From 90s trailblazers to modern masterpieces, this groundbreaking selection of TV shows stormed into our living rooms and announced, “We’re Here, and We’re Queer!”
WE’RE HERE, AND WE’RE QUEER!
GENTLEMAN JACK (2019) BBC
Created by Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley), it took a long time to bring Gentleman Jack to the screen. Set in Halifax, West Yorkshire, in 1832, Suranne Jones’ sublime portrayal of Miss Anne Lister, a diarist who is often called “the first modern Lesbian”, is not only utterly captivating but incredibly fun. With an ensemble that includes Sophie Rundle, Joe Armstrong, and Gemma Whelan, Gentleman Jack is a 19th-century delight and a beautiful exploration of lesbian love and social oppression at the height of the industrial revolution.
QUEER AS FOLK (1999) CHANNEL 4
Some TV shows carry such immense power that people can recall exactly where they were when the first episode landed in our living rooms. I know exactly where I was on the 23rd of February 1999 when Channel Four’s Queer as Folk arrived on our screens. Russell T Davies would remove a legacy of gay men as non-sexual figures within the opening fifteen minutes and, in the process, shock and delight a whole nation. It was unapologetically provocative, bold, joyous and wicked as it danced down Manchester’s Canal Street and celebrated late 90s hedonism, sex, friendship and queer confidence. Queer as Folk would change TV forever and usher in a new age of LGBTQ+ storytelling across the world. Russell T Davies didn’t just smash the rainbow-coloured glass ceiling; he took a sledgehammer to it!
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1990) BBC
The BBC’s adaptation of Jeanette Winterson’s semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a milestone in LGBTGIA+ TV history. Like Queer as Folk nine years later, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit would end up at the centre of public outrage and debate for its portrayal of teenage sexuality and the hate-filled acts of a Pentecostal Church toward a young woman, Jess (Charlotte Coleman), due to her emerging sexuality. Directed by Beeban Kidron, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit would win the TV BAFTA for best drama series and actress. But more importantly, it would challenge TV audiences to rethink the role of religion in hate and discrimination through a wickedly sharp screenplay that shone a light on religious conversion therapy.
IN THE FLESH (2013) BBC
Horror has always provided an important home for Queer storytelling and representation, from Cat People (1942) to The Haunting (1963). As BBC Three began to find its feet, Dominic Mitchell’s 2013 take on a zombie apocalypse would place the relationship between Queer representation and horror centre stage on the small screen. Mitchell’s underrated series would bathe in complex discussions on mental health, sexuality and community as we followed a young queer Zombie called Kieran through the trials and tribulations of a new undead life and the teen experiences that came before it. Here Mitchell would dovetail the standard zombie story with the experience of minority communities while maintaining a delightful mix of horror and comedy.
WE’RE HERE, AND WE’RE QUEER!
Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves (2012) SVT
Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves is not the first TV drama to explore the AIDS epidemic, and neither will it be the last. But SVT’s Swedish drama is one of the most achingly beautiful and emotional stories of love in a landscape of discrimination, death and heartbreak ever made. Based on Jonas Gardell’s trilogy of books, it is the story of a young, gay Jehovah’s Witness who arrives in Stockholm looking to rebuild his life and the young man who befriends and protects him. But it is also the story of a liberal country during the AIDS epidemic and the cracks that would form in the liberal ideals Sweden held dear as homophobia raised its ugly head. It’s the story of a gay community in Stockholm under siege and a love as gentle and delicate as the snowflakes that drift in the air.
MY SO-CALLED LIFE (1994) ABC
Not every groundbreaking LGBTQIA+ story comes from a TV show dedicated to that theme. Sometimes it’s a single episode or a lone character who changes everything and ushers in a new age of representation. My So-Called Life would be axed by ABC before its influence and merit were considered, and remains one of the most influential teenage TV dramas ever to be cancelled after a single season. The bravery and innovation at the heart of My So-Called Life was vast. But it was a young Hispanic-Black character named Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz) and a single Christmas episode ‘So-called Angels,” that would take LGBTQIA+ representation and storytelling in a brave new direction in teen drama, ultimately changing the landscape of young adult TV forever.
Tipping the Velvet (2002) BBC
Sarah Waters’ novels have been adapted several times on TV. But it was the 2002 adaptation of Tipping the Velvet that would take representations of lesbian love and sex in a whole new direction. This is the story of Nan (Rachael Stirling), a Whitstable oyster girl who falls for a music hall star named Kitty (Keeley Hawes) and enters a world of sex, prostitution and hidden Victorian desire. Tipping the Velvet, alongside another Waters adaptation, Fingersmith (2005), would open the door for The L-Word, Orange Is The New Black and others in the years following its release. Tipping the Velvet loses little in its journey from book to film, its bold and brave exploration of female sexuality wrapped in Victorian grandeur, grime and smoke.
TALES OF THE CITY (1993) CHANNEL 4
It may seem quaint and gentle now, but the 1993 Channel Four and PBS drama based on Armistead Maupin’s fictitious Barbary Lane was unlike anything else on TV in the early 90s. Tales of the City would celebrate and reflect a time before AIDS brought a newly emerging 70s sexual liberation to an end. As a result, there is a wistful beauty to Maupin’s story and an undercurrent of sadness at what was lost. Yet at the same time, Tales of the City is joyous, bright and bold, a true trailblazer in every sense of the word. In the United States, it sparked debates about the potential defunding of PBS, and as a result, the public service broadcaster quickly backed out of the show despite its record ratings.
