Queer representation isn’t an antidote for the structural inequalities that we face. But it’s still an immense gift to be seen and understood as you are. Most of us grow up believing our existence is unwanted, and the displacement we feel about our identities never really goes away. We all remember the first time we saw a queer character like us and felt the happiness that comes with knowing someone out there — even if it’s just one person — understands the struggle and joy of being queer. For Pride month, Screen Speck’s gayest crew has compiled a list of our favorite queer characters. We hope that one of them might inspire you, too.
In Dee Rees‘ Pariah, Alike (Adepero Oduye) seeks a version of herself that no one around her is able to support or understand. As a 17-year-old lesbian, Alike shifts between three worlds. With her friend Laura (Pernell Walker), Alike dresses more masculine or butch, and is freer to be herself. When the film transitions to her life with her parents, however, Alike becomes almost unrecognizable: she presents as feminine and quietly folds into herself, hiding so many parts of who she is that she becomes invisible.
Usually, when “Pariah” is mentioned, people only perceive it to be a double-life that Alike switches between. But in her third life (or world), Alike inhabits a space where only Alike exists. This third space is her safety. It’s a world where she can be a poet; a music lover; a bright student; someone who has her first real crush on another girl; and a daughter who ultimately wishes to be fully loved by her parents. Audrey (Kim Wayans), her heavily religious and strict mother, wants Alike to be someone she is not. This pushes Alike to hide her queer identity from her.
I love Dee Rees’ treatment of Alike and how gently she handles Alike’s character. She takes care of both Alike and Laura by supporting them in ways that their fictionalized homes never did. Pariah features a dark-skinned Black lesbian as a lead character, which I’ve probably only ever seen once before on-screen (besides Cheryl Dune’s The Watermelon Woman). Alike comes to mind instantly during Pride month: along with her aloneness in this film, she is also alone when it comes to media representation of people like her in the real world. More lesbians like Alike exist, and it’s our job to make sure their stories are told and heard.
Within two short seasons, Hacks has cemented itself as one of the best comedies (and just shows in general) about female comedians. Hacks follows Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder), a 20-something comedy writer looking for a jumpstart in her career, as she begins writing jokes for Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), an established Las Vegas stand-up performer. A lot of Deborah and Ava’s relationship is based on their differences: their age; experience; sense of humor; and, importantly, their sexuality. When they first meet, Deborah asks Ava if she’s a lesbian. Ava goes off on a long tangent, explaining her sexual desire and emotional needs, only to summarize with a definitive “I’m bi.” Ava’s identity is never presented as a question or something she needs to work out; rather, it’s something she just is. She announces it to Deborah – and to us – and from that point on it’s accepted.
Bisexuality on television is often greatly misrepresented, and the tropes of bisexual characters being overtly sexual, manipulative, dangerous, or untrustworthy are harmful and inaccurate. With Ava, Hacks makes a conscious effort to subvert these stereotypes in a way that’s funny and that reiterates the message of Ava’s bisexuality as normal and acceptable. Plus, it’s always nice to see a bisexual character played by a bisexual actor.
Ava’s messiness is not a defining factor of her sexuality. Her sexuality is not a defining factor of her life. Her mistakes get the space to exist on their own, and, unlike many other portrayals of bisexuality on television, Ava is a fully formed person allowed the freedom to explore who she is and might become. Hacks feels and understands comedy deep in its bones. The situations that Ava and Deborah find themselves in are intensely funny at times, but refreshingly, Hacks never makes Ava’s sexuality the butt of the joke.
Ellie Chu (The Half of It)
The Half of It, written and directed by Alice Wu, was one of the pieces of media that came out in 2020 that kept me going through quarantine. For those who haven’t had the chance to watch this phenomenal film, it follows Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a shy and incredibly smart, hard-working, teen who’s been running a side hustle writing essays for her classmates. Ellie’s life changes dramatically when a boy asks her to write letters to his crush as if they’re from him.
