Dannielle Owens-Reid Needs Your Help Making a Documentary About Every LGBT Character In American TV History

Every queer person I know tells a story about the TV character that changed their life. From Ellen coming out to Willow falling in love with Tara to Santana wearing that Lebanese t-shirt to Emily Fields always getting the girl to nearly every woman in Litchfield, LGBT TV characters have changed the shape of the world. In our own personal worlds, these characters have shown us reflections of who we are, and the affirmation that we’re not alone has given us the courage to live more authentic lives. In the world at large, LGBT TV characters have shifted the attitudes of our entire culture, exposing people in even the most rural places in the United States to the truth that gay people live and love like everyone else.

Playing Gay: How America Came Out on Television is a documentary about the story behind the stories that have informed our queer experience in this country. Autostraddle’s collective girlfriend, Dannielle Owens-Reid, is tag-teaming with executive producers Wilson Cruz and Wendy Abrams; producer David Permut; and EP/director David Bender to bring this thing to life. Here’s a trailer:


Here is some brand new art that no one has even seen before, but Dannielle is giving it to you because she loves you the best.

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 10.08.32 AM

Art by Allison Weiss


Here are five questions Dannielle was generous enough to answer for me about her own experiences with LGBT people on TV.

You probably get asked to do stuff like this all the time, right? What about this project makes it feel close to your heart?

Yeah, I totally do, and I actually don’t really love consulting on Kickstarters. It’s a ton of work and it can be pretty devoid of any real feelings. However, the second I talked to David, the director, I was hooked. The story is so important and I can’t believe it doesn’t already exist. I can’t believe there is no catalog of LGBTQ+ representation in television. HOW DID WE LET THAT HAPPEN?!! I’m so stoked to even have the smallest part in making it a reality, and I’m beside myself with how well things are coming together. This doc is going to be so fucking dope.

Can you think of an LGBT TV character who caused you to have an a-ha! moment, in terms of understanding yourself better or giving you the courage to live more authentically?

What a great question. AND A CONFUSING ONE. I grew up in Charleston, SC and had no clue that gay was a thing. I never really understood what a lesbian was, and the only association I had with anything gay was Jack on Will & Grace. (It didn’t even really register to me that Will was gay, you know what I mean?) So, all throughout middle school, high school, and the beginning of college I was at a loss. There was no gay community that I knew of, there were no cool lesbians on TV, there was no positive dialogue around bisexuality. To be completely honest, there is still not a single person on TV that looks like me. It’s really, really hard to feel comfortable presenting the way I do when it’s nearly impossible to find another person who feels the same.

I think about it all the time, what would my childhood have been like if I knew it was okay to wear “boy” clothes, or if I knew it was okay to walk standing up straight, or if I knew it was okay to say no to my boss. You know? TV has painted a picture for us, a picture that we all subscribe to because we don’t have the opportunity to see anything else. That’s why it’s so amazing when it happens. That’s why it was so fucking revolutionary to have someone like Ricky on My So-Called Life. Are you kidding me? A young man playing with gender presentation and sexuality in the early 90s? That was unheard of and now it’s starting to be expected. If there isn’t a gay character on your show, people are like, “WTF is wrong with you.”

If you could have a dinner party with five LGBT TV characters, who would you choose?

Dana Fairbanks. Poussey Washington. Rickey Vasquez. Lafayette Reynolds. Willow Rosenberg.

Also, I think we would all smoke weed and eat healthy snacks. So, maybe not a dinner, but we’d get together at like 5pm and hang out until around 4am, eating things like berries and nuts and hummus and shit. It would be really good. We’d proooobably talk a lot about gender presentation and how everyone in America refuses to find their true happiness.

Who’s your favorite LGBT TV character on the teevee right now?

I have a lot of favorites. If I were allowed, I would have added like 80 more characters to my aforementioned dinner, but since Autostraddle is paying, I didn’t want to be greedy.

I think there’s a lot to be said for Caitlyn Jenner. She’s not a character by any means, but watching her show felt very important to me. I love how honest she is with not having the full understanding of what it’s like to be a member of the trans community. Watching her struggle to learn, and meet people with stories that are much more difficult than hers, and seeing the way she has to navigate family and fame. I think it’s really powerful. I don’t think there has been anything that on such a large scale that really managed to tell a story like hers. It’s like Ricky on My So-Called Life, people were like ‘WAIT I LOVE HIM SO MUCH WHAT DOES IT MEAN, ALLOW ME TO OPEN MY MIND AND LEARN MORE.”

