Future’, show the pair can develop chemistry and bond over their experiences – but Patrick’s self-sabotage and unconscious biases always get in the way.
Looking was a genuinely groundbreaking show for how it delicately explored previously under-discussed topics like the subconscious racism of white gays, bringing those to the forefront of a drama about modern gay relationships. It’s through this lens that Patrick becomes a more fascinating character. Initially introduced as an audience surrogate who’d rather have the “straight” ideal of a healthy relationship his parents could approve of, he becomes all the more interesting when his flaws are uncovered.
The reason he and Richie have been jointly selected for this entry isn’t because of how much we rooted for them to get together (and we did – Kevin was a bad choice, Patrick!), but because of how much they exist as counterpoints in the gay community, their experiences as outcasts so similar and yet a world apart.
Bill ReitzelNBC Universal
In 1998, Max Mutchnick and David Kohan took a gamble with Will & Grace at a time when the sitcom Ellen had just been axed by ABC for being “too gay”. Friends was going strong, while Frasier and Everybody Loves Raymond had ultra-hetero men as their leads. It was a gamble to make one half of the show an out gay man, but without Will Truman, the show & Grace doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Unlike Grace, Karen, and Jack, Will was the stoic figurehead of the group. It would have been easy for the writers to take him into the OTT realms of Jack McFarland and reinforce some negative gay stereotypes. Instead, Will remained a constant to the core cast and a much-needed shoulder for the ditzy Grace to cry on. Importantly, Will wasn’t defined by his sexuality.
Showing you can be a successful lawyer who balances relationships and the odd neurotic moment, Will was a relatable (if a little stuffy) lead that even the non-LGBTQ+ community could relate to.
He was out there living his best metropolitan life but not afraid to admit he was far from perfect. Added to this, he inspired a generation of allies that would go on to be a Grace to their Wills.
In the years since, Eric McCormack has admitted that as a straight man, he doesn’t think he’d land the part of Will. However, as much more than just a name in a sitcom, we can’t imagine anyone else taking the role of Grace’s better half.
It’s rare to see British queerness on screen, even rarer to see Black British queerness. Roscoe Babatunde (played by Omari Douglas) is a very welcome exception to that. He’s part of an emerging trend where Black gay men are finally appearing on TV shows in the UK, along with the likes of Kwame from I My Destroy You and Eric from Sex Education. Flamboyantly dressed and politically powerful, Roscoe gives a defiant model of Black queerness to inspire a new generation.
Laura Jane Turner
After battling with his identity for quite some time, Todd came out as asexual to his best friend BoJack Horseman in an emotional season four scene. After arriving at that realisation and sharing it, Todd then continued to explore what this particular label meant to him in the coming episodes.
While everyone’s experiences are different, it’s a part of the LGBTQ+ community that’s rarely given time and nuance on screen, so for it to feature in such a popular and award-winning series, particularly through one of its most central characters, shouldn’t be overlooked.
Founder and house mother of the House of Evangelista, Blanca is a font of love and support. Played by the fantastic Mj Rodriguez, she fights for those who she loves and protects them doggedly no matter what.
In many ways, she is the embodiment of what it means to be in community with other trans people of colour. It’s a rough and complicated love, which isn’t easy. She’s dealing with HIV in the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, while also being trans and racialised. Yet she still finds the space in her heart to form that unique love and solidarity.
From the moment she appeared on the screen it was clear that The Bold Type’s Adena El-Amin was a strong woman who wasn’t ashamed of who she was. She represents something that is rarely seen on screen – a Muslim, queer woman who, despite attempts from the religious community to stop her work as an activist, still has a deep connection to her faith.
As Adena is fully aware, her sexuality could have literally got her killed in her home country, but she saw these attempts to silence her and refused to be held down by the patriarchy. The storyline which featured her visa being denied during the Trump administration was powerful and heartbreaking, but she stood firm and strong.
