June 28, 2013
Growing up gay is tough. Queer youth often need role models during the coming-out process -- and they come from all different places. They need stories to emulate, stories of hope, and sometimes stories of despair -- the full gamut.
Thankfully, many notable television shows have used great storytelling and great characterization to present fully realized young gay characters who must come to terms with their own sexuality, find love and adjust to life in the real world while being gay. Yes, even out there in TV Land, it's getting better.
If you were a teen in the '90s, you might have looked up to Rickie Vasquez. In the 2000s, you may have seen Willow Rosenberg's struggle to come out as a witch and a lesbian as parallel situations, or maybe Justin Suarez taught you how to connect more honestly with a gay youth in your family. Though we turn to television for escape, there's also a lot to be learned from the lives of some of television's gay youth, many of whom are portrayed as struggling for their voice, for acceptance and for love.
Rickie Vasquez, My So-Called Life (1994-1995)
Rickie Vasquez is among TV's most widely recognized gay characters. Portrayed by LGBT activist Wilson Cruz on ABC's My So-Called Life, Rickie's being gay was just a part of his character and was never used as a "plot point" -- which was a rarity if you look at the heavy, after-school-special '90s dramas around at the time. He wore eyeliner and preferred to hang out in the girls' bathroom. He had a crush on a straight male friend. He started off the series being introduced as "bi" but came out as gay on the final episode of the show.
Though his homosexuality was not used as a plot foil, in a series of episodes he was kicked out of the house by his uncle for being gay, and spent Christmas homeless. Also, he was often beat up by others in his school. He eventually moved in with his sympathetic gay English teacher, Mr. Katimski (Scandal's Jeff Perry). Rickie was not only groundbreaking for being among the few openly gay characters on television at the time, but also for being a queer youth of color.
Willow Rosenberg and Tara Maclay, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1998-2003)
Willow (Alyson Hannigan) is the best friend of main character Buffy Summers on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After a relationship with werewolf Daniel Osborne ("Oz") ends with Oz going on a quest of self-discovery, Willow starts to come out of her post-breakup depression only after hanging out with her new Wiccan friend Tara Maclay (Amber Benson). Though creator Joss Whedon couldn't get a lesbian sex scene past the censors, he used many of their bouts with magic as sweaty metaphors for copulation. Though Tara was out prior to meeting Willow, Tara is Willow's first female love. They became the most positive relationship on the series. When Buffy dies at the end of season 5, they move into Buffy's house together and take care of her younger sister, Dawn.
In line with all the other relationships on Buffy, their relationship is doomed, and it ends with Tara getting shot by a stray bullet meant to hit Buffy at the end of season 6. Subsequently, filled with rage, Willow goes on to attempt to destroy the world, not wanting to live without her. After the death of Tara, Willow finds love again with potential slayer Kennedy, with whom she does share the official first lesbian sex scene on television. Willow ranked number 7 on AfterEllen.com's list of the Top 50 Lesbian and Bisexual Characters.
Justin Taylor, Queer as Folk (2000-2005)
Justin (played by Randy Harrison) is the youngest main character from Showtime's groundbreaking series Queer as Folk, a drama about the lives of a group of gay men and women living in Pittsburgh, Pa. When we first meet Justin, he is in high school, and there is tension between him and his parents as he begins the coming-out process. He meets the promiscuous main character of the show, Brian Kinney (Gale Harold), and loses his virginity to him in his senior year of high school, beginning the tumultuous relationship that is at the core of the show's drama.
Justin's deep and abiding love for Brian, and his coming-out process, fuels much of the drama of the show. In the show's five seasons, Justin starts a gay-straight alliance at his high school, gets gay bashed at prom, learns how to use his right hand again after suffering brain damage, creates a gay comic book, protests a homophobic mayoral candidate and an anti-gay statewide law, becomes a go-go boy to pay for art school after his parents kick him out, and tries to anchor the life of his eternally lusting beau, Brian. It's a lot for one character, and a 17-to-22-year-old, to handle. Justin was recognized by AfterElton.com as one of the 25 greatest gay television characters of all time -- coming in at number 3.
Marco Del Rossi, Degrassi: The Next Generation (2001-Present)
When Canadian teen soap Degrassi was rebooted in the early 2000s, they were quick to include a staple gay character in the mix -- Marco Del Rossi. Marco (played by Adamo Ruggiero) is a smart and talented high school student, and Ellie, one of the series' main characters, develops a crush on him. Confused about his own sexuality, Marco agrees to go on a date with her. When finally confronted with kissing her at a party, he comes out to her as gay. Ellie promises to be his girlfriend for as long as he needs until he is ready to come out to his friends. After coming out, he faces bullying from one of his best friends, Spinner, who defaces a bathroom wall with a derogatory slur about Marco.
Marco begins dating Dylan, his friend Paige's older brother, in season 3. When Marco comes out to his mother, she agrees to help hide his sexuality from his disapproving father. Marco also deals with gay bashing, infidelity, but is also named class valedictorian at graduation. As Degrassi is a soap, Marco's plotlines become more and more absurd, including him almost having sex with Ellie again in college. Marco later comes back as a student teacher at Degrassi High.