I am a sucker for fake dating stories, especially those that center around discovering your queerness. So much of Ellie’s story reflected my own, as well as what I wish my own experience could’ve been like — I immediately connected with The Half of It on a personal level. From Ellie’s struggle to come to terms with her lesbian sexuality to the gay panic scenes between herself and her crush, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), to the underlying cultural and religious guilt stopping both of them from getting together until the very end, The Half of It and Ellie are clear explorations of life as a queer teenager in a small town.
But my favorite part about The Half of It is the support systems that Ellie develops along the way. Whether it’s her ever-supportive and kind father, or Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), or the guy crushing on Aster who asks Ellie to write the letters in the first place, I adore the beautiful tenderness and care all around her: it reminds me that we are deserving of a love that is strong and simple and kind.
Root (Person of Interest)
Like Jonathan Nolan‘s Person of Interest, few crime procedurals have advocated for the importance of redemption and transformative justice. Nolan’s series is also part science-fiction, as it proposed the existence of The Machine, a computer program used by the United States government to spy on its citizens. (Eerily enough, the show aired before the Snowden scandal in 2013.) And we start to sense Person of Interest‘s gloomy prescience in the third season, which is also exactly when it gives its lesbian protagonist, Root (Amy Acker), a redemptive arc.
Root starts out as a talented hacker and self-employed assassin whose only priority is murdering people for cash and freeing The Machine from the government (a very noble and queer anarchist cause). While she treats the machine as a self-conscious entity that deserves freedom from its corrupt leaders, Root also believes that human beings are broken codes condemned to repeat their mistakes. As a lesbian, I think it is easy to subscribe to this nihilistic worldview when hurt is all you’ve gone through. But Root’s growing love for Shaw (Sarah Shahi), another ex-government assassin, teaches her how to care for another person – just one. And soon enough, caring for one person has Root caring for everyone else.
Root never gets a tragic backstory to excuse her actions because what she does to redeem herself matters. When Shaw sees herself as broken because of her personality disorder, Root sets aside her belief in humanity’s innate sinfulness for just a moment to tell Shaw that she is perfect the way she is. Like Root, Shaw struggles to express her love and feelings conventionally. Despite being a talented doctor who cares for her patients, Shaw’s bedside manners make her unfit for the medical profession (but perfect as an assassin). But Root – who is quite frankly out of her mind all of the time – sees past that and loves Shaw anyway. From its first episodes, Person of Interest was accused of being cold and clinical, but that’s only because Root and Shaw live in a world where governments would rather turn people like Shaw into killing machines than accept them as they are.
As queer women, Root and Shaw are both outsiders in a world that doesn’t care whether they live or die. Their relationship is where true acceptance thrives. Root and Shaw’s lesbian romance may not be central to Person of Interest‘s plot (romance, in general, isn’t the show’s focus), but their romance is where second chances and alternative futures become possible. Through Root, Person of Interest posits that lesbian and queer love is at the heart of redemption and justice – a belief that swims upstream against against most queer media texts, content to domesticate the radical nature of queer sexuality.
– Shar Tan
Lucifer Morningstar (Lucifer)
In a show where most characters are canonically queer, it’s hard to choose just one to talk about. But in the case of Fox turned Netflix’s Lucifer, the king of the underworld (Tom Ellis) reigns supreme. I started watching Lucifer in 2020 when we were deep in the throes of the pandemic and needed something to help pass the time while working from home. I knew that Lucifer was meant to be seen as a womanizer. What I didn’t know was that he was bisexual. In a television landscape where most bisexual characters are women, I was pleasantly surprised when Lucifer Episode 2 shows us the demon lord in bed with not only a woman but a man, too! It’s so rare for male characters to be bisexual and even rarer for bisexuality to extend to the titular character of a whole-ass series.
My favorite part about the reveal of Lucifer’s sexuality is that no one makes anything of it because it’s not a big deal. When Chloe (Lauren German) finds out, she doesn’t give a damn – something especially important to note because she and Lucifer are a couple, Chloe never once worries about that all-too-common trope for bisexual characters: that he’s going to leave her for a man.