As a partner, she stands by Kat’s side and guides her through the new world of queerness when she needs a loving hand to hold. She doesn’t just empower herself – through her work as a photographer, she raises up other women and gives them a voice in a society that tells them to be quiet and don’t cause trouble. As a feminist, she is an icon to me and so many others, and to see a queer woman living her life and truth so wholeheartedly is revolutionary.
In a world that expects her to hide her true self, Adena refuses to be kept down and is unapologetically herself. She made me a better activist and feminist and reminded me that I should never have to compromise my beliefs for others.
When Hayley Cropper first appeared on our TV screens in 1998, little did audiences know how significant her character would be. This was the first time in British soap opera history where a trans character had been included, and for a lot of viewers, Hayley was their first introduction to the trans community.
What makes her such an incredibly important character beyond her transness, is that she became a regular and beloved part of Coronation Street. Although her character portrayal may be far from perfect, especially when compared with trans portrayal today, Hayley Cropper encouraged other programmes to improve their inclusivity.
Stuart Alan Jones came into my life like a force of nature. Queer as Folk was the first explicitly “queer” TV I’d ever seen – I’d watch it alone, on a laptop, keeping it close like a secret – so seeing someone like Stuart who was so unapologetic, aggressively, defiantly out, hit me like a bolt of lightning.
Looking back on him now, his unethical, illegal behaviour is striking for the way that it at once charges at and challenges the stereotypes associated with the idea of predatory queer men. At uni, a few years after I’d watched Queer as Folk, some people I knew complained that they didn’t like the show, that the men in it were too stereotypical, but I couldn’t see it that way. I still haven’t seen anyone quite like Stuart on TV ever since I first watched Queer as Folk.
There’s one image of him that remains vividly in my mind: at the end of the first episode, he drives 15-year-old Nathan, last night’s hook-up, to school. His Jeep is tagged with the word “QUEER” in red spray-paint. At no point does Stuart try to hide this, or try to hide from what it reveals about him; that’s what was, and is, so important about Stuart Alan Jones: the fact that, no matter what, he refused to hide, and refused to be silent.
More than 20 years after Jack McPhee professing his love to Ethan Brody first aired, the moment has become enshrined as one of the most important landmarks of LGBTQ+ representation on TV.
The moment, in the finale of Dawson’s Creek’s third season, sees Jack declare “I want to show you that I can, and that I’m not afraid to… oh hell… this” before planting (what would become known as) the first “passionate” kiss between men on US primetime TV. It’s also not too much of a stretch to read that line in the context of what it meant to show two men in love at the time.
More than just this one moment however, Jack McPhee holds a special place for being one of the first openly queer characters in a teen drama – paving the way for shows like The OC and Riverdale years later.
The history books have, on the whole, disregarded the LGBTQ+ community, so the story of Anne Lister probably came as a surprise to many who settled down to watch Sally Wainwright’s Gentleman Jack. The period drama stars Suranne Jones as the fearless, bold and brilliant lesbian Anne Lister, a landowner and businesswoman who recorded her escapades in secret diaries, aspects of which were written in code.
Wainwright picked them up and spun her words into a series which places Lister’s sexuality front and centre, wearing it as a badge of honour. She is a woman who knows exactly what she wants – in business and in pleasure – and she faces down numerous hurdles in the boardroom and the bedroom in pursuit of life on her own terms.
The word iconic is so often chucked around with ease, but Anne Lister is truly worthy of such a title.
Sure, The Matrix is great, but can we all agree that Sense8 is the best thing that the Wachowskis have ever made? A lot of that is down to how beautifully queer the show is and also how beautiful the connection is between each sensate.
Picking one favourite out of this extraordinary cast isn’t easy – they’re literally inseparable – but if we had to choose someone, our vote goes to Nomi Marks, a transgender lesbian who fought to protect the people she loves with her impressive hacking skills. Jamie Clayton’s performance here is just as charismatic as it is groundbreaking.
Millennials may know Wilson Cruz from Star Trek: Discovery, but for a whole other generation, he burst onto our screens with teen-angst abound as Rickie Vasquez in My So-Called Life. The show itself was groundbreaking for its authentic portrayal of the inner lives of teens (it also starred Claire Danes and Jared Leto).
