Nearly every queer person we know has a story about how a fictional character helped them realize they’re not straight, which makes sense, of course; stories are how humans have been figuring out who they are and what they’re doing for the whole history of humankind. In this TV Team roundtable, we’re talking about the LGBTQ characters who helped us realize we’re queer, and some of our all time favorite baby gays. We want to hear your answers in the comments!
Heather: Do you remember the first queer character you saw on TV? Funnily enough, for me, it was Ellen. I watched “The Puppy Episode” in real time when I was a sophomore in high school. What I remember about it is my dad being kind of uncomfortable and my sister being so vocally supportive of Ellen – I should have known then that she knew I’m gay.
Carmen: Mine was also Ellen! “The Puppy Episode” aired at the end of my 5th grade. I remember feeling like it was such a massive big deal, even though I couldn’t get all the jokes at the time. It felt like my world stopped, and I didn’t know why! Ellen just meant so much to me. I admired her authenticity and willingness to be herself, even though I didn’t know yet that I was gay. She moved me in my gut. I also did a 6th grade research project on Ellen and “homosexuality in pop culture,” which made me, ummmm, very different from my midwestern classmates. And in case you were wondering if I always was who I am now, the answer is yes.
Riese: For me, it must have been Ricky Vasquez on My So-Called Life because I watched that in 8th grade. I’d seen gay characters in movies prior to that, most notably Philadelphia, and also in theater. I don’t remember being shocked or even affected in any way by Ricky’s sexual orientation. His character was so authentic and heart-rending and full. He was also very cool! I think I watched it and thought “I want a gay best friend!” (Although I will mention that Ricky specifically identified as bisexual, although near the end of the season things happened that I think made him realize he was gay? IF ONLY WE’D GOTTEN MORE SEASONS.) He was portrayed very lovingly, too. He was funny and interesting — but also, because of his sexuality, he was also often lonely, and eventually ended up homeless. So I guess my second gay character would’ve been Ricky’s English teacher who took him in after all that. I didn’t really think very much about women being gay back then, because they were basically invisible in the media and even the news, but gay men were very visible in the early ‘90s. DADT (“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”) was a hot topic and I feel like HIV/AIDS was something we thought about nearly every day at that point.
Natalie: So, my first queer character actually predates Ellen and Ricky – Matt Fielding on the Aaron Spelling primetime soap Melrose Place. Like every other teenage girl during that era, I was obsessed with Beverly Hills: 90210 — thank you, Luke Perry — so after that show went off on Wednesday nights, I stayed glued to my television for Melrose.
Matt was pretty much what you’d expect from a ’90s era gay: totally admirable and completely sexless. Even then, I remembered being jarred by how everyone else that lived in this fictional West Hollywood complex got to be totally hedonistic, except the black girl and the gay man. Matt didn’t get to do much, but a lot of stuff happened to him — I lost count of how many gay bashings he suffered — which, I suppose, was their way of making a gay man sympathetic to the masses back then.
Riese: Oh that reminds me — I bet my first lesbian would’ve been Allison Lash, in 1995, on Beverly Hills 90210. (I mean I was watching Ellen before that, but she hadn’t come out yet.) You know, the lesbian character who developed an intense crush on Kelly Taylor after they survived a fire together. That was when I learned that lesbians were psychotic stalkers!
Valerie Anne: I guess technically Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Willow was mine, with Tara hot on her heels, but I don’t think they officially explicitly came out in a way I understood at 12? So they overlapped with Bianca Montgomery from All My Children in such a way that she feels like my first. I very vividly remember where I was sitting when she came out to her mom and Erica lost her whole damn mind. I remember asking my mom why Erica was being so ridiculous and my mom saying something factual and emotionless like, “Some people don’t like gay people, so they get upset when their kids come out to them” which gave me zero clue about how she herself felt about such things. I started high school a year later so I was no longer home on Wednesday afternoons to watch the rest of her tumultuous life play out, which I think was probably for the best.
Kayla: The first gay TV characters I met were Susan and Carol on Friends. I spent a lot of time trying to convince myself that this answer is off-brand, but sadly, it is incredibly on-brand. Carol is a Mommi if I’ve ever seen one and probably the root of my unshakeable attraction to women who look like they’d play the evil stepmother in a Mary-Kate and Ashley movie. Because Jane Sibbett indeed played the evil stepmother in a Mary-Kate and Ashley movie. Anyways! Susan and Carol weren’t just the first gay TV characters I’d met, they were also the first gay people I’d “met” at all because there were no out gay people in my life at the time! And Friends treated them as a punchline, so you know, that was great for my whole internalized homophobia sitch.
Riese: OH RIGHT CAROL AND SUSAN ON FRIENDS. My second and third lesbians.
Heather: Okay who was the TV character that helped you realize you’re queer? Not What do you remember about your journey with them? Did you see them and know right then you’re queer? Did you realize you’re queer along with them? Is it something you accepted in your own mind right away, or did you try to ignore it? I don’t think I’ve actually ever written this before but the exact moment all of the stuff I’d been blocking from my mind or trying to ignore or pretending didn’t exist was the moment in the opening credits of The L Word pilot when Bette rolls over in bed and wraps her arm around Tina. I was just like, “Ah. Right. Oh well!”
Riese: I mean – Shane on The L Word. I was in my early twenties at that point. I’d always been… I guess you could say… promiscuous? But to me that had always gone hand in hand with proving my self-worth through my ability to hook up with hot guys. Shane was empowered by her sexual desire and prowess in a way that I’d never seen in a story that didn’t also involve men. It opened up a whole world of possibilities. Most of them, honestly, were not super-great, w/r/t how to treat women, but you know. YOUTH!
