No. 1 | Allow Us To Explain
June is traditionally celebrated as Gay Pride Month in honor of those who fought against a police riot at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969. Facing a police raid, a group of queer people, many trans* or gender-variant, fought back against the police in what would become a defining moment for LGBTQ rights.
Now certainly, fictional queer characters do not carry the same importance as real historical LGBTQ figures. However, we'd like to think that positive representation of queer identities is an important facet of LGBTQ activism. Positive media portrayal of queer characters not only builds acceptance and understanding of queer individuals and communities, it also gives LGBTQ people characters to identify with. On face value, that sounds trite, but given the continued rash of suicides by queer youth, it's hard not to wonder if the world would be a little easier to live in if you could turn on the TV and see yourself (or someone you relate to) and share in their triumphs and heartaches. Just as the LGBTQ people at Stonewall struggled against an institution larger than themselves to improve their community, we think that these characters are fighting against broader cultural norms and prejudices in a way that improves the lives of queer people everywhere, if only just a little bit.
There are certainly more than a few flaws with our list: the lack of queer people of color on mainstream television is appalling, as is the lack of genuine trans* and gender non-conforming characters of significance to the show's story. All too often, being queer is conflated with being white, and trans* characters end up as the punchline of jokes, left out altogether, or portrayed as mentally disturbed. Furthermore, television tends to shy away from unproblematic depictions of liminal sexualities – for this reason, there aren't many well-written bisexual or pansexual characters gracing this list. We'd like this list to serve not only as a celebration of LGBTQ characters on television, but also as a reminder that this is not the end all be all of queer representation: there is so much work to be done, and maybe one day we'll be able to publish a power grid of queer characters without a disclaimer accounting for all the identities overlooked or misrepresented.
This list is dedicated to the runner ups, who we deemed to be too obscure, underdeveloped, or rooted in subtext rather than canonical text to include: Utena of Revolutionary Girl Utena (mostly because we put her on a grid at every opportunity, and we felt we should open the playing field), Original Cindy of Dark Angel, Ianto of Torchwood (we put Jack on our list from last year), Helena Cain, and Felix Gaeta, here's to you. More than them, though, it's dedicated to all the LGBTQ people for whom these characters provided a source of comfort and identification, to the relentless activists struggling to make this world a safe place to be queer in, and to all the teens struggling with heavy questions of gender and sexuality. The struggle towards justice for LGBTQ folks has been a long and arduous one, so let's take a moment to celebrate how far we've come and the fantastic fictional personalities we've encountered along the way!
No. 2 | Susan Ivanova
Look up LGBT themes in speculative fiction on Wikipedia, and the entry on television begins with Susan Ivanova, a decorated soldier that who starts Season 1 of Babylon 5 as a Lieutenant Commander, advancing over the course of the series to second in command of the titular space station, and, in its epilogue, to General and eventually the leader of an inter-species group of elite warriors, the Anla-shok.
And, yes, Ivanova's identity as bisexual was never explicitly stated in the show. However, the way it was not-explicitly stated is, for the standards of the mid-nineties, practically the equivalent of full disclosure today. That, coupled with the fact that Babylon 5 ever-so-slightly predates Xena: Warrior Princess, gives Ivanova a solid spot on this list.
Trust, love, and lack thereof, were major themes of Ivanova's character arc during the five seasons of the show, which, it must be said, stretches her only slightly out of the Yes We Have Gay Characters But Bad Things Always Happen to Their Lovers trope. At least in this instance, accepting and recognizing that she is worthy of giving and receiving love is an acknowledged part of her character development regardless of whether she's involved with a man or a woman. Even if one of them turns out to be a sleeper agent, one is a xenophobic alien hater, and another sacrifices his life for her. Initially, Ivanova is distrustful of Talia Winters because of her ties to a regulatory body in charge of human psychics (of which Ivanova is secretly one), but that distrust gives way to friendship, and eventually, subtly, love, as Ivanova admits to a confidant seasons later.