Through Rickie, themes of homelessness, poverty, and homophobia were handled with nuance and brutal honesty. As an out actor, this role made Cruz the first openly gay actor to play an openly gay character in a leading role in an American television series. It’s worth watching, and the Rickie-centric Christmas Eve episode will make you openly weep. But what’s best, Rickie finds acceptance and guidance.
Six Feet Under boasts one of the greatest TV show endings ever, but it also centred a gay lead character in an interracial relationship back in 2001. The show frankly depicted life and death for a repressed mortuary-owning family, while focusing on the relationship between mortician David Fisher (Michael C Hall) and policeman Keith Charles (Mathew St Patrick), which subverted TV stereotypes of gay men.
David battles to accept his sexuality both personally and within his family, but it evolves his arc with a deep and flawed love story with Keith, battling infidelity, tackling adoption, and depicting one of US TV’s first gay marriages.
Not only is David Rose a style, and anxiety, icon, but his journey to find true love throughout Schitt’s Creek is one of joy, excitement, and epic lip-synch performances. The show was rightly heralded for its lack of homophobia. Depicting queer love without stigma and hatred is still something lacking in mainstream media, but through David Rose – and his slacks-wearing partner Patrick – we were treated to a blossoming, beautiful love story.
If you’re in doubt of the impact that David’s character has had on the real world, all you have to do is watch the Netflix documentary Best Wishes, Warmest Regards. In it, a group of moms of LGBTQ+ kids write to Schitt’s Creek creator Dan Levy, who of course plays David, to thank him for his work – in particular, his explanation of his sexuality. “I like the wine, not the label” has become a beautiful metaphor for fluid sexuality, breaking down the strict binaries with which we’ve viewed sexuality and gender for so long.
But equally, David is also extremely relatable. He frets and fawns over the smallest details. He has anxiety and insecurity that makes him a coiled spring, but a deep well of empathy, too. His character is more than just a “queer guy”, but a wholly rounded person that finally gives others a mirror to see themselves represented on TV.
From her devastating quips to her show-stopping performances, Naya Rivera’s Santana Lopez was a breath of fresh air for lesbian representation on television. While most of us who lived through the Glee Tumblr years of the 2010s now look back and cringe, Santana endures as one of the show’s brightest stars. While originally cast on the show as the bitchy Latina cheerleading sidekick to Dianna Agron’s Quinn Fabray, Rivera’s impeccable comedy timing and undeniable singing voice made her an instant fan favourite.
Always able to read between the lines, queer viewers swiftly picked up on the romantic tension between Santana and her best friend Brittany (Heather Morris), making the “Brittana” ship one of the anchors of the show, with the couple eventually getting married in the show’s sixth season.
Furthermore, Santana’s season two arc was, and still is, one of the best examples of the coming out trope done well; the highlights include the scene with her homophobic grandmother, admitting her love for Brittany at the Hurt Locker, and her highly emotional performance in the ‘Rumour Has It/Someone Like You’ mash-up. What’s more, Santana Lopez was always played with great sensitivity and respect by Naya Rivera, which is why her sudden death last year was absolutely devastating to a community that sought so much comfort from her character over the years.
Through Glee, we still have an opportunity to witness Rivera’s exceptional talent and heart, helping Naya’s legacy live on and cementing Santana as one of the community’s most beloved queer TV characters.
Once everybody managed to get over just how much vampire shagging there was, viewers quickly agreed that Lafayette Reynolds was the breakout character in HBO’s True Blood. Nelsan Ellis’ performance became a fan favourite not just for his skill with a darkly comic one-liner, but for being one of the more empowering gay characters on TV – unashamedly open and ready to fight back at any homophobes who pass through the conservative town of Bon Temps, Louisiana.
In the book series the show was adapted from, Lafayette died at the start of the second instalment, while on the small screen, he was one of only four characters to appear in every episode, and deservedly so.