Who killed Jenny Schecter?

The poofy dog.

Sounder II, I knew it! If you are interested in helping make Playing Gay a reality, here’s their Kickstarter.

I would also love to hear your answers to these questions!

Related:

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior writer who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 1174 articles for us.

39 Comments

  1. Holy mercy I am so excited for this project to exist. One queer TV character who no one ever talks about but who was absolutely crucial for me is Remy/Thirteen on House. She’s one of the only bi characters who we see have both hookups AND healthy relationships with men and women, and she was the first “person” to indicate to me that such a thing was possible.

  2. Oh wow, this is so exciting! I’m so thrilled about this.

    Um, Emily Fields would be the most important queer character in my life, followed shortly by Paige (of course), and then by Angela Montgomery from The Lynburn Legacy, I think? Definitely Emily, though.

    I remember, when I was like fourteen, before I’d ever even watched PLL I found a couple of Emily’s coming out scenes on Youtube (the one where she comes out to Hanna in her room and the scenes in The Perfect Storm) and I just watched them over and over again on repeat and didn’t even understand why at that point. When I actually figured out I was queer, I was in hysterics (it was a rough night) and I watched the Paily-by-the-pool kiss in 3×08 over and over and over again until I could finally breathe again. And because PLL was and still is watched by literally everyone in my social circle, I could use Emily and Paily in general as kind of a litmus test with people I knew and with new people.

    So yeah. They’re a lot.

  3. Remember season 1 Jenny Schecter? Before she was totally awful? When she met Marina and lightning bolts, but she had this BF who wanted to marry her?

    That was my television aha moment. I was in my early twenties. I was in an LTR with a good guy. But there was this whole Thing I was ignoring.

    Jenny couldn’t ignore it, because that Thing was Marina stalking her like a lioness.

    In the absence of TV-style heightened drama and Jenny’s proclivity for self-destruction, I wasn’t going to find a hot lady to cheat on my BF with, but the things I felt when Jenny did it were enough to know.

    • Yes I do remember Jenny. I hate her cause, like they once said here, she’s a bad bisexual. They could have made her a great representation of bisexuality in a female, but then made her biphobic, which sucks as a bi/pan woman.

      • There are so many reasons to hate Jenny, mostly from seasons 2-death, but I never really read her as bi. I read her more like me (and I do go back and forth on identifying as bi) where guys were fine, they turned her on to some degree, until she discovered that she connected and responded even more to women, and then it was hard to go back.

        I’ll never forgive them for backtracking on Alice’s bisexuality, though! The show treated bisexuality pretty badly in general.

        But anyway, it was really centralized for me to season 1 Jenny: to that feeling like oh — wait — this dude’s maybe not going to be enough for me after all, there’s this other thing I’m going to explore, and then BOOM it kind of explodes your world with how much better it is when you finally hook up with a woman.

        • “I read her more like me (and I do go back and forth on identifying as bi) where guys were fine, they turned her on to some degree, until she discovered that she connected and responded even more to women, and then it was hard to go back.”

          (yes, yes, thank you for saying this!)

  4. I’m a bit confused about the project title versus what I read this interview and the actual scope of project. Does this project aim to document every American LGBT character in TV history, or is it truly EVERY SINGLE LGBT character in TV history, ever, from every country in the world that has a history of broadcasting television programs?

      • Yeah, my ins were anime and Japanese (and then Korean) idols, though the real tipping point influences were the people I was continually talking to in those fandoms. I didn’t get into Western live action f/f until very recently, from a place of relative identity security.

        But it seems like the documentary would/should cover a little bit outside just American characters, considering the influence a lot of people would attribute to Naomily.

  5. Definitely donating, I love the idea of seeing how far we’ve come in such a short period of time. My first TV love was Emily from Skins – I wanted to be as brave and honest as her, which wasn’t possible at the time, but is something I like to think I’ve somewhat achieved now.

  6. Sorry to be a bummer but… HATE the name of the film if this is supposedly about LGBT people. Just have it be about cis gay/lesbian/bi people and leave trans folk out of it because I’m smelling a whole lot of “not very trans-knowledgable vibes” about this project. Want to do trans people a favor… don’t throw us in under the “gay” community banner because what it means to me is “trans people viewed through a gay lens” and that’s not a terribly authentic, thorough nor inclusive experience of our community. :(

    • Hey! I just wanted to let you know we’re working very closely with GLAAD and working on an animation now to replace the logo with “Playing LGBTQ+”

      We plan to have a HUGE focus on Trans characters, especially because so much work still needs to be done.