Fans first noticed that they were being shown more than a friendship between the two women in an episode where Winters spends the night in Ivanova's apartment, wakes, and appears to reach to the empty other side of a bed. Later, she remarks that Ivanova was gone when she woke up. An odd cut in the episode also seemed to imply that a kiss had been filmed and then removed. Show creator J. Michael Straczynski (yes, the comics-writing Straczynski), denied that a kiss had been removed from the episode, but also, tellingly, offered this: "I didn't show a kiss because, in my experience, it's easier on all around if one steps into the shallow end of the pool first, and walks into the deep end rather than diving in and splashing everybody in the process." This philosophy on including non-straight sexualities in a time, medium, and genre with no real precedence for them seems to be borne out by another plot point a few seasons later when two male characters go undercover... as a newlyweds.
No. 3 | Xena and Gabrielle
Ayiyiiyiyiyiyi! It would be a foolish, and lengthy, endeavor, to try and explain everything that happened during the six intricate, crazy seasons of Xena: Warrior Princess. Instead, we'd like to explain, if we must, what an 'unconfirmed' lesbian character is doing on our LGBT television list. If any fictional figure has earned the place it's the iconic, unstoppable (literally, unstoppable, even by death several times over) Warrior Princess.
Self-aware of its own kitsch, and deadly serious by the same measure, Xena was a spin-off of equally crack-tastic 90s Saturday-night juggernaut Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. For those unfamiliar with the look and feel of these shows, try to imagine a Gladiator-themed Renaissance faire, with the same grab bag of mythology, temporal displacement (Julius Ceasar is a major character at one point in this purportedly Ancient Greek drama, and his appearance is not even the worst offender), and, just maybe, an adjacent Pride Parade. Xena, once a major villain on Hercules, was turned to good, and, determined to balance out her years as a bloodthirsty warlord, sets to traipsing about Ancient Greece with her lovely companion Gabrielle, ostensibly looking for trouble.
The ladies make a crack team, for sure, but it wasn't their trips around the globe that caught viewers' attention. Instead, it was the barely-repressed sexual tension between the two. Recognized early on as a cult phenomenon in the lesbian community by the show's producer's, writers, and stars, Xena more than played into widely held assumptions about the leads. They found body-swapping story line excuses to make them kiss (which are actually more direct than indirect if you think about them), had them wake up in the same bedroll every morning of the show, and had them literally fight through Heaven and Hell to get back together (just go with it; we did). The death-defying antics of the twisting and turning plot left little to the imagination in terms of character motivation. By the French kiss that closes off the series finale, general consensus was less are-they-or-aren't-they than yes-they-are.
You've got to remember, Xena began to air in 1995, when the culture, at large, had almost no positive gay characters to speak of, certainly not on a broadcast serial. So, though the leather-clad warrior princess was never officially outed (except, maybe, after the fact), she is without a doubt a major forerunner to every gay hero TV has seen, or will. We dare you to listen to that opening bagpipe whine and tell us it doesn't make you nostalgic.
No. 4 | Renly
Renly Baratheon is one of the most handsome and charismatic men you’ll find in Westeros. He’s the brother of King Robert and Lord Stannis, yet is quite unlike the two. For one, he’s popular with just about everyone. His personality is friendlier than either of his brothers, which certainly helps, he enjoys a good celebration, but doesn’t overdo it like Robert, and is good at keeping up appearances. There’s one other difference between Renly and his brothers - Renly is gay.
His sexual preferences are both the biggest secret at court and the most obvious. At least to those who would try to conspire against him. Renly is not only the Lord of Storm’s End, he sits on the small council of the King as Master of Laws, helping his brother Robert make important decisions (or making them entirely in his absence). Before the option was even viable, Renly’s lover, Ser Loras, urged him to take the throne for himself with the help of his own family, House Tyrell. Though he doesn’t choose to act on that plan until he knows he has a chance to actually win (after Robert is killed).