Valerie Anne: I have a lot of characters that sent up little red flags, but I was great at ignoring them until I started college and discovered The L Word. I was helpless to Carmen de la Pica Morales and examined the length of my ring finger in horror, taking to the internet and Asking Jeeves if I was gay. But, I convinced myself (with the help of some shitty-in-hindsight friends) that it was just a phase and I’d get over it. It wasn’t until the year after college, after I started grad school, that I was binge-watching South of Nowhere that I fully and officially came out to myself and stopped trying to run from it. It was that scene on the beach, when Spencer asks Ashley how she knows she’s gay, and admits she’s feeling confused and interested in girls. She goes, “I don’t wanna be different I just, I wanna be normal. Ya know, like everybody else who knows who they are, what they want, and who they love.” And Ashley said, “Stop worrying about it. Look, whatever people consider to be normal, it never is.”
Also, Alex Danvers had one of the best coming out speeches, in my opinion, because I think it mirrored my own the most – older, had never really had any intimate romantic relationships, knew on some level the people I love would be okay with it but somehow couldn’t grapple with it myself for a long time until finally I did and I felt like it was smothering me, etc. I felt like a baby gay having my feelings validated all over again, even though I am… not young and have been out for eons now.
Kayla: Santana Lopez undoubtedly helped me realize I was queer, but I definitely still tried to ignore it for a long time after. Something I say about myself a lot is that I was “out in the tags” before I was out in the world — referring to a good ol’ place called Tumblr dot com. Tumblr was the first space I had to express queer desire, but I was so closeted that I didn’t even necessarily acknowledge it in the text of posts themselves but buried it IN THE TAGS. I would literally reblog a photoset of Santana Lopez and tag it with things like “#boobs” and “#gay o’clock” and all my friends were like hmm Kayla do you have something to say and I was like NO WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT! Anyway, that started to creep into my real life, too, and I literally wrote AN ENTIRE ZINE ABOUT SANTANA’S COMING OUT ARC for a project for one credit in a pop culture class I took freshman year of college. I felt connected to her on a deep level — she is the only girl I’ve written an entire zine about — but wasn’t ready to really engage with it.
Carmen: Callie Torres. 100% Callie Torres. There is absolutely no version of my “coming out story” that doesn’t involve her character. Our coming outs sort of overlapped each other? I had a messy, on-again/off-again, relationship with my queerness in college. When Callie kissed Erica Hahn for the first time during my senior year I mostly ignored it. It was a blip on my radar. The next fall Erica walked into The Parking Lot of No Return and my heart shattered. At that point there was no more pushing down my feelings. Callie was ready to face with her emotions head on and so was I. Every heartbreak, every nervous flutter, every awkward stumbling language – we walked that journey together. (And like Kayla, I spent a lot of time on the Calzona and Callie Torres Tumblr tags). During my coming out process, I probably watched reruns of Callie and Erica and Callie and Arizona a thousand times. I re-watched Callie’s first date with Erica before my very first gay date! Callie held my hand at a time when it felt like there was no one else. Those seasons of Grey’s Anatomy were my port in the storm.
Heather: Did any queer characters help you come out to people other than yourself? I suppose this isn’t a surprise to anyone who has ever read anything I’ve written, but my coming out to my close friends and family was pretty smooth, except all of them begged me not to tell my grandparents. And so I didn’t, for a long long long time. It was eating me up inside to the point where I was dreaming about it multiple times a week and sliding into a terrible anxiety-filled depression — and then Paige McCullers happened. I know Paige is complicated and a lot of people hate her and Emison shippers want to tie me to some train tracks, but Paige McCullers was me as a teenager and she meant everything to me when I met her. She reclaimed my youth! The night I came out to my grandparents, I drove to their house at like 1:00 am with my sister and sat in their driveway and watched Paige come out like ten times on YouTube — “If I say it out loud, if I say, ‘I’m gay,’ the whole world is gonna change.” — and then I went in and came out in the middle of the night and was finally whole again.
Valerie Anne: Once in college I was talking on AIM to this girl in my Spanish class and we ended up talking about TV and The L Word came up. We talked in code using L Word characters, she told me she was bi without saying the words by talking about Alice, I told her I was mostly confused, but probably definitely into girls without having to explain it by saying I was somewhere between Jenny and Dana, etc. Later she told me she had never been that indirect about coming out to people, but I appreciated her going along with my need to talk about it with some distance to it.
Also, I had come out to my parents about three months before the Pretty Little Liars episode where Paige has her “If I say it out loud” speech. I watched it with my parents and didn’t breathe the whole time so I think probably they learned something about me from that too.
Natalie: I’ve talked a little bit before about Bianca Montgomery from All My Children and how much of a game changer it was for me — not just in terms of seeing a version of myself reflected on-screen, but also as a barometer for how my family would react to my coming out.
It gave my parents the opportunity to see a character they cared about — everyone who watched All My Children adored Bianca — and embrace her sexuality, long before I’d be courageous enough to do it myself. It gave them a chance to see Erica Kane react to her daughter’s revelation and to see how the pain of a mother’s rejection impacts a child. I’d watch episodes of the show, sitting across from my mother, hoping that she was making note of what not to do. Ultimately, I knew we were good when my mom pretty much became a BAM shipper.
