When it comes to LGBTQ+ storylines, it wasn't too long ago that TV once treated an existing or beloved character's "coming out" moment as something major. Heck, at one point, even the briefest appearance of a queer-identifying character in the show's universe was the topic of discussion for an entire episode!
More often than not, a character who had already won the heart of America would suddenly discover something about their developing queer identity and feel the need to share it with the other characters on the show. This revelation typically occurred towards the later seasons, thus becoming the show's "special" episode. Today, however, a lot has changed.
In the past few years alone, more than a handful of LGBTQ+ characters have come on our televisions just the way they are. They have proved to viewers that they are more than their coming out stories and are capable of leading full, interesting lives separate from their queer identities.
Currently, there are five small-screen characters who have changed — and are continuing to change — TV's representation of the LGBTQ+ community. Check them out below.
1. Denise, Netflix's Master of None
For almost two seasons, Master of None's Denise was, well, "Denise." Part of Dev's core group of friends, Denise (Lena Waithe) is a "soft stud" lesbian going through her own stuff and gives Dev (Aziz Ansari) advice when he needs it most. It wasn't until Season 2's "Thanksgiving" episode that we, as an audience, were given the space to explore Denise's "coming out" experience.
But, here's the thing: We already met Denise as a fully realized character — an out lesbian living her best life. What makes this episode of Master of None so special is that Denise's coming out is not a big declaration that's meant to shift the way the series presents her character. Instead, we take a break from the show's key storylines and are given the opportunity to understand and explore who Denise is on a deeper level. We get to see the roots of her friendship with Dev, and see how settling into yourself is a process — even for someone as confident as Denise.
Behind the scenes, Lena Waithe is also making waves in the entertainment industry. She's the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for co-writing the "Thanksgiving episode," which is also based on her own, true moment of coming out. On top of that, Waithe is also the creator of Showtime's The Chi — a show based on her experiences growing up in Chicago. Talk about an industry powerhouse!
2. Taylor Mason, Showtime's Billions
Showtime's Billions is the first show ever to introduce a non-binary gender identifying character. Non-binary people are individuals who recognize that the sex they're assigned at birth (male or female) is different from the gender roles (man or woman) recognized by society, and they find themselves identifying within, and often outside of, those gender roles. Most non-binary people don't use the binary gendered pronouns "him" and "her" or "she" and "he," but rather use the non-gendered single pronouns of "they," "them," and "their," or another variation "Ze/Zir."
In Billions, Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon) is an analyst intern at Axe Capital whose high intellect is of value and importance to the firm. During Season 3, Taylor's relationship with Oscar (Mike Birbiglia), a philanthropist who uses his funds towards the development of a better world, takes a romantic turn. Taylor isn't presented as a "token character" on Billions, but rather as a fully-realized human being who viewers can understand and relate to. By giving a mainstream audience the opportunity to see non-binary people interacting with the world in the way everyone does, Showtime has begun to remove some of the stigmas and misgivings against non-binary individuals.
If you want to learn more about this topic, watch Asia Kate Dillon's discussion on identifying as a non-binary individual and the significance of Taylor's character on Billions.
3. Mitchell Pritchett and Cameron Tucker, ABC's Modern Family
ABC's Modern Family tends to get a lot of criticism for its portrayal of Mitch and Cam — the main one being that the characters play into "gay" stereotypes. What these critics fail to realize is that Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron Tucker (Eric Stonestreet) are constantly pushing and pulling against these stereotypes. They present Modern Family viewers with the expectation of what they believe these characters will be like, and then subvert that stereotype in a knowing, comedic way. After all, this is a sitcom — a format of television where it's okay for every character to be the butt of a joke.
In Season 9, when Mitch and Cam give parenting advice to their friends, Pepper and Reynaldo, they shift their calm, "cultured" demeanor to one of brutal honesty. In this scene, the dynamic that viewers expect between Mitch and Cam is transferred to Pepper and Reynaldo instead. Although Mitch and Cam present a united front here, in actuality their opinions often differ. This scenario proves that we all exist on an ever-shifting spectrum and there's humor to be found in it.
Since the show's premiere in 2009, Mitch and Cam have lived a life wholly their own. They've adopted, they've fought, they've made up, and they've even gotten married. Now, an entire generation can say they've grown up with Mitch and Cam serving as their model of a healthy couple, similar to how Lucy and Ricky or the Conners once did for many viewers.
4. Sophia Burset, Netflix's Orange Is the New Black
Since Netflix's Orange Is the New Black broke ground in 2013, audiences across the country were presented with an array of women who embody so much more than the stereotypes of what female characters could be. This cast of women comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and distinct personalities — as real women do!
One of OITNB's greatest gifts is Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), a trans woman of color whose role as the prison's hairdresser quickly transforms and deepens as the seasons go on. The audience is let into aspects of Sophia's transition with a vulnerable openness rather than sensationalization. We slowly learn about Sophia's wife and son, the difficulty of coming to terms with being trans, and how being a person of color on top of being trans only further complicates and narrows the perimeters that society allows people to exist in.
What's more? Sophia is portrayed by a real trans woman, Laverne Cox, who also became the first trans person to ever grace the cover of Time magazine!
5. Michael, NBC's Champions
In Champions, Michael (J.J. Totah) is a 15-year old who moves in with his uncle (Andy Favreau) and father, Vince (Anders Holms), so he can attend a prestigious art school in New York. Unbeknownst to Vince, Michael is a product of a fling he had with Priya (Mindy Kaling) back in high school.
What's groundbreaking about Champions is that Michael is the first openly gay teen and a person of color to spearhead a network television comedy. Notably, the show's focus isn't episodic lessons on how Michael deals with his queer identity. Instead, audiences get to witness this intelligent young actor (Totah is only 16!) hold his own against the comedic stylings of established actors like Anders Holms and Mindy Kaling.
By watching Michael tackle his ever-developing relationship with his uncle and his father, viewers are also presented with a new family dynamic: One that runs on the strength of love and keeping each other's best interests in mind — no matter what.
Now isn't that something?