The struggle for LGBTQ representation on TV has been an evolution marked by slow progress. Starting with scandalous villain-of-the-week characters on crime dramas in the ’60s and one-off gays-of-the-week in sitcoms of the ’70s, the journey to today’s diverse LGBTQ landscape has been marked by momentum and setbacks. But with each of those lurches forward and steps back came a story. Each imperfect vessel found its way to someone — likely many someones — in the viewing audience starving for some sliver they could identify with. “Problematic” doesn’t begin to describe, say, Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas on Soap, but he was a boot planted on the soil of a popular TV series, and from there we could begin to march forward.
As is inevitable in the case of an underrepresented minority, no one character ever seemed to satisfy all requirements. Sassy queens were stereotypes; buttoned-up gays were assimilationist eunuchs; gay villains were a field of land mines; lesbian characters were already fighting an uphill battle when it came to good roles for women in the first place; and trans characters were nearly invisible. Progress was slow — is slow — but out of the the bricks of each of these imperfect characters has been built a foundation. A history. A canon. These are our characters, who we’ve grown up with, struggled with, identified with, secretly pined for, quietly cried for, and all too infrequently were able to cheer for as well.
Over 60 years after the first identifiably gay character appeared (in the TV musical Lady in the Dark), television is moving ever closer to representing the rainbow of identities that constitute the LGBTQ spectrum. We thought it was time to mark where we are and where we’ve come from.
Over the last several weeks, Decider polled over 40 LGBTQ entertainment professionals — writers, directors, showrunners, actors, journalists — and asked them to list their picks for the most important LGBTQ TV characters of all time. We let “important” be defined in the eye of the beholder; these characters all meant something to us in our own personal ways. Then from these individual lists, we compiled an expert ranking of the top 50 gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender TV characters (narrative only; reality-TV characters could comprise a whole list of their own), ranging from the primetime soaps of the 1980s to the streaming series of today. What follows is a list chosen by a community of peers, selecting the 50 TV characters who made their mark most prominently. It’s both a nod to the past and a hopeful gaze into the future. It’s a celebration of the characters who have helped, in whatever small or significant ways, to tell our stories.
Over the next few days, look out for essays on the top 10 characters on our list, in recognition of their particularly significant place in LGBTQ entertainment.