Carmen: I’ve shared this Heather and Riese at different points before, but Santana Lopez came out to her Abuela the same exact week that Paige gave her “If I say it out loud…” speech and I had such strong feelings about those overlapping developments that it brought me to Autostraddle for the very first time! Santana was tired of feeling at war with herself, and I was too. I wept watching Paige. I had never heard someone explain the fear that I had bubbling inside of me so perfectly! I couldn’t form the words “I’m gay” when it mattered most and neither could she and somehow that made it perfect. At that point, I had been out to all of my friends and in my daily life in New York for years, but I still hadn’t found the words to tell my mother. I was afraid that saying it out loud to her, everything about our relationship would change. And that fucking terrified me! I was a swirling, spiraling mess of emotions. That Christmas, roughly a month after Paige’s and Santana’s big coming outs, I finally found the courage.
Heather: Okay, I know it’s not really possible to be objective about something so close to our hearts, but what are some of your favorite coming out storylines for baby gays? Why? Mine are Paige and Emily Fitch, always and forever.
Riese: It’s hard to say because a LOT of queer storylines take place in high school, but the characters are played by actors who are so old that it’s hard to think of them as baby gays! I want to say Santana on Glee, which I’ve talked about before, as really relating to her experience of being pretty promiscuous with boys, but having that NOT turn out to be indicative of her sexual orientation in any way. And you know — she got the girl. I loved Nicole’s coming out storyline on Fresh off the Boat, and how even though it was set in the ‘90s, they didn’t turn it into a story of banishment.
Valerie Anne: Do y’all think the “baby” in “baby gay” always refer to age in human years? Or does it refer to amount of time a person is out? Was Alex Danvers a baby gay in Season Two of Supergirl, since she was just coming out, even though she was in her late 20s?
Natalie: Good question.
Carmen: I think she is! I feel like Alex Danvers is a classic capital letter Baby Gay. Another good example for me (obviously! Because I spoke about this earlier!) would be Season Four/early Season Five Callie Torres. Both of those characters are late in life adults who are decidedly baby gays, no? Granted when we first came up with this roundtable idea, my first thought for “favorite baby gays” was Paige McCullers and Santana Lopez. I suppose that speaks to your point about age.
Valerie Anne: Well, they too were baby gays! They just happened to be literal babies and baby gays at the same time. Like Riese said, it’s more common in TV for characters to come out as babies (read: teens). Even though most of my friends came out later. Mostly I just want more excuses to talk about Alex Danvers.
Riese: OH, I thought baby gay was high school. Like they had to be teenagers. Which was also weird because Naya Rivera is 25.
Heather: I meant young people, but should we open it up to anybody realizing they’re gay?
Riese: It feels to me like that may open it up to almost every character ever, since sometimes it feels like every queer character gets a coming out arc. I don’t know! I think we would have to be very careful and focused on characters like Alex Danvers who are for sure just realizing who they are. But, also I am insufferable during Scattergories about THE RULES.
Valerie Anne: I agree that the scope is much larger if we include new gays vs teen gays.
Riese: Yeah. But also, some questions for this roundtable I’ve struggled to answer because I didn’t come out to myself til my early twenties.
Valerie Anne: Same. As I get older I find that my favorite coming out stories are the ones that don’t happen. That said, Paige’s coming out will always be burned in my brain, and also Emily’s coming out to Hanna. And Hanna’s response always healed old wounds for me: “You were Emily dating Ben, now you’re Emily dating Maya. We love Emily.”
Natalie: I know it’s not in our wheelhouse but one of my favorites of all time is Justin Suarez from Ugly Betty. It gets overshadowed a lot by Glee, but I thought Ugly Betty did those storylines so much better. Justin’s family saw him for who he was and embraced him fully — they tried to throw him a celebratory coming out party before he’d even come out — and it was so heartwarming. I also loved that he had an adult gay mentor in Marc St. James because we rarely get to see that on television.
Also, as I mentioned in our “Best of 2017” list last year, I thought Elena’s coming out story on One Day at a Time was one of the best I’d ever seen. I loved that the story was all about Elena affirming herself because she realized who she was, rather than it being about a love interest.
Carmen: Yes! On both counts! Oh man, I love Justin’s coming out on Ugly Betty! I agree that Kurt got all the shine, but I felt like Justin’s coming out arc was damn near perfection. It deserved a lot more attention than it ultimately received.
Heather: Who are some of the best baby gay characters?
Riese: Kate on Everything Sucks! What a little button! Santana on Glee, obviously. Other faves: Elena on One Day at a Time, Alex on Degrassi, Spencer and Ashley on South of Nowhere, Amy on Faking It, Haley Clark on Halt and Catch Fire, Cheryl on Riverdale, Nico & Karolina on Marvel’s Runaways
Valerie Anne: What would you guys do if I said Tea from US Skins? KIDDING, kidding, don’t fire me. Instead of repeating everything Riese said like we’re playing “I’m going on a picnic,” since I agree, I’m just going to add to her list: Brenna and Greer from Chasing Life, Tilda and Odessa from Into the Badlands. And I never watched Once and Again, so I can’t really talk to the show as a whole or even really the characters, but once I watched a YouTube compilation called something like “Every Katie and Jessie scene ever” and it was better than a lot of lesbian movies I’ve seen.
Carmen: Santana Lopez. Yes, I know that she’s already on the list. But, hear me out – she deserves her own line. She would want it that way.
Heather: What are some must-have storytelling elements or character traits for baby gay storylines?
Valerie Anne: First, re: coming out stories, I want to see a distinct before/after. I want to see them become more sure of themselves after they come out, even if it didn’t go well. For characters that are past that point but are still wee, I want everything the heterosexual teenage romances have. I want the butterflies in your tummy, the “do they like me or do they LIKE like me?” or “is this trip to the movies a date or are we just friends?” I want the first kisses and fights that are blown way out of proportion because everything feels like the end of the world when you’re 15. The coming out and the sneaking around and the being outed stories are all important because they’re real, but I want to see teenage gaybies getting to go through everything I missed out on because I was trying to hard (and failing miserably) to fit the heteronormative narrative that was all I’d known at the time.
