According to GLAAD’s annual study of LGBTQ+ representation on television, 2017 was the best year for LGBTQ+ characters so far, with 6.4% of the regular characters on scripted broadcast primetime television having identified themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer. Specifically, 2017 seemed to be a year for showcasing coming out stories on television. From Denise on the witty Netflix comedy Master of None, who came out to her mother in season 2 of the series, to Cyrus on Disney Channel’s Andi Mack, who came out to his friend Buffy, this past year was filled with stories of queer youth coming out to the important people in their lives. And while I do think that the television landscape needs to represent different and more diverse stories about queer characters besides coming out plots, these are definitely still important to tell. There is no question that they make a huge impact on their LGBTQ+ audience, especially when they are told authentically – when LGBTQ+ writers and actors have control over how these stories are told.
Master of None, Season 2, Episode 8, “Thanksgiving.”
TV shows in 2017 taught audiences that the coming out experience looks different for everyone. Whether you are coming out to your crush (like Lionel from Dear White People), or your best friends (like Kat from The Bold Type), no two coming out experiences are the same. Though coming out is easier for some than others, it is not exactly a linear process for anyone, and it usually includes a wide spectrum of reactions.
One example of a thoughtful coming out plot can be found in the Netflix original One Day at a Time. In 2017, Elena Alvarez, eldest child of the Alvarez family, had to deal with the obstacles that come along with coming out to family members. For Elena, each of her family members has a largely different reaction. When Elena tells her younger brother that she is gay, he is immediately accepting, while her mother, Penelope, needs time to process her daughter’s newly discovered identity. What I love most about this story arc is the reaction from Elena’s grandmother, Lydia, played by the spectacular Rita Moreno. In the episode “Pride & Prejudice,” Lydia, a very religious woman, says of Elena being gay, “God did make us in his image, and God doesn’t make mistakes […] and when it comes to the gays, the Pope did say ‘Who am I to judge?’” Through the show’s exploration of the coming out experience, young queer women like myself can find themselves in Elena, hoping for older generations to understand something that feels foreign to them. And perhaps parents of LGBTQ+ teens can see themselves in Penelope’s desperation to accept and understand Elena’s identity, despite her internalized conflict over the issue.
One Day at a Time, Season 1, Episode 10, “Sex Talk.”
Brooklyn Nine-Nine also dealt with the ins and outs of coming out to family members in 2017. In the show’s 99th episode, stoic cop Rosa Diaz admits to her co-worker that she is dating a woman and that she identifies as bisexual. Later, in the winter finale episode, “Game Night,” which also aired this past December, Diaz begins the process of telling her loved ones about her sexuality, including her parents. Rosa’s parents dismiss her at first, an experience that is familiar to many bisexual people, but her friends work together to make her feel supported, despite her mother’s less than ideal reaction. The word “bisexual,” or some form of it, is used 7 times throughout the episode. This 2-episode arc was especially important to queer fans of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, who had been speculating about the possibility of Rosa being bi after actress Stephanie Beatriz came out as bisexual herself in 2016. This is notable because the coming out stories that do exist on television hardly ever surround bisexual-identifying characters, and especially not bi characters that are portrayed by actual queer actors.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Season 5, Episode 9, “99.”
This year, Jane the Virgin also showcased a coming out storyline that was meaningful to queer audiences. The show dealt with a less conventional coming out plot, when Jane’s new boyfriend, Adam, disclosed his bisexuality. Adam’s was unlike typical coming out stories on TV for a number of reasons. For one, Jane the Virgin used this arc to feature a largely underrepresented group – bisexual men. According to GLAAD’s findings, the vast majority of bisexual characters on television are portrayed by women. As well, in the episode, “Chapter Sixty-Nine,” Adam’s bisexuality is accidentally discovered when Jane finds a photo of his ex-boyfriend, and after Adam admits that he didn’t tell Jane for fear that things would change between them, the two of them have an open conversation about his sexuality. Adam’s coming out even leads Jane to explore the fluidity of her own sexuality, a concept that is rarely addressed in mainstream television. What’s important about the way Jane the Virgin depicts the coming out experience, is that they show us something we don’t often get to see as spectators – an honest conversation about queerness and identity between two romantic partners.
Jane the Virgin, Season 4, Episode 5, “Chapter Sixty-Nine.”
So what is the next step for queer representation on TV? For one, I want to see more diverse coming out stories in 2018. I want to see more coming out stories about trans people, an area of representation that is nearly non-existent, and more about queer people of colour. I want to see young characters like Lionel (Dear White People), Karolina (Runaways), and Nicole (Fresh Off the Boat) living happy, healthy lives as their authentic selves. I want to see young LGBTQ+ characters dating, and navigating love and life as out queer people. It is absolutely important to depict the experience of coming out, especially for young, impressionable LGBTQ+ audiences. However, we also need to see ourselves not just in the fragility and uncertainty of the coming out experience, but also in the joy and liberation that can come with being out and proud.