The series ran out of steam towards the end of its run as the vampire boom of the late 2000s died out, with Ellis’ performance becoming the only reason to keep tuning in every week.
Pray Tell, played by the effervescent Billy Porter, is a fashion designer and the master of ceremonies in the balls that we see throughout Pose.
From the first moment that you see him he is dressed up to the nines – something you see paralleled with Billy Porter’s real-life looks on the red carpet. While Porter’s performance makes him an exciting and loud figure who knows how to put on a show, there’s also a much softer side to him. Behind the glamour and bravado there is a kindness.
Black manhood is so narrowly defined when it comes to television. Black men get to be cops and bruisers. Even when sympathetic, their coolness is almost always rooted in machismo and violence. Pray Tell is something completely different.
He’s femme and fierce, never shrinking himself or forcing his voice into baritone. When he is cutting he doesn’t do it through brutish physicality, he does it through shade and reads. In his rejection of the preconceived notions of what a Black man can or should be, there is a real power which we rarely get to see on screen.
What I get from Pray Tell is that times will be tough, but you can always find the joy and face down the world in a fabulous outfit.
Laura Jane Turner
Annalise Keating is one of the most complex female characters ever to grace our screens; she’s strong, vulnerable, flawed, inspirational – and a bisexual Black woman.
As is relatable to many, it took Annalise quite some time to realise and accept herself, battling against internalised homophobia and the pressures of society’s heteronormative expectations.
Annalise’s sexuality was not focused on as a defining part of her character, which has spurred criticism from some over the years. But for those whose queerness is more fluid and without a label, this was a welcome experience to highlight within the context of a show that widely embraced and championed varied LGBTQ+ storylines.
Laura Jane Turner
Moving away from his remote family home to the Big Smoke, we watched as Ritchie, timid and unsure of himself, slowly started to gain confidence and acceptance in who he was: a gay man who loved to laugh, sing and have sex. Set against the ’80s AIDS epidemic, Ritchie was one of the unlucky ones – but, turning homophobic notions of promiscuity on their head, he refused to feel shame for living his life authentically, nor did he want to be defined by his illness. “That’s what people will forget,” he said in his final moments. “That it was so much fun.”
As the title of Russell T Davies’ drama notes, queerness often comes hand-in-hand with feelings of shame. Ritchie showed the world that there’s not only power and strength to be found in self-acceptance, but that – even in the midst of struggle – there’s joy, celebration and love to be embraced too.
Authentic trans characters are still few and far between on screen, which is what makes Euphoria’s Jules so vital. She is depicting a lived reality that has predominantly been ignored by popular culture in favour of cisgender characters and their stories, even though there is plenty of room for both. To disregard the trans community so extensively is akin to erasure. It’s TV execs and broadcasters bellowing, “You’re of no interest to anyone. You don’t matter,” before slamming the door in the faces of those who are simply asking to see themselves reflected on telly every now and again.
Crucially, Hunter Schafer, who plays Jules, is a trans woman, and she also liaised with a trans consultant, which imbues her performance with a legitimacy that it simply wouldn’t have had without that real-world knowledge and, specially, understanding of what it truly means to be a trans woman. Caricatures should never be tolerated. Speculation that can so often bubble over into the perpetuation of harmful tropes should always be shown the door.
Euphoria was never in any danger of falling into those traps because it understands its responsibility to accurately capture this experience, from hormone therapy to Jules’ Euphoria special episode, which was inspired by a poem that Schafer wrote when she was a teenager. The beating heart of Jules is Schafer herself, which is why the character works so beautifully and has resonated with viewers young and old, some of whom will undoubtedly be grappling with their own identities. It sets the benchmark sky high for how these truths should be explored, but given the dearth of representation we have seen, we shouldn’t accept anything less.
Laverne Cox’s Sophia Burset delivered one of the most gripping storylines in TV and transgender history during her time on Orange Is the New Black.
In an emotional backstory, we saw a pre-transitioning Sophia (played by Cox’s twin brother M Lamar) committing credit card fraud to fund her gender transition, which landed her in jail.
