Who hasn’t learned to kiss from watching others do it onscreen? Before the internet and everyone having a device in their pockets, that was the way most of us casually absorbed images of desire and love. And yet, for decades, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people rarely ever saw displays of affection. That left a great swath of humanity desperate to see something that resembled their lives. It may appear quaint now, when we have TV series like Hulu’s Love, Victor (about a Latinx teen exploring sexual fluidity) or Netflix’s Bonding (about sex work and alternative sexuality), but the great gay panic set off by Ellen DeGeneres coming out on her sitcom in 1997 was a bombshell that didn’t necessarily convince the networks that they’d open the gates to LGBTQ experiences.
Luckily Will & Grace debuted in 1998 and the groundbreaking NBC series convinced many that gay people might not be so toxic (and wouldn’t scare off advertisers) — so much so that Vice President Joe Biden later credited it with changing his mind about same-sex marriage. That was followed by Modern Family, the most popular TV show in the country for years. Despite the fact that millions of Americans witnessed two men raise a happy and healthy daughter from the comfort of their living room sofas, it took a fan campaign to lobby Disney-owned ABC to finally allow Mitchell (gay actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (straight actor Eric Stonestreet) to kiss (it finally happened in 2010). Yet, we must not forget that a majority of these shows almost exclusively catered to white, upper-middle-class storylines.
We’ve certainly had plenty of ups and downs when it comes to representation. For years, deranged, perverse, and despicable homosexuals were on full display — especially from Ryan Murphy, who remains our most prominent culture czar when it comes to queer characters on TV. Sure he gave us Glee’s Kurt (and his boyfriend Blaine), followed by the astoundingly sensitive portrayal of trans people of color in Pose and his most-recent “fixing” of Tinseltown’s inequities in the inclusive Hollywood. But he’s also supplied us at least one murderous (ghostly) gay man on American Horror Story and too many crazies on Nip/Tuck to count.
The recently released Visible: Out on Television (available on Apple TV+) attempts to thread a grand narrative of how the evolution has been televised and manages to show a great many of those watershed moments. From the Roy Cohn-inflected Army-McCarthy hearings — which was the first time many people heard the word “homosexual” uttered on TV — through the “don’t ask, don’t tell” Nineties, that included The Golden Girls and Designing Women, to our current glitter-and-glam era of RuPaul’s Drag Race and almost-anything-goes pansexuality. The docuseries is a must-watch for anyone curious to understand how we vaulted from Steven Carrington’s conflicted character in Dynasty to nonbinary actor Asia Kate Dillon becoming a breakout star on Billions — and how TV has been weaponized and has served as a balm to heal wounds and shape minds.
For a more granular look at how we achieved so much diversity of characters — and a lot more PDA — add these 40 phenomenal shows to your queue. While there are plenty of reality and unscripted series to entertain, for this list we stuck to scripted television that’s currently available to stream on demand, which encompasses some of our favorites that span over the past 30 years. But it’s certainly just the beginning, as we enter a new era of queer representation on screens of all shapes and sizes.