Evolution of LGBTQ+ Representation on TV

Still from "Our Flag Means Death." Photo via HBO

LGBTQ+ representation in media, specifically on television, is only a relatively new phenomenon. TV’s first openly gay character was not until 1971 in “All in the Family.” Over the last half-century, representation of the gay community has taken several forms, including depictions that are both positive and harmfully stereotypical.  

Considered a catalyst for gay representation on TV, “Glee,” which ran from 2009 to 2015, included a variety of characters belonging to the LGBTQ+ community. Kurt Hummel, perhaps the most recognized of these characters, was played by Chris Colfer, a gay actor, singer, and author.  

Kurt’s character arc spans the entire series, but one of the most remembered plots revolving around his character was his back-and-forth with homophobic school bully Dave Karofsky. In the show’s third season, Dave’s homophobia toward Kurt is revealed to be born of his struggle with his own homosexuality.  

This pairing is not exclusive to “Glee”; it can also be found in Netflix’s “Sex Education,” which is known for its graphic yet accurate portrayals of sex, gender, and sexuality. Despite its progressive themes surrounding these topics, the show mimics the relationship between Kurt and Dave on “Glee.” 

In “Sex Education,” Eric, played by Ncuti Gatwa, is the victim of relentless homophobia from Adam, played by Connor Swindells. By season two of the show, Adam’s bullying is also revealed to be caused by his internalized homophobia; the character later reveals his feelings for Eric, and the two begin a relationship.  

“13 Reasons Why,” another Netflix show known for its graphic depictions of sensitive topics, plays into this theme as well. Monty, one of the show’s secondary antagonists, consistently harasses his LGBTQ+ classmates, only for the show to reveal in its third season that Monty is struggling with coming to terms with his sexuality.  

Employing the concept that boys and men are homophobic simply because they are struggling with or hiding their sexuality plays into stereotypes about gay people that are harmful to the gay community. While there are realistic instances of homophobia that are born out of self-loathing toward one’s own sexuality, the consistent use of this as a plotline in shows, especially those that focus on the LGBTQ+ community, ignores the reality that most homophobic people are straight and cisgender. 

This is not to say that these shows do not also have characters who are straight who also engage in homophobia; there are multiple characters on “Glee” for instance who are straight and homophobic, not because they are closeted, but merely because they are bigoted.  

Nonetheless, writers for TV shows representing LGBTQ+ people need to leave behind the stereotypes that they are employing for their storylines. 

Thankfully, though, there are TV shows that more positively reflect the LGBTQ+ community without playing into stereotypes. 

Premiering in 2019 on HBO (now Max), “Euphoria” has tackled not only issues of homophobia, but also transphobia. Jules, one of the leading characters of the show, is not only a transgender girl, but she is also played by a trans actress (Hunter Schafer). Representation is not only important for characters but for actors as well. 

“Our Flag Means Death,” also on Max, tackles the ahistoric idea that pirates were solely rough, foul-mouthed barbarians who killed and fought for pleasure and power. Instead, this show focuses on Stede Bonnet, played by Rhys Darby, a “gentleman pirate” who realizes his romantic feelings for Blackbeard, played by Taiki Waititi. 

Twisting the famous narrative of Blackbeard’s legacy, the show represents the infamous pirate as a romantic, who also realizes his romantic feelings for Stede. “Our Flag Means Death” features other queer and nonbinary characters as well, most of whom are played by LGBTQ+ actors. 

Representation for gay people on television, while only relatively recent, is undoubtedly in need of review. While shows like “Glee” helped normalize the establishment of gay protagonists played by gay actors, these otherwise trailblazing shows were not without their faults and stereotypes.  

Fortunately, the onset of new TV shows representing LGBTQ+ people in a positive and accurate way seems to be becoming more common and normalized, allowing for gay audiences to feel celebrated, reflected, and understood without the weight of stereotypes. 

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