Andrew Van De Kamp, Desperate Housewives (2004-2012)
Andrew Van De Kamp is introduced in the very first episode of season 1 of Desperate Housewives as a rebellious child who gets in a lot of arguments with his mother, Christian conservative perfectionist Bree. Throughout the first season, it is revealed that Andrew is bisexual when his mom's friend Susan finds him kissing his friend Justin naked in a pool. Andrew is sent to a Christian rehab camp and lies to his parents saying he is "cured" of being gay to get out of going back. When confronted by the community preacher Reverend Sykes in the season finale about his orientation, Andrew says, "Look, I love vanilla ice cream, OK? But every now and then I'm probably gonna be in the mood for chocolate."
After the death of his father, Andrew finds out his mother is dating a sex addict. He tries to convince his sister, Danielle, to sleep with him in order to end the relationship. When she refuses, he seduces his mother's boyfriend. Bree takes Andrew to a gas station with a bag of clothes and some money and leaves him there. About eight months later, she sees him on TV on a special about youth on the street, and brings him back home.
After all the hardships, Andrew actually goes on to be in a stable relationship. Actor Shawn Pyfrom, who played Andrew, said that he received many letters by people who were encouraged by Andrew's ease with his sexuality as one of the few secure and confident LGBT teenage characters on TV.
Isabelle Hodes,Weeds (2005-2012)
Isabelle (Allie Grant) on Weeds was often being berated by her conservative mother, Celia Hodes. Though she is very young at the beginning of the series, she openly claims to be a lesbian. Besides her sexuality, her mother is also frustrated that she doesn't conform to feminine gender norms and is overweight. This is exacerbated when Isabelle becomes the spokesperson for overweight children's clothing line "Huskaroo's." Isabelle is often shown as being the smartest and most capable of her entire family. Her mother Celia is overbearing and often unsure of herself and her father, Dean, is often seen as lacking nerve. She, however, is very smart and has a sharp wit. At the end of season 5, when her mother decides to start selling weed, she is deemed the "brains" of the operation.
Though Isabelle's sexuality is played up for comedy most of the time, she does have a few poignant moments in the series. Isabelle becomes best friends with Shane Botwin, the son of the series' protagonist, Nancy Botwin. They bond over their inept mothers. When Shane is in puberty, he asks to feel Isabelle's breasts, and she acquiesces, though she has no desire to touch him. In the series finale, her father reveals that she has had a sex change and is now Bruce Hodes.
Justin Suarez, Ugly Betty (2006-2010)
Justin Suarez (Mark Indelicato), Betty's nephew, began on Betty a bit too young to be "out" or have a full grasp on his sexuality, but by the end of season 4, after years of "stereotypical gay behavior," including being in the performing arts and being obsessed with fashion, he came out to his family. Justin went through a lot of identity issues throughout the show. After the loss of his father, he tried to be "macho," and ended up finding a mentor in Betty's flamboyant coworker, Marc. Marc helped Justin learn that it's not only OK, but necessary, to be yourself.
Justin, after being bullied at a public high school, was sent by his mom to a private performing arts school. Though he denies being gay for a long time, he develops a crush on his schoolmate Austin, with whom he shares a kiss during a heated argument -- over a girl they both claim to like! Justin's family actually finds out before Justin comes out, due to his mom's fiancé finding Justin and Austin kissing on the porch one night. When his family plans an over-the-top "coming-out party" for Justin, Betty's gay coworker Marc convinces the family to let him come out on his own terms, which he does when he asks his boyfriend Austin to dance with him at his mother's wedding reception.
Marshall Gregson and Lionel Trane, United States of Tara (2009-2011)
Marshall Gregson (Keir Gilchrist) is the youngest son of Tara Gregson, the main character of Showtime's United States of Tara. Tara suffers from diassociative identity disorder, and has several different personalities, whom she calls alters. The main three "alters" are Buck, a Southern conservative biker; T, a sexually promiscuous 15-year-old girl; and Alice, a prim-and-proper housewife.
Marshall is not introduced as gay, but as a rather meek, old-fashioned boy who loves classic films and wants to be a director. Though his mother is caring and nurturing, her alter Buck is actually homophobic and often bullies Marshall. Marshall begins to explore his sexuality when he falls fall for a jock at his school, Jason. He befriends Jason by joining a "theatre group" at a local church that Jason belongs to. The church is putting on a Halloween "hell house" that shows what will happen to you if you sin. Jason and Marshall grow close while preparing for the hell house, but when Jason comes over for dinner, Tara's alter T takes over and seduces Jason, leading to the end of the budding romance.
Marshall eventually meets Lionel Trane (Michael J. Willett), an out and flamboyant gay boy who is trying to start a gay-straight alliance at their high school. Marshall is first completely turned off by Lionel's garish ways, but eventually the two become friends. After learning that Lionel has sex with older men in the bushes of the local park, Marshall declares his love for Lionel and they begin dating. In season 3, Lionel dies in a car crash just as they are rekindling their romance after a brief breakup. Gilchrist was a fan favorite and was often singled out for his acting on the show.