Natalie: One of the things I remember reading from some of Heather’s Skins coverage was how Bryan Elsley and Jaime Brittain had a group of teenage consultants to really help them develop their young characters. And while I’m not sure every show needs to go that far, there does need to be some effort made to bring that authenticity into the writers’ room. There’s universality to the experience of growing up gay — you can see that in ’90s centered television like Fresh Off The Boat or Everything Sucks! — but there’s also something very unique about this moment that needs to be captured.
Carmen: I’m going back to our earlier conversation about “adult baby gays”,because I want to see more of those storylines done well on television! Valerie already mentioned this, but a lot of gays don’t come out in high school. Looking at this roundtable, it’s clear that most of us didn’t! I think one of the reasons Alex Danvers resonated with so many people was that she was a late 20something and was already established in her career when her world turned upside down. Coming out happens at any age! I think it’s perhaps easier for writers to think of those storylines as tied to the “coming of age” tropes that high school shows already do so well, and I get that. But, I’d also challenge writers and showrunners to think outside of that box. Major life changes don’t stop when you turn 18 – or even 21. Life continues. It bends, and curves, and snaps in ways that you don’t see coming. It can be just as scary to come out when you have an entire adult life on the line.
Heather: I have this theory that queer people come of age over and over because we don’t do it all in one fell swoop like straight people do when they’re teenagers. As a person who is out and professionally queer, what storylines or characters excite you most for Kids These Days?
Riese: It’s cool to see queer Muslim teenage characters on Ackley Bridge and Degrassi: Next Class — of course neither of those shows are set in the U.S., but I’m excited for Kids These Days outside of the U.S.! I loved how Nico hadn’t expressed any interest in women throughout Marvel’s Runaways, but was open to it immediately when Karolina confessed her feelings — I love when that happens because it shows that it doesn’t have to be a huge deal sometimes, you just sort of … end up with a girl! Elena’s storyline on One Day at a Time is clearly a stand-out here, but I imagine Carmen is going to talk about that!
Carmen: Hello! I am here to answer Riese’s call and talk about One Day at a Time! I have no shadow of a doubt that if I’d seen geeky, empathetic, politically active Elena Alvarez (in her Catholic school uniform!) come out and fall in love, everything for me would have played out differently as a teenager. I’ve actually tried to imagine it more than once, and every time I skip a breath. She sort of breaks my heart? Because I didn’t have her when I was a 16 year old Puerto Rican in a Catholic school uniform who was so confused about the daydreams she was having about the girl who sat across from her in AP US History. At the same time, Elena makes me feel so bright about our future! Every aspect of her storyline, from the writing to Isabella Gomez’s performance, is lovingly crafted and pitch perfect. Elena Alvarez is changing lives.
Valerie Anne: I think I’m most excited about the sheer quantity of storylines? Even when I first started writing about queer TV for the internet, I watched every single show with a queer character on it that was airing at the time, and then some. It wasn’t that hard to keep up, and that sucked because it meant I was suffering through mediocre shows to get the crumbs of a queer storyline. Now there’s so much! There are queer storylines in all genres, not just sci-fi. There are gays on every channel, not just Showtime. Baby gays pop up on shows my parents watch all the time now! So I’m excited that maybe it won’t take as long for kids to stumble across folks who look/act/love/are gay to either affirm or awaken the baby gay inside.
Natalie: I keep thinking that, one day, I’ll age out of watching baby gay storylines, but ultimately, I think part of me will always be invested in seeing these stories being told. The future of baby gay storytelling, I hope, is writer’s layering identities and really telling intersectional stories. The writers at One Day at a Time and Ackley Bridge have done really well with that (while also being funny!) and I’d love to see them become the standard for the genre.
Heather: Since I’m the oldest person here and yet the only one who still watches animated teeve, let me name Steven Universe. I think it’s is some of the best queer representation on TV ever, and the fact that kids get to watch it blows my mind and fills me with so much hope. If I’m being real with you, I think Ruby and Sapphire’s relationship reminds me more of mine and Stacy’s relationship than any queer couple on TV I’ve ever seen. In the last episode, the wedding one, Ruby says, “I used to think I wasn’t much good, just one of me on my own. But when we’re together, it feels like it’s okay to just be me. I just want to be me, with you, forever.” And Sapphire says, “You changed my life, and then I changed your life, and now, we change our lives.” And when they faced down their arch-nemesis together as Garnet, she said, “I am the will of two gems to care for each other, to protect each other from any threat, no matter how vast or how cruel!” And I was like, “Yep. That is my love, my love, my love — exactly.”
It’s funny, bookending this roundtable like that. I was too scared, as a teen, to see myself in Ellen; and now I am almost 40 and I have finally found my relationship mirror in a cartoon.
I remember a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where Dr. Crusher falls in love with a male character who’s the same species as Jadzia Dax; the host body gets injured and the symbiont’s life has to be saved by implanting it in another host, the only available one of whom is female. The now-female love interest comes to sickbay and Dr. Crusher is all like, “I’m sorry, I can’t.”
And a Voyager episode when Jadzia is reunited with a former partner; when they were married, they were in opposite-sex bodies but now they are both female. The story found an excuse for their relationship to be forbidden that wasn’t gender-based (“the symbionts have to have the most diverse experiences possible so you can never be with someone you were with in a past body”). Jadzia and what’s-her-name do end up together – my eyes about popped out of my head when they kissed – but it doesn’t last for reasons I forget.
