A Throwback Look at TV’s LGBTQ+ Pop Culture Icons

From sci-fi scenarios to sitcom representation, these characters gave us truly historic queer TV moments that changed the world.

Fandom Pop Culture TV & Movies
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Few things are quintessentially more American than watching television. The sets of our favorite shows become as familiar to us as our own spaces. In the past, however, network regulations forbade portraying LGBTQ+ life on screen. It was a long — decades-long — battle just to see a gay kiss, let alone normalize any life on television that did not conform to heteronormative ideals back then. It took a lot of executive convincing and new legislation before LGBTQ+ representation found its way onto TV. Yes, sadly, the earliest TV depictions of the gay community often perpetuated prejudice and misinformation and were usually nothing more than offensive tropes.

Happily, so much has changed in the history of television — coming from a long period of time when queer characters weren’t even allowed to be shown on TV to the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015! With that in mind, this is a great time to celebrate television’s pioneering attempts at authentic gay storytelling. Here are eight shows featuring LGBTQ+ pop culture icons who were on the frontlines of representation that helped reshape the cultural norms shown on television today.

Xena and Gabrielle from Xena: Warrior Princess

In a time of ancient gods, warlords, and kings, a land in turmoil cried out for . . . gay subtext!

two women sitting in a hot pool of water staring at each other.
IMAGE VIA UNIVERSAL TELEVISION

In a time when subtext was all they had, Xena and Gabrielle subtext-ed the hell out of each other! The 1990s was a decade when network television still had guidelines that severely limited the activities of LGBTQ+ characters and queer relationships that could be shown — or even referenced — on screen. Despite this, the creators of Xena: Warrior Princess found ways to break the rules and sneak in some lesbi-scenes using sometimes-not-so-subtle subtext. Xena and Gabrielle share kisses on the lips, declare their love for each other, and find themselves in sexually charged situations — all cleverly disguised within platitude-driven scenes and sometimes entire episodes.

Two women lying beside each other under the stars.
IMAGE VIA UNIVERSAL TELEVISION

Episodes like The Quest in Season Two, where Xena has to possess Autolycus’ male body for some heroic reason or another, and hints are revealed about Xena’s romantic connection with Gabrielle when they share an intimate kiss before Xena is returned to her own body — a moment that wasn’t against the rules because on screen it was a man kissing a woman. Or how about that one episode, Them Bones, Them Bones, in Season Five, featuring the classic only-my-kiss-can-revive-this-damsel-in-a-magical-coma scenario where Xena must kiss Gabrielle to bring her back from the spirit world? It wasn’t sexual, after all; She was only saving her life! Riiiiiight. And don’t even get me started on all the steamy hot baths they take together while they strategize!

These moments and many more contributed to their status as queer icons during 1990s television. Even during an oppressed time when studios were prevented from showing anything openly gay, the subtext between them remained undeniable. The suppression (and cleverness) of their bisexuality actually boosted Xena’s cult status among the LGBTQ+ community — who were very happy to see the beginning of hope for an era where LGBTQ+ representation would be accepted and normalized by society, which was just around the corner!

Willow Rosenberg from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

“And I think I’m kind of gay.” – Willow, from Season Three

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Bookish Jewish-wallflower-turned-witch Willow Rosenberg didn’t just help slay vampires and kill demons. She also found time for romance and discovering her sexuality. After subtle — and then not-so-subtle — revelations about her sexuality spread across previous seasons, Willow finally came out as gay in the fourth season in 1999. She enters into a relationship with Tara, a fellow witch, and their openly gay romance made pop culture news as one of the earliest depictions of a lesbian couple on television.

Unfortunately for fans, the lingering stigma surrounding actually showing LGBTQ+ affection on-screen meant there were still certain things the studio pressured the series not to show, like romantically driven same-sex kissing and fondling. You know, the good stuff! So, fans of this particular paramour pair had to wait until 2001 to see Willow and Tara share their first openly gay onscreen kiss, again historically being one of the earliest lesbian characters to share a kiss like that on a TV series.

Two women laying intimately on a bed.
IMAGE VIA MUTANT ENEMY PRODUCTIONS

Once the queer floodgates started opening in the early 2000s, the series went on to break down even more LGBTQ+ representation barriers by granting the hottest lesbi-witch in Sunnydale even more racy love-making scenes, both in the televised seasons and the comic book seasons that follow.

