11 shows that redefined LGBTQ+ television

These are some of the most iconic pioneering TV shows that broke down barriers for LGBTQ+ representation on television.

From left to right, screen caps from 'Queer as Folk,' 'Glee,' and 'Pose'
Image: Showtime, 20th Century Fox, FX

Queer people have struggled from an astonishing lack of LGBTQ+ representation in television over the years. And when we do see ourselves on LGBTQ+ television, the portrayals are often problematic. That being said, things have been changing, slowly but surely, over the last 20 years, partially due to the positive reception of series centred around LGBTQ+ lives and issues. 

In light of the recent upsurge in queer narratives being shown on TV, more and more groundbreaking series are pushing their way to the forefront of media. 

Let’s take a look at 11 TV shows that redefined LGBTQ+ television, some of which are still on the air today!

Ellen (1994-1998)

While Ellen DeGeneres might not be everyone’s favourite day-time talk-show host anymore, you can’t deny that the comedian has done a lot of work when it comes to increasing LGBTQ+ visibility in mainstream television. 

Most notably, Ellen’s mid-’90s sitcom, simply titled Ellen, made history in 1997 when Ellen became the first-ever character to publicly declare “I’m gay” on television. While LGBTQ+ characters are fairly common in series today, it’s shocking to believe that the first openly-queer television lead character only appeared on our screens in the late 1990’s. 


Will & Grace (1998-2006, 2017-2020)

Perhaps one of the most prominent and impactful TV shows of a generation, Will & Grace was revolutionary for the visibility that it brought to the gay community.

It became a surprise hit for NBC, and from 2001 to 2005 would be the highest rated sitcom for viewers aged 18-49. Such was its popularity that it was rebooted in 2017 turning a new generation of viewers on to the show.

The power of Will & Grace lied in its normalising of its gay characters. It could be argued that it desensitized American culture to homosexuality, or at the very least, it made it more acceptable. The main focus of the show is friendship, a universal topic and concern. It depicted its characters in everyday situations and explored relationships through its comedic structure.


Queer As Folk (UK, 1999-2000)

This trendsetting show created by Russell T Davies was a game-changer when it hit Channel 4 in 1999.

Starring Irish actor Aidan Gillen, along with Craig Kelley and Charlie Hunnam, the show chronicles the lives of a group of young men as they navigate the tricky and sometimes treacherous terrain of gay life in Manchester.

The show was groundbreaking for its explicit depiction of gay sex, as well as challenging taboo subjects such as drugs, sexuality and homophobia. It would later lead to US TV adaptations.


Queer Eye (2003-2007, 2018-present)

This reality TV program and its 2018 reboot stars a team of five LGBTQ+ mentors who help to transform random individuals into the best versions of themselves through fashion, food, styling, and culture. Despite getting canceled in 2007, the series was rebooted in 2018 with an all-new ‘Fab Five’ featuring the series’ first non-binary mentor, Jonathan Van Ness. 

This ground-breaking series was some viewers’ first experience watching an entirely queer cast on television. The relatability, candor, and emotion of the ‘Fab Five’ made this series a favourite then, and a favourite now. 


The L Word (2004-2009)

A staple show for many lesbian and queer people alike, The L Word was the first major show to highlight the lives of lesbian women.

Starring Shane McCutcheon and Jennifer Beals, the series is set in Los Angeles and was innovative for its earnest depiction of its characters, whilst gaining notoriety for its daring sex scenes.

The show was impactful for lesbian and bisexual women, in particular, cementing a cornerstone moment for visibility on mainstream television.


Glee (2009-2015)

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that Ryan Murphy’s Glee introduced the world to popular representations on queer identities since its first 2009 episode. With storylines from a variety of LGBTQ+ identities and a fabulously queer double-gay wedding, Glee paved the way for queer storytelling that didn’t have to be in the background or focused on queer tragedy.


Modern Family (2009-2020)

Over the course of its 11-year run on ABC, Modern Family introduced the world to one of the first-of-its-kind depictions of a loving, nurturing household with two gay men at its centre. In the series, Cam, portrayed by Eric Stonestreet, and Mitchell, played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson, go on to adopt two children, showing for perhaps the first time on modern television, a positive depiction of queer parenting. 


RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009-present)

There is no doubt that the phenomenon that is RuPaul’s Drag Race has changed the course of LGBTQ+ television forever. With upwards of 20 spin-off series, this ground-breaking series has launched the drag careers of more than 500 drag artists from around the world. Not only has the show uplifted queer voices, including, more recently, those of trans men, trans women, and non-binary folks, but it has also made space to discuss difficult issues such as the lasting impact of HIV stigma and so-called ‘conversion therapy.’


Orange Is the New Black (2013-2019)

Based on Piper Kerman’s memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, this Netflix series focuses on women inmates in Litchfield penitentiary as they battle, hustle and fight to survive.

The show s creator Jenji Kohan also made an effort to highlight queer characters. Many of its female leads are in lesbian relationships, including Piper and Alex, whilst Sophia (played masterfully by Laverne Cox) shines a spotlight on trans women of colour.

Laverne Cox would subsequently go on to become a pioneering force for trans rights, and amongst many accolades, became the first transgender person on the cover of Time Magazine.


Sense8 (2015-2018)

Arguably one of the queerest TV shows ever produced by Netflix, Sense8 is a sci-fi drama that explores human connection and what lies at the core of the human experience.

Its eight main characters, or sensates, are linked mentally and can feel each others experiences.

The queerness of this TV show, in part, comes from its representation of the other. These eight characters, who are radically different (gender, race, sexuality) must come together in order to survive. The series garnered a huge cult following, with Netflix commissioning a second series, after much outcry from fans.


Grace and Frankie (2015-2022)

While many of the series on this list focus on the lives of younger LGBTQ+ characters, Grace and Frankie, starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, follows the story of queer elders. Grace and Frankie discover in the series that their husbands have been having a years-long affair. While other series have handled the concept of a spouse coming out as LGBTQ+ with less tact (looking at you, Friends), Grace and Frankie celebrates the love story between Sol (Sam Waterson) and Robert (Martin Sheen). 


Pose (2018-2021)

If it was difficult to find representation of LGBTQ+ lives on television, it was ten times harder to find representation that was both Black and queer. Thankfully, Ryan Murphy’s Pose introduced a three-season long story focusing on the lives of black trans women at the heart of New York City’s 1980’s Ballroom scene. While the series is certainly devastating in tracking its timeline through the onset of the HIV epidemic, it has jump started the acting careers of so many Black trans women such as Angelica Ross, Michaela Jae Rodriguez, Indya Moore, and Dominique Jackson. 


Heartstopper (2022-present)

Despite its relatively recent release, Netflix’s Heartstopper, based on the graphic novels of the same name by Alice Oseman, has celebrated queer joy in a way that other series haven’t been able to. The main characters of the series, Charlie Spring (Joe Locke) and Nick Nelson (Kit Connor), are seen relishing the early stages of queer love as they share their first kiss, their first date, and face the struggles of coming out side by side. 

While many stories of young queer love have focused heavily on sex in the past, this ground-breaking series is tooth-achingly sweet in its approach to young love. 

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