In retrospect I can see the problems with both those narratives, but at the time it was just like, wow, they just showed two women who could potentially have had a thing! And Dr. Crusher’s inability to love the female version of her partner was played as making her very sad, not as disgust, which made me feel many feelings. Also have I mentioned that Jadzia and what’s-her-name kissed? Because they had a whole lot of sexual/romantic tension, and then they kissed. And it blew my tiny mind.
(I am not trying to find either episode on youtube because if they turn out not to be that great, I don’t want to know.)
I grant none of these characters count as baby gays. But that was what I had. :)
– First queer character I saw: Carol on Friends.
– First TV character to make me realize I was queer: None. I didn’t need a TV character for that. However, I didn’t accept my sexuality until I met Spencer and Ashley on South of Nowhere.
– Queer characters that helped me come out: Spencer on South of Nowhere. I didn’t even need to come out per se. From watching the show with my parents, they figured it out through my reactions. They were the ones who brought it up to me and not me to them.
– Favorite coming out story of baby gays: Jess from Mary Kills People.
– Must have storytelling elements or character traits for baby gays: Don’t really have any “must have”. I only have “must not have”.
– Exciting storylines for kids today: Steven Universe, Andi Mack, One Day At A Time, Everything Sucks.
This roundtable! Cat-heart-eyes-emoji!
We didn’t watch Ellen at home, but I remember the Time magazine cover from when I saw it in my parents’ bathroom. I don’t remember what my feelings were about it, but let’s put it this way: I remember three magazine covers from my home at that time: one about the San Francisco earthquake, which caused me to be terrified of earthquakes for YEARS, one Vogue or something that had a naked lady (tastefully body-painted) on the cover, and THAT edition of Time. So it clearly made an impression. That was 97, right? I would’ve been just barely in middle school.
The first lesbians I really saw on tv were Mel and Lindsay from Queer As Folk, which I watched in high school with a gay dude friend. Oh, BOY were those characters flawed, and I ended up relating more to the guys in that show than the lesbians, because, well, that’s clearly the way the show was written.
Then there was that period where Wolfe made a lot of their films available on…what was it, the Logo website? Before streaming was really a big thing? So I saw a lot of low-budget movies with angsty, blonde-streaked, thin ladies figuring out in midlife that they were gay. WHAT A TIME THAT WAS TO BE ALIVE.
i fucking loved that ending
I totally agree about showing more characters on TV that are just figuring out their sexuality in their 20s, 30s, 40s or later. As someone who didn’t know that I was gay until I was in my late 20s I don’t relate to kids or teens who have it all figured out. It would be nice to see someone like me on TV.
Same request from me.
Ditto. For my friends and I (most of whom came out after college to include 40s) a baby gay is any new gay regardless of actual age.
And while representation in media is probably making it easier and average lesbian coming out age younger, I’d also like to see more baby gays in their 30s and 40s
I’m old, so the first queer character I ever saw on tv was the one Billy Crystal played on Soap.
My favorite baby queer? Hands down it’s Bullet from The Killing — a baby butch dyke (something that is still rare as unicorns on tv): masculine of center, tough as nails, and of course she had her tender little baby queer heart broken by the girl she loved and was fiercely protective of. I’m not sure there’s ever been another character like her, tbh. And yeah, the fact that she was played by Bex Taylor-Klaus doesn’t hurt either…
A moment of silence for Bullet
Wait, Billy Crystal played a gay character on Soap?!? I don’t remember that at all.
@cepperly I didn’t watch at the time but this “we don’t have homos in Texas” scene is one of my friend’s favorite scenes to reference.
That’s hilarious. I watched Soap reruns growing up but missed that episode. I feel into a Soap sized wormhole on YouTube and saw bits that I remember, and yes Billy Crystal was in them, clearly acting gay. But I missed it then – possibly because I was too young to get the references and also possibly because preteen and teenage me was really oblivious to queer subtext. Probably because noticing it in the world might have made me notice it in my life and I wasn’t ready for that.
My other favourite line that I remember
“Are you a practicing Homosexual?”
“I don’t have to practice I’m very good at it”
I laughed and laughed, my family started to get worried.
Susan Ivanova on Babylon 5 was my first queer woman character… And then JMS helped with Sense 8… Which has my favourite couple Amanita and Nomi.. And always Steven Universe. Pearl and Rose…. So tumultuous…. But still so romantic. Still waiting for Pearl and Mystery Girls first date.
First gay on tv: Billy Crystal on Soap
First baby gay: She wasn’t out, but Buddy on Family made me feel things I didn’t understand.
Favorite coming out stories: Emily Fitch, Elena, Alex Danvers.
One that most resembles mine: Paige McCullers
I started watching Buffy in 2003, on DVD, so Willow and Tara were the first gay characters for me. But it was a year later when I developed a crush on a girl in my class.
And then scanning through the aisles of the video store I found The L Word. That first episode blew my mind! From that point on I knew that I loved girls. Shane was my first tv crush.
Can I put in a request for a roundtable of favorite already out characters? I was just thinking that it’s so nice to have more than the L Word to choose from.
– First gay American TV character I saw: Ricky Vasquez, first woman was Carol on Friends.
– Favorite coming out story of baby gays: Callie and Erica, Greys Anatomy
– Must have storytelling elements or character traits for baby gays: Don’t really have any “must have”. I only have “must not have”.
This was such a great roundtable!! I got emotional all over again thinking about some of these storylines.
I’m usually super late to any TV show and watch it like 5 years later on Netflix instead of when it’s actually airing, but Glee was the one exception to that rule. I used to watch it every week during my freshman year of college in the dorm common room. I think that was season 2? Anyway, my friends would always compare me to Brittany (I guess because I had blonde hair and a tendency to say things that were a little on the ditzy side?). It took me until the next year to actually realize I’m gay, but watching Brittany be openly bisexual and relating to her planted that seed in my head that maybe it’s okay to not be straight.