A Woman seductively licking the next of another.
IMAGE VIA MUTANT ENEMY PRODUCTIONS

Cpt. Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Torchwood

The universe’s first time-traveling pansexual space hopper says hello!

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IMAGE VIA BAD WOLF/BBC

Meet Cpt. Jack Harkness (among other known and unknown aliases), a time-traveling agent from the 51st century — and the first pansexual companion in Doctor Who history. Jack’s attitude towards sexuality is simply a resounding “yes” to everyone, regardless of gender, labels, robots, or species. To understand Cpt. Harkness, you first have to understand that sexuality became fully fluid and open-ended ages before the century he grew up in. The blatantly flirtatious greetings that he extends to virtually everyone he meets is truly just his progressive nature.

The Doctor often scolds Jack for his constantly frisky introductions, to which Jack usually has a kittenish reply — “I’m just saying hello.” Which for Captain Jack Harkness, a hello is more like a peacock fully displaying his bright plumage, signaling his interest in sexual relations, than a platonic greeting between strangers and acquaintances. Yet Jack’s pansexual popularity was such a hit with Doctor Who viewers that he earned the creation of his own spin-off series called Torchwood, where this fun-loving and heroic character continued to be a role model for adventurous LGBTQ+ fans. The series followed Jack and his team of alien hunters as they explored time-rifts, existentialism, immortality, and even more diverse sexuality and gender representation.

A man embracing another in a warehouse.
IMAGE VIA BBC

Lafayette from True Blood

He’s more than just a fabulous black man bustin’ stereotypes with fashion and flair!

True Blood Poster of a blackman sitting against a tree in the swamps of Louisiana.
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Portrayed by the late Nelsan Ellis, Lafayette’s flamboyant outfits, spectacular makeup, and sassy attitude made him the most unforgettable character in the fictional town of Bon Temps. He unapologetically expressed his authentic queer self, becoming an instant inspiration to millions of viewers. But that queer swagger also came with brawn-sized masculinity when he needed to get physical or protective — or casually take down some homophobic customers at the bar and restaurant where he works.

The iconic scene with the “AIDS burger” called attention to the stigmas gay men still face in society. But let’s be real — it ALSO showcased Lafayette’s illustriously intimidating style when he’s defying prejudice and fighting for justice. His storyline breaks all the stereotypes about flamboyantly gay black men and doesn’t shy away from exploring the complexities surrounding that.

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IMAGE VIA YOUR FACE GOES HERE ENTERTAINMENT

Fans of the show, though, we tuned in for the chemistry and those graphically seductive HBO sex scenes more than anything else. Being openly gay in a world with supernatural beings isn’t an easy role to fill, but everything about Lafayette is more than satisfactory — including his sex dreams about the vampire who fed him blood, the numerous sexual conquests, his fabulous fashion sense, his snappy comebacks and badass LGBTQ+ representation, and the romantic moments with his Brujo-Boyfriend Jesus Velasquez.

Will Truman and Jack McFarland from Will & Grace

They taught us how to be authentic and find time to laugh!

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IMAGE VIA UNIVERSAL TELEVISION/NBC

Will & Grace was the first television show to feature two openly gay men as main leads on a mainstream network sitcom. The queer and very tidy lawyer — Will Truman — and the flamboyant and fussy best friend — Jack McFarland — were two characters decidedly NOT in the proverbial closet who paved the way for normalizing LGBTQ+ representation on TV. Their journey of navigating through relationships, friendships, and personal growth struck a heartfelt chord with more viewers than any network executive expected to see. This series proved not only that openly gay lead characters DO strongly resonate with audiences, but queerness can also be the central part of the success of a show!

A man holding a spoon out to another man to taste test the food he's cooking.
IMAGE VIA UNIVERSAL TELEVISION/NBC

They taught us when to embrace stereotypes and when to challenge them. Yes, Jack is an unapologetically unfiltered, bubbly, and greedy queer who idolizes Cher. He is also a beacon of acceptance and the total embodiment of what it means to be your authentic self. And yes, Will is overly neat, vain at times, and has a tendency to micromanage — but he doesn’t personally embrace the campy and overtly gay characteristics that many people in the 90s associated with homosexuality. He is showcased as a witty, multifaceted man whose impact extended beyond comedic television entertainment.