The Boys of Glee (2009-Present)
Glee is known for having a whole cast of sexually diverse kids -- so much so that they qualified for three slides! Who are the most prominent gay male characters on Glee? The obvious answer is Golden Globe winner Chris Colfer who plays Kurt Hummel. His boyfriend, Blaine Anderson, is played by Darren Criss. Together, they comprise "Klaine," one of the most popular couples on the show.
Kurt starts the show discovering his sexuality and having to come to terms with it when his best friend Mercedes develops a crush on him. In the first season, he deals with a crush on Finn Hudson, the heterosexual co-captian of the glee club, who eventually becomes his stepbrother. In the second season, Kurt transfers to a private school due to bullying, mainly from Dave Karofsky (Max Adler), a football player who throws Kurt against a locker. When Kurt goes to confront Karofsky, Karofsky kisses Kurt, then threatens to kill him if he tells anyone about the kiss. Fearing for their son's life, Kurt's dad and stepmom take the money they set aside for their honeymoon to pay for his tuition to go to private school.
It is at private school that Kurt meets Blaine, with whom he falls swiftly in love, though Blaine stays oblivious. After they kiss, Kurt transfers back to McKinley High School to be with his friends after learning that Karofsky and fellow student Santana Lopez have formed an anti-bullying club. Blaine eventually transfers to public school to be with Kurt. Many have applauded Glee's handling of Kurt's coming out, specifically the acceptance and loving portrayal of his single father, Burt Hummel.
The Girls of Glee (2009-Present)
Glee's two most prominent "same-gender-loving" female characters are Santana Lopez, played by Naya Rivera, and Brittany S. Pierce, played by Heather Morris. Fellow cheerleaders to main character Quinn Fabray, the two are introduced as minor characters in season 1. True to a common cheerleader fantasy, they're framed as "easy" with boys while alluding to their sexual dalliances with one another. In season 2, mean girl Santana and ditzy Brittany get more depth and shape to their characters; the real chemistry between the two young actresses enriches their onscreen friendship, which opens into a full-fledged love story in which Santana sings to and confesses her love for best friend Brittany.
"I'm a bitch because I'm angry," Santana says in that classic scene; "I'm angry because I have all of these feelings, feelings for you, that I'm afraid of dealing with because I'm afraid of dealing with the consequences." When she finally talks about her feelings for Brittany, Brittany is in a relationship with classmate Artie; but the two girls eventually become a couple and, after frustrating fans with their chaste physicality as girlfriends after two seasons of subtextual buildup, finally share an onscreen Valentine's Day kiss. Santana's parents are supportive of her being a lesbian, but her grandmother disowns her when Santana comes out to her. The character of Santana, like Rickie Vasquez before her, is also an inspiration to young queer women of color.
Unique, Glee (2009-Present)
Wade "Unique" Adams first appears in the third season of Glee as the featured singer in rival glee club Vocal Adrenaline who performs in competition in the gender that she is comfortable expressing. Unique, a young trans woman, is played by Alex Newell, who was the runner-up of reality show The Glee Project. Originally only meant for a two-episode arc, Alex received a longer arc due to popularity. Unique transfers to McKinley High School in season 4 and begins presenting as a girl during school hours, though she feels pressure to wear male attire at school. Unique auditions for the role of Rizzo in Grease and does really well at the audition. However, Sue Sylvester (the tyrannical cheerleading coach played by Jane Lynch) informs her parents, and scared of the bullying their daughter will face, they pull her from the show.
Unique is one of the only openly transgender characters on television, and one of few who are portrayed positively and happy. She prefers that people refer to her as "she" or "Unique." One of the biggest conflicts around terminology is when fellow classmate Ryder calls Unique "dude," and refuses to use feminine pronouns around her. However, Ryder's classmates persuade him to use feminine pronouns. Also, she discloses that she has been taunted while walking home, and the glee club offers to walk her home after school from that point on.
Emily Fields, Pretty Little Liars (2010-Present)
In ABC Family's wildly popular nighttime soap Pretty Little Liars, one of the four main characters -- Emily Fields (played by Shay Mitchell) -- is a lesbian. The importance of her being a lesbian on the show is that her lesbianism is not just a plot point -- Emily is a fully rounded character who interacts with her three best friends without her gayness being a factor. Emily spends the first season of the show discovering her sexuality, and telling her friends that she had a crush on their newly passed friend, Alison. In a world where most shows show bullying and violence after coming out, PLL showed that coming out can be positive. After her friends had their initial shock, they continued being best friends and Emily became a symbol of normality and hope.
After her coming out, Emily's sexuality was never used as a plot point again. She went through the normal ups and downs of falling in love and having girlfriends. The show may have one of the highest lesbian counts on all of television, with eight named lesbian characters so far, as well as an entire lesbian bar in a small town! In fact, the only other show to boast more gay lady characters than PLL is The L Word.