Similar to Carmen wondering what could have been different in her life if One Day at a Time had existed when she was in high school, I wish I had watched Pretty Little Liars when it first was on TV. Seeing Emily’s and Paige’s coming out stories could have made all the difference. When I was growing up, I literally did not realize that it was possible to be gay unless you lived someplace like San Francisco or New York. I honestly don’t remember watching any gay character on TV until Glee which sounds crazy! Maybe it’s just that I blocked any hint of being gay out of my mind until finally I couldn’t anymore…
I Am Young, and therefore the first queer character I saw on TV was Kurt in Glee, very closely followed by Emily on PLL. I love that you did this roundtable because I’ve thought SO MUCH about how my sexuality has often developed and evolved around and along with different TV characters. What made me realize I wanted to kiss girls was seeing Emily and Maya kiss goodbye before Maya went off to rehab on PLL. THAT was my life-changing, earth-shattering moment becuase it’s what made me realize girls could like other girls and kiss them and be happy and it completely rocked my world. I actually had this big OMG I’M GAY moment that was like a minute that changed my life and it was triggered by a) seeing the aforementioned kiss, b) a pretty girl leaning on my shoulder (yep), and c) (perhaps most importantly) OLIVIA WILDE ON HOUSE AS BISEXUAL THIRTEEN. Thirteen was *the* pivotal character in my discovery of my sexuality and it was her undeniable hotness that made me realize I liked girls (thank you, Olivia Wilde, for being so gorgeous)
WOW I had COMPLETELY forgotten about how important Olivia Wilde as Thirteen was to teen me! I was aggressively pre-med at the time too, so it was just like EVERYTHING at once. I wish they had handled her story differently but damn was she hot.
My first queer TV character was Mark on Ugly Betty, followed by Betty’s little brother, who came out halfway through the show. I’ll forever be indebted to that series. It did such a good job of embracing and exploring queerness.
My first female queer TV character was one of the Desperate Housewives, I think?? Someone had a fling with a woman. There was also a lesbian on one of the later seasons of Heroes around the same time. Neither of those story arcs did much for me, since they were short and pretty soulless and shocking enough to my mom that she asked me to leave the room lol.
Anyway, now I’m nostalgic for early 2000s television.
I ended up having a conversation about representation last weekend, in a FB photo group I am in which is predominantly straight women but a small number of other queer women and a few men who are probably straight. Anyway one woman shared a photo of a poster for the Fun Home musical and then started a conversation about the Bechdel Test which some people had heard of and some hadn’t, then one woman said her daughter had heard of it but she hadn’t and never really thought about it when watching stuff, then another woman said she didn’t care as long as the story was good.
So then I had a bit of a rant about representation and how under represented women are and how I have heard straight people say they don’t care about the sexuality of the characters when what they mean is they only want to see straight characters and how some creators say an LGBT character needs to be relevant to the plot or an f/f relationship needs to be earned and how annoying that is because my sexuality is just me existing and I am not relevant to any plot.
Then this woman said that she thought wanting representation in everything was unrealistic and should people not read Jane Austin because her books are only about white people and should anything without LGBTQ characters be banned and how the Mona Lisa isn’t representative because there are no men in it.
So then I was even more annoyed and talked about how the art in the Louvre should be collectively representative rather than individually of a range of different groups (I have no idea if it is or not). And a bi woman joined in about the lack of bi characters in the media growing up and how that was a problem for her and a couple of other women joined in the pro diversity argument.
So I feel glad that a few people joined in, but the woman who was negative just didn’t respond and further, she didn’t acknowledge anyone’s point. I feel like it has marred my view of the group even though it was only one woman (but she runs the group). Before that I considered the group to be the non LGBT space/people where I felt most comfortable.
To actually answer the question my first gay character was maybe Sam (male) in Casualty, my coming out facilitators were Helen and Nikki in Bad Girls and my favourite baby gay is Kate in Everything Sucks.
I came out when I was nearly 21 and I agree that I feel I missed out on all those teenage experiences of first love.
The first time I remember seeing queer female characters on tv was at my friend’s house watching MTV, I must have been about 9 when that t.A.t.u music video came on and I weirdly couldn’t take my eyes off it
A couple years later on a family holiday there was an ANTM marathon and I felt a weird connection with Kim, the lesbian one from season 5. The marathon was interrupted by some other MTV reality show about couples’ drama and one of the couples were women and I remember feeling at that point determined to be the best straight LGBT ally ever!
Emily Fitch will always be my spirit baby gay. I think I was 14 when she was 16 (also going through the English education system) and watching her was a little bit like watching my close future… she led the way and let me know that it was all okay. She was having all the feelings I hadn’t yet given myself permission to have, and seeing her somehow allowed me to take that step.
My coming out was so completely thanks to her, it’s crazy to think what my life would have been like without it! I 100% believe that if I grew up in the 60s I would be depressingly unaware and unhappily married to a man right now, thank god for representation and BLESS ALL THE BABY GAYS
The parent in me thought, “Oh my god, your parents let you watch Skins at 14?!?” But the seasoned lesbian thought, “Emily Fitch should be the guide for all gaybies.”
God yes. It doesn’t matter how long I’ve been out, watching a baby gay figure herself out and start to develop her sense of pride and confidence will never stop being one of the most powerful things in the world for me. It just never stops being so real and cathartic and I can FEEL my baby gay self surfacing and devouring it like she’s starving every time. I don’t think I will ever get past that reaction of having my heart clench and my whole body go still and my eyes well up and just my entire everything being completely one hundred percent focused on the story that’s playing out in front of me. Doesn’t matter how many times I’ve watched it either. In that moment, nothing else matters.