Will and Jack became icons who helped demystify homosexuality in America. Will & Grace started real conversations about LGBTQ+ rights that undeniably changed societal attitudes — even influencing new positive legislation in several countries. In one memorable episode, Will and Jack made a bold statement live on The Today Show, sharing an onscreen kiss in protest of the lack of representation of LGBTQ+ love on network television. The positive changes their daring and honest portrayal of queer culture brought to the real world are also recognized in the LGBTQ+ history collection at the Smithsonian Institute.

Dean Pelton from Community

His ambiguous sexuality defies categorization and explanation!

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Throughout the sitcom Community, Dean Pelton’s sexuality remains ambiguous. The show hints at an uncategorized sexual orientation, yet only one thing is known for sure: Dean Pelton is NOT a straight man. His love for dressing in drag, the amorphous-person mascot he designed for the school, and his unabashed attraction to Jeff Winger are just some of the clues to the true nature of this multilayered LGBTQ+ icon.

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IMAGE VIA KRASNOFF/FOSTER ENTERTAINMENT

Pelton’s dialogue in every season is rich with hilarious Freudian slips — one of the first ones occurring while he is presiding over a mock trial: “There are two biases, one on each side. And I go both ways… Let’s strike that… I am impartial.” In another episode, a student at Greendale calls the dean a “fruit,” and Pelton responds with another telling line: “Unacceptable and none of your business and barely the whole truth.”

Quirky and unconfirmed, Dean Pelton is stuffed full of fun-loving antics — like an impressively vast costume collection, an absurd Dalmatian fetish, bizarre Dean-ified announcements made with the school’s PA system, and his obsession with Jeff Winger’s delicious abs. His undefined sexuality has been a hot speculative subject for fans of the show for many years. My vote? I agree with Vice Dean Laybourne; Dean Pelton is a playful “pansexual imp”!

David Fisher and Keith Charles from Six Feet Under

These paramour pairs have the most realistic diva-spats!

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IMAGE VIA ACTUAL SIZE FILMS AND THE GREENBLATT/JANOLLARI STUDIO

David and Keith may not be the first groundbreaking gay couple on television, but Six Feet Under made TV history by being the first series to show gay married life. David and Keith’s relationship accurately depicted the highs and lows of modern queer life — without the network exploiting their sexualities for representation on television. What makes their relationship iconic and special is that it was painted as a normal, everyday relationship. They navigated a challenging partnership with two contrasting personalities, struggled with the same issues as other interracial couples, and entered milestones together (like living together, getting married, and having children).

A police officer standing near a man in a suit at a funeral.
IMAGE VIA ACTUAL SIZE FILMS AND THE GREENBLATT/JANOLLARI STUDIO

The dynamic of David and Keith was a natural portrayal of normal life that both embraced and subverted normativity in a beautiful way, making their relationship relatable to straight viewers while offering a true-to-life depiction of the forever type of love between two men. And talking about breaking down barriers, both actors are straight but passionately only accepted these roles if the characters’ sexualities were guaranteed not to be exploited for network gains. They really gave it their all and then some for the support of authentic queer storytelling. And don’t worry — HBO made this show, so you can expect plenty of steamy NSFW scenes to enjoy!

Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street

I don’t care what y’all say; they’re gay!

black and white of Bert and Earnie from Sesame Street.
IMAGE VIA SESAME WORKSHOP

The internet is divided over this one. Ok, so their orientation is never discussed on the show — but come on, let’s get real! I know the rent on Sesame Street in the big city is incredibly high, but their shared habits and routines suggest these Muppet icons are more than just bestie roommates. This might just be my impressive imagination, but am I not seeing queer subtext here? Ernie regularly sits on Bert’s lap, and Bert constantly watches Ernie take baths. The best gifts they exchange every year turn out to be their love for each other. I don’t know, man! They look like a loving couple to me! Whatever their situation is, I wish Bert and Ernie many more years of happiness together.

Loving LGBTQ+ TV Landmarks

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IMAGE VIA BOOKSTR / ERIN DZIELSKI

Looking back at the progress towards equal representation in television history, it is easy to get into a celebratory mood with these OG LGBTQ+ cultural icons. These characters — and the actors and creators behind them — helped pave the way for the totally gay options we have on TV today.


Books are just as enjoyable as television! Read more about LGBTQ+ book clubs here.

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