Sophia made the best of prison life by working as a hairdresser and becoming the light-hearted yet strong-willed agony aunt to her fellow inmates, often dealing with their dramas from everyday arguments and scraps, to the most intimate of questions, such as how to find your clitoris.
Sophia’s time in prison was not without its hardship. As the only transgender inmate in Litchfield, she was the target of intimidation, harassment and violence from other prisoners, as well as being repeatedly denied hormone therapy by the prison’s administration and being thrown into the SHU (Solitary Housing Unit), “for her own protection”. Sophia spent days, if not weeks, alone in a confined space without so much as a blanket to keep her warm at night.
Cox’s character had arguably the least amount of screen time of all the inmates but had the most powerful and impactful storyline, which was instrumental in highlighting the isolation, discrimination and abuse that transgender inmates face when sent to prison.
There’s a scene in The Wire, that seminal Baltimore crime series of the 2000s, which always sticks with me. It features Omar Little, the area’s resident Robin Hood, waking one morning only to find himself fresh out of cereal. He jumps up, packs a piece, and heads out to the store, his blue, silky dressing gown flapping in the breeze.
I’d never seen anyone like Omar (Michael K Williams) on television before. No-one had. In the pre-Wireworld, we were force-fed a diet of flimsy, one-sided cops and robbers who had even fewer dimensions if they were Black. But here was Omar: strong, dangerous, funny and pensive, a quirky criminal who was as comfortable sticking a gun in someone’s face as he was escorting his grandma to church. He was also rare as hell in TV terms. Being an out, gay Black man whose sexuality wasn’t his defining characteristic was a welcome first.
Looking back, nearly 20 years after The Wire first aired, Omar’s very existence seems even more bizarre, precious and unique now than it was then. To show the very bones of a character who is Black, gay and living the quintessential thug life without much comment from his peers, was the kind of brave, brilliant risk you just don’t get anymore.
But perhaps Omar’s biggest accolade was his effect on attitudes. Williams remembers real-life gangsters gushing to him about the character. They didn’t mention his sexuality, or his penchant for trench coats, or the old-fashioned sayings he dropped into conversation. They just talked about Omar, the man, which was, and still is, no small thing.
20th Century Fox
In 1999, Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans watched as Willow Rosenberg finally admitted her feelings for Tara Maclay in episode ‘New Moon Rising”. Although Willow’s sexuality had been hinted at previously, it was an aspect of her that hadn’t been explored any further.
During a time when Section 28 was still in effect, being able to see a lesbian couple on TV screens felt like a huge moment. One which has given the couple cult-like status among its fandom, even despite Tara’s tragic death in season six. Although they didn’t get their happily ever after, Willow and Tara are two iconic queer women in television history.
”I look too good not to be seen.” Elektra made this abundantly clear from the moment we first met her at the very start of Pose. And she’s right. To look at Elektra is to gaze upon perfection. The words ‘elegant’ and ‘regal’ are painfully inadequate when it comes to describing Ms Abundance. But beauty alone is not enough to win the top spot here.
Just like every ball she attends, Elektra received tens across the board from us here at Digital Spy too because there’s no-one else quite like her on TV right now. But crucially, Elektra herself could very soon change that.
As the standout performer in the largest trans cast ever assembled on TV, Dominique Jackson makes history every time she steals a scene. And it’s safe to say that she steals every scene she’s in.
Along with her Pose sisters, Dominique is an absolute force to be reckoned with. Across just three seasons, her now-legendary role has helped shine a light on the trans women of colour who have historically been ignored or mocked by casting agents, Hollywood, and society at large.
When Elektra says, “You are not on my level,” it’s true in every sense of the word. And hell, even if only half of what we’ve said here was true, Elektra would still deserve the top spot for *that* iconic read alone. You know the one.
This month, Digital Spy Magazine counts down the 50 greatest LGBTQ+ TV characters since the Stonewall riots. Read every issue now with a 1-month free trial, only on Apple News+.
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