Honestly I think even those of us who had an objectively relatively untraumatic coming out experience tend to carry a lot of pain and trauma and loneliness and hurt deep inside from the whole thing. I feel deeply connected to the baby gay self inside me, and just feel such love and care and compassion for her, and a need to nurture and protect her. It’s been eight years since I first began to realise she existed, and while she doesn’t exist on the surface any more, I don’t see her day to day, I still carry her with me everywhere I go. I need these stories to help reassure her that she’s okay, that everything’s okay, that she is seen and heard and loved and that she matters.
also YES I can’t believe how consistently perfect Steven Universe is, I am so excited for the generation who grow up watching that to be running the world soon!!
Oh man this made me so emotional! Queer TV is such a huge part of my life and has been for the past decade. I think the first queer character I ever saw on TV would have been Barry Boston, who is this guy from an Australian drama called Seachange that ran for three seasons in the late ’90s. He was… not a major character, and kind of a stereotype to be honest.
But the first gay woman I saw on TV was Ellen. I lived in a boarding house for a few years, and when I was around 14, I would get up super early on a Saturday morning to be the first one in the computer room to snag the ONE computer that had a screen facing the wall, not out towards the room where everyone else could see what you were doing. And then I would watch Ellen’s show on Youtube, via like, unofficial accounts that had uploaded episodes in six parts. A couple of years later, around 16, I came out to an older woman who was the first lesbian I had ever met, and she posted me the South of Nowhere DVDs, and so that was the second thing I watched.
The baby gay characters I watched in real time are Emily Fields/Paige McCullers and Santana Lopez, so I will always have a special love for them, I think. I recently watched One Day At A Time and omg I love Elena Alvarez so much. Her character makes me so hopeful for the future of queer TV, and kids these days, and just the world in general (which is a rare feeling). I totally agree with Natalie’s assessment of it being awesome that it’s Elena’s own self realisation and not tied to a love interest.
I’m really loving this roundtable.
There was a show on in the 80’s that took place in a women’s medical center. The main reason why I remember it is because it was the first time I ever heard one of the main characters in a TV series actually say out loud that they were a lesbian. It was the most amazing thing. There had been the occasional kiss in which the character on whatever show immediately went back to being heterosexual. And it was never mentioned again. (Looking at you L.A. Law)
So true. 90s tv shows had a lot of lesbian kisses and almost no lesbians.
The Abby/CJ kiss on LA Law was pretty pivotal for me though because Abby was the first openly bi character I’d ever seen on tv – I still remember her getting involved with a guy after CJ and just telling him that she also dated women.
I WANTED TO COMMENT HERE AND I COMMENTED IN THE INSIDER BY ACCIDENT
EMILY AND NAOMI FROM SKINS UK
This discussion makes me realize how much representation has improved and how important it is.
I don’t think I saw a queer character on TV before I came out to myself (age 20 in 1990). It was a IRL queer who made me realize that I’m bi. But seeing Abby and CJ kiss on LA Law was pretty formative.
There have been a lot of characters and relationships that have helped me piece together my queer identity over the years. Callie and Arizona brought a wlw couple to a show that I already loved, that my friends watched, that my mom watched. Emily and Naomi showed me that you can be super brave or you can dig your heels in the ground and either way, you can’t deny who you are.
But Alex Danvers was the first queer character that I saw and thought, oh wow, that’s me! She just thought relationships weren’t for her. Whatever, there are more important things. But the puzzle pieces were all there, she just couldn’t see the picture yet. Her coming out was so great to see on screen and I’ll always be grateful for it.
It’s so funny to me that I got REALLY into Skins and Glee right around the same time that I starting taking my first baby steps out of the closet. It’s just now occurring to me that the two might be related lol. I remember watching Santana talk about how she was so angry all the time because she was hiding her true self and didn’t even know it and just BAWLING because it suddenly all clicked for me. I was a pretty miserable teen who felt like her skin didn’t fit right and realizing that I was queer just felt like the biggest sigh of relief.
Then I went and watched the L Word to prove to myself that I was queer? As if to be like “If you have a reaction to this, you are definitely gay.” Reader, I did have a reaction, and here we are today.
I loved EVERYTHING about this comment and I really wanted you to know that.
This is so funny to me because the thing that prompted me to start questioning my sexuality was the realisation that ‘wow, I am really intensely interested in these stories, why am I so interested in these stories, WHY AM I SO INTERESTED IN THESE-oh.fuck.okay.that might be why.shit.now what?’
So like, I kind of did it the opposite way round to you.
Carol and Susan on Friends were the first queer characters I remember seeing, Spencer and Ashley on South of Nowhere were definitely my ‘ring of keys’ moment, but Paige McCullers was the one I identified with the most.
I came out at 13, in 1994 and the only fictional queer character I remember on TV was one of the sons in this made for TV movie called “Doing Time on Maple Drive”
I was however, OBSESSED with day time talk shows, especially when they’d have ones that were like “I’m 15 and I’m gay!” I have like two whole VHS tapes full of talk shows that had anything the least bit queer on them.
My favorite was an episode of Maury Povich with lgbt teens, and I particularly remember this one bisexual girl named Kayla and I wanted to be friends with her so bad, she was really cute.
One good thing about coming out young, is that I made a lot of queer friends early on (which was basically my reason for coming out, I figured it was the only way to attract queer friends) so I think it didn’t bother me as much not to have representation on tv in the way it might for someone who was really isolated.