Despite Stannis having the legitimate claim to the Iron Throne, Renly decides to take it for himself and amassed a huge following quite easily. To strengthen the bond with the 100,000 men at his command, he weds Loras’ sister Margaery. Meanwhile, on the field, he played it cool. He knew it made more sense to gain followers while the other would-be Kings fought and died. Instead of marching on King’s Landing, Renly held tournaments that gained him even more love.
Aside from several lesbian encounters in the novels, Renly is author George R.R. Martin’s only gay character in his A Song of Ice and Fire series (aside from Loras, obviously). And to his credit, Renly’s sexuality is almost a non-issue in the books. It certainly isn’t dangled over his head as a veiled threat of revelation like it is on the HBO series, but even there, Renly never bows to any form of blackmail when it comes to his relationship with Loras. You get the feeling he would be completely open about it if not for the religious beliefs of the realm. Renly may be dead but he left a mark on the world and the people in it.
No. 5 | Haruka and Michiru
Examining Sailor Moon as a queer text can prove difficult sometimes – though the relationship between Haruka Tenoh (Sailor Uranus) and Michiru Kaioh (Sailor Neptune) is definitely canon in the original Japanese manga and anime, their relationship was covered up in the United States release. To many fans who only have the english version of the series as a point of reference, Haruka and Michiru are merely extremely close cousins. In Italy and France, they were only close friends.
However, rampant censorship never stopped Sailor Moon fans from claiming Haruka and Michiru as queer icons. Haruka is drawn fairly androgynous in the the manga, donning both masculine and feminine outfits. She is portrayed as strong-willed, particularly protective of her lover, and extremely flirtatious. Michiru, on the other hand, is introverted and feminine. Upon first glance, it might seem as though Haruka and Michiru reproduce roles usually assigned to heterosexual couples, Haruka being the masculine flirt and Michiru being the reserved feminine woman. However, that's not the case, and this couple certainly queers gendered relationship roles: while Haruka is a flirt, she's also extremely bashful about talking about relationships in public. While Michiru is feminine, she's also an ardent soldier and works with Haruka as an equal.
Haruka and Michiru are among the most popular characters featured in fan-made manga and fanfiction, and it's no secret why-- they manage to maintain a loving lesbian relationship while kicking ass and saving the world as Sailor Senshi. Perhaps what's most remarkable about their relationship is the impact it has managed to have on a demographic that consists of largely young girls despite its censorship in pretty much every country except Japan. Haruka and Michiru have survived not just various and assorted supervillains, but also utter homophobic cultural rejection. Their love has persevered despite a huge effort to hide it from the world, largely thanks to young girls (and later, nostalgic women) who believed in the value of their relationship and the importance of documenting their truths. They're a story of the perseverance and strength of LGBTQ people everywhere, and a testament to the power of a tireless community of queers and allies.
No. 6 | Shuuichi Nitori
You might not have heard much about the anime Wandering Son, and that's a shame, because it has some of the most poignant and sincere depictions of young people grappling with their gender identity that I've seen anywhere. Shuichi Nittori is a child who was assigned as a boy at birth – she desperately wants to be recognized as the girl she knows she is and often wears girl's clothing, despite receiving ridicule from her classmates.
Wandering Son stands as an beacon of light in an art form often plagued by depictions of trans* characters used for comedic purposes, or as silly plot devices. Instead of a silly story that makes light of gender identity, the viewer is presented with both serious and lighthearted tales of Shuichi undergoing puberty, growing body hair, getting pimples, and experiencing a deepening voice, all while trying to reconcile her gender with the world.
