Until the late 90s and early noughties, LGBT characters in entertainment – especially television – were typically extremely underrepresented; and if they did feature, they were often portrayed as offensively stereotypical, campy caricatures. While caricaturization still happens in the media today – think Jack in Will and Grace, for example – there has certainly been a significant improvement in the fair and representative portrayal of the LGBT community in television and in films in the 21st century. This is thanks in part to TV shows like Queer as Folk and the L Word, and networks like LOGO TV and OUTtv. Laws are rapidly changing to ensure non-discrimination and equal rights for all sexual minorities, and those aforementioned sorts of media have both positively influenced and reflected these changes.
One of the earliest overt references to a sexual minority in ‘modern’ pop culture can be traced to November 20, 1934, when a play called The Children’s Hour premiered on Broadway. The play centered around two women who were ‘accused’ of a lesbian affair in a boarding school. The play was a success despite the (now shocking) fact that it was illegal in New York to reference homosexuality in a stage play at the time. One of the first portrayals of a gay character on television was in the 1977 sitcom Soap; Billy Crystal played gay director Jodie Dallas. While Billy Crystal’s acting chops were commended, both gay right activists and anti-gay religious groups frowned upon the characterization of Jodie Dallas. Gay rights groups were concerned about the stereotypical nature of the character while anti-gay groups were upset that there was a gay character on a mainstream sitcom at all. In the years to come, many more LGBT milestones occurred in film and television. The first same sex kiss happened in 1991 on an episode of LA Law, and the sitcom Friends portrayed a same sex wedding in 1996. Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1997, and that same year her character on her sitcom Ellen also came out as gay.
The 90s saw several critically acclaimed films that focused on the hardships and perils faced by many members of the LGBT community; these films included Philadelphia, which dealt with the influence of the AIDs epidemic among the LGBT community and the problem of homophobia, and Boys Don’t Cry, starring Hilary Swank, which sensitively documented the hate crimes against and consequent murder of transgender man Brandon Teena. Today, LGBT characters are fortunately no longer a cause for controversy common in film, television and literature. There are numerous gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters who feature prominently in the casts of popular shows like Modern Family, Orange is the New Black and Glee. In fact, characterizations of LGBT people in pop culture are now often appropriately sensitive and subtle, so much so that many of us aren’t aware of their sexual orientation or gender identity if it doesn’t play a formative role in a storyline. Here, we’ve taken a look at ten such fictional characters whom you may not have known were part of the LGBTQIA2-S community.
10. Kevin Keller from Archie Comics
In 2010, Kevin Keller debuted as the first openly gay character in an Archie comic with his appearance in Veronica #202. In 2012, the character received his own self-entitled on-going comic book series, which featured guest appearances from gay icons like George Takei.
9. Ida Quagmire on Family Guy
An episode of Family Guy’s eighth season entitled “Quagmire’s Dad” drew plenty of criticism for its portrayal of Quagmire’s father, who ended up having gender reassignment surgery to become female. Much of the outrage stemmed from conflating homosexuality with transexualism, and critics noted the transphobic attitudes of many of the characters.
8. Bug Gribble on King of the Hill
It was revealed that Dale Gribble’s father was gay in season 6 King of the Hill episode “My Own Private Rodeo.” Dale had not seen his father in 20 years since he made a scene at his wedding. Dale’s father ended up kissing Dale’s bride-to-be Nancy to cover his gay relationship with a Filipino caterer. When Dale attempts to reconcile with his father, it’s discovered that he’s working at a gay rodeo.
7. Northstar from X-men comics
This French-Canadian, super-powered mutant first appeared in X-men #120 in 1979. Originally a member of the Canadian super team Alpha Flight, Northstar (AKA Jean-Paul Beaubier) later became a member of the X-men. He is the first openly gay character in Marvel comics and one of the first gay characters in mainstream superhero comics. In issue 51 of Astonishing X-men, released in 2012, he married his longtime partner Kyle Jinadu.
6. Agron from Spartacus
He was one of the major characters on the underrated Starz cable drama Spartacus, and he is perhaps television’s first gay action hero. Agron’s relationship with his partner Nasir was the focus of many plot lines throughout the two seasons both the characters appeared in, and neither character was based on actual historical figures so their stories were completely original. The relationship between these two gay gladiators was one of the most emotional and heartfelt seen on television in years, but the show never reached the major popularity of other cable dramas so the majority of fans of gladiator programming may have missed it.
5. Birdo from Super Mario Bros. 2
This pink bow-wearing dinosaur, who has been both a villain and ally to Mario and Luigi, is speculated to be transgender. The earliest instruction manual for the Famicom game states that Birdo is a boy that believes he is a girl. In Mario Tennis Nintendo officially established the character as female, but some games following the release of Mario Tennis have stated the character is male or don’t state Birdo’s gender at all. Game developer, activist and trans woman Jennifer Reitz has speculated that Birdo is a post-op transsexual, as have many other gaming journalists.
4. Green Lantern in DC Comics New 52
In 2012, DC Comics publisher Dan DiDio revealed that Green Lantern would be reintroduced in the company’s complete relaunch called New 52. The character, which has been around since 1940, was also revealed to be a gay man and his origin focused heavily on this after his lover is killed in a train crash shortly before Green Lantern was to propose to him. It should be noted that this Green Lantern’s alter ego is Alan Scott and it is not the same Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) from the 2011 movie starring Ryan Reynolds.
3. Patty Bouvier on The Simpsons
While there is no question that Waylon Smithers is gay due to his apparently romantic obsession with his boss Mr. Burns, the references to Patty’s homosexuality have been far more infrequent and subtle. That is until the season 16 episode where Patty came out of the closet and revealed she would be getting married to her lesbian girlfriend Veronica (who was later revealed to be a man). Despite the marriage not happening, for obvious reasons, Patty still embraced her sexuality and has lived as an out lesbian ever since. Meanwhile, Smithers remains in the closet.
2. Bob Benson on Mad Men
Mad Men has featured many gay characters in its seven seasons including art director Salvatore Romano and Lucky Strike cigarette magnate Lee Garner Jr. Of course most of the gay characters on the show are closeted as the show takes place in the turbulent 1960s when members of the LGBT community faced extreme prejudice and often-violent abuse. SPOILERS: In the show’s most recent season it was revealed that mysterious figure Bob Benson was actually gay after he bailed out a Chevy executive who was beaten and arrested in a gay sting operation. Benson shortly after proposed to Joan Holloway in an effort to stay closeted and hide his homosexuality.
1. Gustavo Fring on Breaking Bad
The big bad of season three and four of the critically acclaimed and extremely popular AMC drama Breaking Bad was Gus Fring, who was portrayed by Giancarlo Esposito. Flashback episodes showed his downfall into ruthless criminal mastermind who operated an expansive meth empire under the guise of his chicken empire, but the flashbacks also hinted at his sexual orientation. While nothing was officially revealed, many speculated Fring’s first business partner Max Arciniega was also his gay lover. His lover’s murder at the hands of the Mexican Cartel prompted Fring to take revenge and expand his meth business. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan made the relationship between Fring and Arciniega ambiguous, but he has said that viewers inferring the two men were gay “wouldn’t be wrong.”