WE’RE HERE, AND WE’RE QUEER!
Pose (2018) FX
Pose isn’t just a groundbreaking exploration of 1980s New York ball culture it’s the TV show that finally placed gay, queer and trans people of colour centre stage. Created by the tv legends Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals, Pose isn’t afraid to reflect, dissect and explore the diverse experiences of New York’s marginalised communities from the arrival of AIDS to the trans fight for representation, youth homelessness and sex work. In many ways, Murphy, Falchuk and Canals’ show is a dramatic reinterpretation and exploration of the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. But it’s also a stunning love letter to the power of art and activism.
SPECIAL (2019) NETFLIX
Based on his memoir, “I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves,” Ryan O’Connell plays Ryan Kayes, a gay man with cerebral palsy who lives with his mother, Karen (Jessica Hecht). O’Connoll’s comedy achieves a considerable amount in a series of short-bite episodes. From the interface between his sexuality and his cerebral palsy to parental protection and multiple layers of discrimination, Special isn’t short on discussions. But what makes this even more impressive is the short-form approach and the beautifully timed comedy that holds O’Connell’s show together. Conversations around sexuality and disability are rare, and while it only lasted two seasons, I hope this ‘Special’ slice of TV opens the door to more.
It’s a Sin (2021) Channel 4
Russell T Davies’ long-awaited AIDS drama sat in development for a long time before finally making it to our screens in 2021. In many ways, It’s a Sin is a prequel or companion piece to Queer as Folk in the same way Cucumber is a sequel. It’s a drama that reflects a buoyant and vibrant 80s community under siege, its very survival held in the hands of those gay, trans, bisexual and straight people who fought its corner as AIDS ripped through the country. Davies’ discussions on the secrecy of 80s gay life, the need for escape from small towns to big cities and the political and social stigma of homosexuality are vivid, emotional and honest. At the same time, his dissection of the LGBTQ+ community highlights the diversity of its opinions and beliefs, many of which caused conflict and division due to a fear of oppression. The result is nothing short of a modern TV masterpiece. By exploring a community in need that a government ignored, It’s a Sin is the story of a new disease that was allowed to steal a whole generation’s lives, hopes, and talents.
HEARTSTOPPER (2022) NETFLIX
Heartstopper’s groundbreaking place in LGBTQIA+ drama comes from its embrace of television aimed at a young teen audience aged 11-15. Based on Alice Oseman’s successful series of graphic novels, Heartstopper never shies away from big topics, including bullying, coming out, friendships and relationships. It tackles these through a delicate and honest lens that every young teen can relate to while offering young viewers a safe, secure and heartwarming place to explore their own experiences. This is a show that understands and respects its young teen audience from the first episode to the last while encouraging family discussion around its key themes and characters.
WE’RE HERE, AND WE’RE QUEER!
We Are Who We Are (2020) HBO
Luca Guadagnino’s ability to immerse his audience in delicate, person-centred stories of identity and vulnerability is renowned; for example, Call Me By Your Name in 2018 was a sun-drenched tale of desire and sexual awakening. Here the journey we took alongside Elio was bittersweet, intoxicating and sensual as we bathed in the complex emotions of adolescence and sexuality. In his first foray into television, Guadagnino brings his trademark person-centred approach to episodic drama with a stunning eight-part coming-of-age story centred on army kids Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Caitlin ‘Harper’ (Jordan Kristine Seamón). We Are Who We Are is vivid, poetic and beautiful as it explores sexuality, love and gender, free from any social labels.
OZ (1997) HBO
OZ was the opening chapter in long-form drama at HBO, and like any good book, it was a chapter that left you desperate for more. Many will argue that OZ marked the start of modern TV drama and invented many patterns and beats we are now accustomed to in all binge-worthy TV. Less discussed is the revolutionary role OZ played in LGBTQ+ representation. Oswald State Penitentiary wasn’t afraid of showing us male nudity, gay sex and homophobic violence; its narrative was laced with grit, social commentary, and unflinching drama from the first episode, and while bathed in stereotypes, we now largely reject, OZ would bring gay sex and love into the living rooms of a new generation and chip away at 80s and early 90s barriers of censorship.
Glee (2009) Fox
When discussing Ryan Murphy’s Glee today, conversations often and understandably turn to the events off-screen, from Cory Monteith’s drug overdose aged 31 in 2015 to Mark Salling’s conviction for child pornography and subsequent suicide. We mustn’t seek to dismiss these dark events, but equally, it is essential to reflect on and celebrate Glee’s social impact on a whole generation of young LGBTQ+ people. Glee rarely gets the credit it deserves for its influence on mainstream music or its ability to place kids who had been ignored for years centre stage. For a whole generation of kids, whether gay, bisexual or straight, Glee made it cool to be different, trendy to be musical and damn right sexy to sing. For many LGBTQ+ young people, it was the first time they saw a loving gay relationship on screen and the first time they saw themselves reflected positively. Glee took the High School Musical phenomena and painted it in rainbow colours; there’s no doubt in my mind that William McKinley High School changed TV forever.