By no means is this show perfect – it seems to rely upon a traditional male/female and masculine/feminine binary, as Shuchi is horrible at sports, terribly frail, and loves to bake, things that are supposed to be code for being a girl, as opposed to the boy everyone treats her as. Obviously, just like all women, trans* women can be masculine as well. What this show does succeed at, however, is this: Shuichi is a trans* girl, and she's attracted to women. All too often, being trans* is conflated with sexuality, a notion that seriously devalues the gender of trans* people – if you're a trans* woman attracted to men, you must “really” be a gay man in other words, a really offensive, false assumption. Wandering Son manages to buck that assumption outright – Shuichi is trans* and she's queer, she occupies both distinct categories.
Admittedly, the show can be overly fluffy. It's a slice of life grade school anime, one that is limited in scope to questions of puberty, gender, and childhood romance. But while it doesn’t show the violence and hardship many trans* women face, it does give a voice to an identity that is often hypersexualized or diminished in culture and media, and that voice is powerful, necessary, and sorely missed.
No. 7 | Lafayette Reynolds
"Scuse me. Who ordered the hamburger... with AIDS? In this restaurant, a hamburger deluxe comes with french fries, lettuce, tomato, mayo, and AIDS! Do anyone got a problem wit dat? Aw baby, it's too late for that. F******s been breeding your cows, raisin' your chickens, even brewin' your beer long before I walked my sexy ass up in this mother f****r!" - Lafayette, dealing with ignorant hicks in his customary way.
As non-viewers can gleam from a single episode's recap, it can be a little complicated, not to mention exhausting, keeping up with HBO vampire soap True Blood. But amidst all the melodrama, rising body count, and double-triple-quadrupled mumbo-jumbo, what audiences really crave is a character or two that can keep a clear head, and isn't going to be putting up with any of this bull***t. That's about half the reason that Lafayette Reynolds, short order fry cook, one-time drug dealer, witch, and unapologetic gay man, is a fan favorite.
Before one even gets to the more occult leaning the show has taken him on (as it tends to), Lafayette is a breath of fresh air for constantly saying it like it is, just like in the quote above. It can't have been easy growing up as an out gay man in a po-dunk Southern Town like fictional Bon Temps, Louisiana. But, as with everything else in the crapsack soup that is his world, Lafayette hasn't let it cramp his style. Regularly adorning himself in flamboyant clothing and makeup, Lafayette is hardly a physical weakling, belaying muscles that clearly say he's not taking any comers, thank you for trying. Instead of leaving his sass as a by-the-numbers stereotype, lead writer Alan Ball shows viewers the necessity of such psychological armor, and the private toll its upkeep takes. Lafayette's humor is dry instead of frivolous, and his suspicious nature hardly unearned.
Of course, psychological armor is of little use against vampires. Or werewolves. Or demons, malevolent muses, faeries, shapeshifters, witches…you get the picture. In the show's four-plus seasons, Lafayette's had his share of woes to weather. He's been kidnapped, and kept a chained prisoner in the basement of vampire club Fangtasia. While suffering PTSD, he was still the one to initiate an intervention in his mercurial cousin, Tara's, relationship/cult involvement. That gets him (and most of the show's cast, through no fault of his) brainwashed by an evil spirit. Season 3 brought him a boyfriend, Jesus, but no end to his troubles, as he winds up playing comforter and go-between repeatedly for the other, increasingly troubled characters. Plus, that handsome nurse boyfriend? A witch. One with good intentions, but an inclination to community activities, leading Lafayette into involvement with a witches' coven. While his powers come to the fore, the entanglement eventually results in Jesus' death at Lafayette's own hand (he was possessed at the time), in a manifestation of the all-too-frequent dead-gay-lover trope.
On a show where nearly every single character continues to make irrational decisions, and walk into extreme danger with only the barest misgiving, we have no doubt that Lafayette, if anyone, will be the one to retain his senses as the madness continues. After all, given what's happened in the fifth season so far, peace is a long way off.