      I really appreciate you saying something, a big part of why I felt comfortable being involved in the project was because I said that very same thing, from the beginning.

  7. That sounds like a fun dinner session. For me my ah-ha moment kind of was Lisa the male lesbian from the L Word. For years I had the wrong idea of trans women and didn’t even think trans men existed. When I saw that scene with Lisa and Alice in the hotel room(Dinah if I am not mistaken) when it first aired, I was like, “oh shit, this is this really an actual thing, are my feeling really valid?” During the last seasons, not really seeing any other characters like Lisa, I started to google and find out if Lisa was fictional or are there people like that out there. There are as Lisa is based on roadie Ilene saw at Lilith Fair. Also a friend in college was really helpful in telling me trans is beautiful.

  8. no one ever mentions ally mcbeal, which has 4 trans characters-one (Lisa Edelman) recurring through a season-in the 90s. they aren’t perfect, no trans actors for one, but I’m impressed every time.

  9. I WAS LITERALLY JUST SAYING TWO WEEKS AGO THAT I NEEDED A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT TV’S QUEER HISTORY. So backing this. I think its actually fate. Me and my sister just watched The Celluloid Closet [amazing documentary about Hollywood’s early depictions of lgbtq ppl in movies], and I was like, man, I need this, but about tv, so that I can watch important people discussing how great Santana Lopez is.

  10. We never watched TV as kids, the closest we got was the cartoon Madeline, but sometimes we’d sneak downstairs to watch TV behind the sofa at night when Dad wouldn’t change the channel for the romantic and sexual scenes, or if we were lucky and our parents had to leave us home alone because they were desperate (like three times in my entire childhood) we’d watch all the shitty day time TV.

    Once, a movie that I’m somewhat sure was If These Walls Could Talk came on. I don’t remember much, but I do remember the “boy” wooing the girl at the bar, taking her home and while getting down to things unbinding their chest. I was gobsmacked that that was a thing.

    My elder sister didn’t like the movie (’cause queer, doh), so she changed the channel but thanks to human curiosity often flicked back to it. I saw them fight, the girl have an abortion (that was a first timer for me too, but I’m not sure if it’s the same movie…), and the ending where they run around the house squealing and slamming doors while the neighbour glared at their queer happiness.

    I never knew what that movie meant, or what those characters were, but they stuck with me, especially the binding and passing as a boy (I think they were passing, my memory is fuzzy on that). It was the first gender bending I’d seen, and it fascinated me more than the sex or anything. Those were the first queer characters for me until I turned 18 and started binge watching every QTGNC movie I could get my hands on. Except for The L Word, still haven’t watched that shit.

  11. C.J. on LA Law – first bisexual character I remember seeing on TV. It was on around the same time I was coming out and trying to figure out how the hell to be bi in the world.

    I remember quite vividly watching the scene where she told the man she’d started dating that her last serious relationship was with a woman. He’s like, oh OK. And he asks her some questions and if this means she wants to be able to date women while seeing him and she’s like, no, she’s monogamous. And that was that.

    And I’m sure if I re-watched this episode and the ones leading up to it, I’d have lots of issues with it (like the fact that CJ could kiss a woman once on-screen and refer to past relationships with women, but her on-screen romance had to be with a man). But, OMG, looking back on it, seeing it on tv was really important to baby-bi me. I think it gave me the idea that I could actually do that too, that I could date women and men, and be bi and monogamous, and I could come out to a man I wanted to date and he’d just be, oh OK, tell me how this works. And I seriously channeled CJ when I came out to my future husband. And even typing this up is making me choke up.

    (So yeah, I have feelings about queer characters on TV. I didn’t think I did because I didn’t bond with a lot of the characters that get named – I missed Willow and Tara, frex, but yeah. I have feelings. This is an important project).

  12. Spencer Carlin from South of Nowhere was my a-ha moment. I mean I’m sure there were a few more – Degrassi changed my world regarding every single life issue under the sun (but I assume this is just American tv shows) – but SON was on from 2005-2008 (I was 15 in 2005) and was pretty much when I couldn’t ignore these weird feelings anymore. 15 year old me was enamored with Spencer and Ashley and Spencer’s entire coming out story totally hit me hard. That fandom was the first time I was immersed in something so spectacularly gay that my life was changed for the better.

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