I love this comment.
I came out later than you (age 20 in 1990) but I also had a really great irl support group – several of my friends and I all came out more or less together and it def helped with not feeling as isolated.
Yeah, I feel like I was so spoiled growing up. Most of us were really into the queercore punk scene so we’d go to shows together and make even more friends and it’s pretty astounding how much support.
It was weird to go to college and make straight friends and more mainstream gay friends, because I’d been living in a pretty sweet bubble and didn’t really know what life was like outside of it. It’s cool to branch out I guess, but tbh, at 37 I wouldn’t mind going back in the weirdo queer bubble.
I really enjoyed watching Kate’s (Everything Sucks!) journey of self discovery too. It was so sweet.
I watched Ellen’s Puppy Episode when it aired, but at that point I didn’t even have an inkling that I could be into women, so I don’t remember having much of an opinion about it. I knew it was a big deal because I subscribed to approximately a thousand entertainment magazines, but it wasn’t any sort of wakeup call. I came out to myself and then others when I was in my early-to-mid 20s, and I think South of Nowhere and Skins helped me more than anything. The characters were younger than me, but I felt like I was at a similar stage of development, and seeing them figure things out and end up happy (what Skins Fire? There was no Skins Fire) meant a lot. I’m so happy for the younger TV watchers now who have so much to choose from!
They’re mostly not baby gays because some of them are in their 20s, but current coming out storylines I’ve really enjoyed have included Alex on Supergirl, Kat on The Bold Type, Kate on Everything Sucks!, Karolina and Nico on Marvel’s Runaways, and of course Waverly Earp on Wynonna Earp. Oh, and who could forget Petra on Jane the Virgin! I’m cautiously excited about Riverdale’s Cheryl Blossom as well, mostly because Madelaine Petsch herself is so into it, but those writers are really going to have to step it up.
I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this topic <3
I love coming out storylines. There are many great ones, but I want to give a shout out to some of my recent favourites: Alex Danvers coming out was pretty damn perfect, and while I figured out my sexuality in a completely different way from her, some of her feelings were the same as mine. So relatable that it was almost too much to watch. I also loved Elena's coming out on One Day at a Time and that it wasn't, like it always happens, about a love interest, like Natalie said. And Rosa Diaz because Bisexual Representation, and because I feel like we never see bi characters come out in the same way gay characters get to come out on TV? I didn't know how much I needed to see someone come out specifically as bi until I saw Rosa come out to her parents. I wish I saw that when I was growing up.
Emily Fitch was the first lesbian I remember seeing, after 2 years of telling myself I couldn’t be gay because I didn’t want to be butch, so I was totally shocked to discover you could like girls and still have long hair! It helped that all my friends watched Skins too so I could talk about it as much as I wanted without raising suspicion (i thought.) I think there must be so many gays my age who came out in the overlapping years of Emily Fitch/ Emily Fields/ Santana Lopez !!
(Side note: did anyone else watch that terrible show, Sugar Rush?)
Adventure Time, Marceline the Vampire Queen and PB. Saw an episode and it clicked what I wanted. Not straight, but queer.
This makes me want to rewatch the first season of PLL and skip through and just watch the Emily Fitch parts. Which, if I’m being honest, is probably (definitely) why I watched the show to begin with.
I’m always late to the party on these posts, but want to comment anyway.
I don’t really remember the first queer TV character I saw. It was probably Ricky from My So-Called Life, but I didn’t see that show until a year or two after it originally aired. However, when I was around 15-16 (1995/1996) I was *obsessed* with the movie Boys on the Side. I’m not even sure how or why I originally saw it. Probably because Drew Barrymore was in it. But I loved it so much, for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate. I didn’t even consciously realize that Whoopi Goldberg’s character was a lesbian until much later (even though there is a scene where it’s her birthday party and the Indigo Girls perform – SO GAY). I think my love for that movie tipped my mom off to the fact that I was not straight, because she definitely suspected it before I even knew it myself.
In the years that followed I sought out every scrap of queer representation I could find in TV and movies. I loved Will & Grace. Movies like Gia, All Over Me, High Art, etc. Sweeps Week kisses on Ally McBeal and Party of 5. Willow & Tara on Buffy. Marissa & Alex on The O.C. The L Word was a revelation, not because I particularly related to any of the characters but because it was an entire show all about women like me.
Despite all that, though, the character I feel like resonated with me the most was Santana Lopez on Glee. By the time Glee started airing I was 29 years old, defacto married to my wife, and we’d just had our first child. In other words, I was very much an out queer adult. But something about Santana just got to me. She reminded me of myself as a teenager, and I loved (still love) her fiercely. Santana’s coming out on Glee was what I needed to see as a teenager but didn’t have. (It also brought me to Autostraddle via Riese’s Glee recaps!) I feel like that’s why queer adults so often watch shows aimed at teenagers that have queer teen characters; we didn’t have that as teens and some part of us still needs to see our teenage selves on screen. I’m really glad that we have so many of those stories now, and future generations of queer adults will have grown up seeing themselves represented on screen.
“I feel like that’s why queer adults so often watch shows aimed at teenagers that have queer teen characters; we didn’t have that as teens and some part of us still needs to see our teenage selves on screen.” – This pretty much sums up all of my Glee feelings perfectly. I was 23 I think when it started to air? So also not exactly a teen anymore. But, it really touched me all the same.
Oh and also I wanted to come here for all the Boys on the Side and Gia love!!!!!! Those were two of my 90s mainstays! (Seeing Gia at 13 was…. very formative. Let’s just say that.)
Paige McCullers is definitely the character I identify with the most