No. 8 | Tara Maclay
Tara Maclay is not just one-half of one of the first legitimate (and sexual!) lesbian relationships on television. She's also a shy, sweet, unflinchingly moral witch who wore dated long skirts and brought positivity to the Scooby Gang. Tara is so much more as a marker for how far representation of queer relationships had come during Buffy The Vampire Slayer's time on television – she also managed to be a fully fleshed out, meaningful character, one fans connected to regardless of a shared sexual orientation.
Willow, one of the show's main characters, meets Tara in college and quickly develops a relationship with her over their shared practice of witchcraft. Willow and Tara's relationship is significant not only because of it's rarity and explicit sexuality, but also because of the tenderness and care with which they treat one another – they model not only a fantastic gay relationship, but just a fantastic relationship in general.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Willow and Tara's relationship is that it isn't without hiccups: When Tara is helpless and incapacitated by a hell god, a devastated Willow must take care of her. When Willow becomes addicted to using magic, Tara sets her foot down and establishes boundaries in their relationship, breaking up with her when she betrays her trust and casts spells behind her back. In this regard, Tara and Willow are rendered as real people with real (albeit fantastical) problems. They aren't token gays, they're not hypersexualized and fetishized, nor are they completely desexualized – their presence on the show is normal, and like all other couples, they have their ups and downs.
When Tara was killed, fans absolutely blew up at Joss Whedon. Part of it was (perhaps justifiable) anger over losing one of the best (and only) lesbian characters on television being killed off. Another part of it, though, was the utter dismay of losing Tara as a character, of losing her lightness and moral compass.
That's the thing about queer characters – their sexual identity shouldn't be tokenized, it should just be one beautiful part of their multi-faceted identities, one of the many reasons why we should love them as characters. That isn't to say they should be written exactly like straight people – television and culture should celebrate queer characters for who they are, all of their differences included. Tara Maclay, in just three short seasons, captured not only Willow's heart, but the hearts of a legion of fans. Tara and Willow not only set a standard for depictions of queer relationships on nerd television, they were unforgettable characters of an unforgettable television show that has had an enormous impact on countless Buffy fans, and we owe so much to them.
No. 9 | Shore Leave
We won't beat around the bush, folks. Shore Leave is a blatantly stereotypical gay character. A swishy, limp-wristed, loud-and-proud sailor boy who'll change into nothing but a speedo at the drop of a hat. If there is a stereotype he isn't displaying on The Venture Bros., we haven't seen it. However, what makes it acceptable for our rather swishy friend to be so, well, swishy is this: first, that every character on The Venture Bros. is an exaggerated example of some narrative trope or stereotype, so he is neither the lone gay character nor the lone caricature. And second, all of TVB's characters subvert their stereotype: and in the case of Shore Leave, he is effective -- as a colleague and a killer. In fact, he's probably one of the most intelligent, skilled and valued assassins to ever walk through the doors of S.P.H.I.N.X. (S.P.H.I.N.X.), and the team would probably be seriously lacking without him. His sexuality is out there, for sure. But when on a mission, it's not part of the conversation. He and Brock Samson are partners, peers, eager and happy to work together. Shore Leave is an awesome character who happens to be very flamboyantly gay. Really, you have to admire how incredibly secure and confident he is. There is no bringing him down, and he probably eats homophobes for breakfast. (Take that as you will.)
Originally a play on the characters of G.I. Joe and the implied machismo that may or may not have been a cover for some guys who liked their fellow soldiers "like that" (as a part of a group of openly gay obvious G.I. Joe parallels who belittle their straight coworkers for wanting to screw women), Shore Leave started as a bit player and quickly became a fan favorite. Not because he was a token flamboyant gay character (for the show has a number of other gay and trans bit players, with Shore Leave perhaps the most prominent) -- because he was a really entertaining and awesome character. Much like another gay character on the show, the Alchemist, Shore Leave is happily and openly living his life while competently performing his duties. Basically, in both cases, their sexuality ain't no thang.
10 Badass LGBTQ Characters From Television