As for Lucifer as a series, everyone’s a little queer. To give just one example, Mazikeen (Lesley-Ann Brandt) turns out to be pansexual and ends up with Eve (Inbar Levi) – as in, of Adam and Eve fame. And eventually, Joe Henderson, one of Lucifer‘s show-runners, revealed that Chloe is also bisexual. It’s refreshing for a series with such a large following to remind viewers that it’s okay to be queer.
Frank-N-Furter (The Rocky Horror Picture Show)
The elevator descending to open upon a robed and corseted Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show is, perhaps, the high point of cinema as an art form. As an audience, we are immediately placed into the same position as the (nominally) cishet couple standing before the elevator. We must grapple with our internalized conservatism, the allure of queerness, and the freedom of fluidity. But, more than anything, we must — like Brad and Janet — deal with the fact that Curry as Frank-N-Furter is really hot.
Richard O’Brien, the creator and star of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, is a chaotic figure. At once an out-and-proud non-binary person and a proponent of transmisogyny, O’Brien sprung from a specific moment in the 70s queer art community where gender fluidity and performativity became a fertile and oddly profitable avenue for art. Artists in music, fine art, theater, and cinema began exploring gender in ways that are transgressive even today. The post-Stonewall and pre-HIV generation of queer artists had found a space to comment upon and deconstruct gender. Frank-N-Furter and Rocky Horror must be analyzed within this socio-political context.
Some modern audiences – especially the aughts generation of Tumblr queers – look at both subjects with a critical eye. Surely, these critics say, we can do better than this representation. Frank is a predator, liar, and sexual deviant who seems to lack any morals whatsoever. Doesn’t he just play into the same dangerous transphobic stereotypes perpetuated by films like The Silence of the Lambs? However, there should be space for transgressive queerness in art. There should be space for trans people to behave badly on screen. In a world where we are so often victimized, it is, in some ways, refreshing to see a fantasia where we hold the power. For me, Frank and Rocky Horror attempt to imagine a world in which queer people are allowed to be powerful.
In doing so, O’Brien is able to put his finger on some uncomfortable truths about queerness in relation to heterosexuality and cis-ness. He’s able to show both the appeal of queerness and gender deviance, as well as why transgression may be appealing to audiences – particularly in the film’s attempts to let audiences be seduced by Frank. In this sense, Frank is almost unique in the trans canon: he is presented as something to desire and strive for. We want to be as powerful, confident, and seductive as Frank — even if we don’t like to admit it out loud.
That O’Brien – and Curry, who turns in a truly god-tier performance – are able to create a trans character who is not only explicitly trans in the 70s but also functions as a full character is nothing short of revolutionary for that time as this one. This year, Pride is taking place amid historic attacks on trans rights. Trans children are being ripped away from their parents, trans health care is being made a felony, and they’re even trying to outlaw drag shows. In this context, I don’t want to see any more tragic trannies who suffer and die. I don’t want to see noble trannies who fight the good fight only to either lose at the last gasp or be rescued by cis-ness. I don’t want to see sanitized, acceptable trans characters. I want subversion, power, and allure. I want us to envision ourselves as strong and powerful. I want Frank-N-Furter in a corset and thigh highs seducing us all.
Karolina Dean (Runaways)
To me, Runaways is a queer show. All three seasons of Runaways spend time with each character as they grapple with their identity – particularly their connection to their biological and found families – and whether any of what they do matters. Found families have always been inherently queer; LGBTQ youth, for instance, are 120% more likely to experience homelessness. We have no choice but to create networks and families of our own outside of biological ties.
I love Karolina (Virginia Gardner) and Nico’s (Lyrica Okano) relationship on Runaways for a ton of reasons. Still, the fact that they literally embody the sunshine girlfriend / grumpy girlfriend trope to the fullest extent (Karolina is actually a half-alien light being who can turn into a literal rainbow, plus there’s everything about Nico’s Wiccan-turned-goth aesthetic) has to be at the top. Karolina’s journey through Runaways involves her dealing with her alien family; her biological family; her relationship with Nico; and the rest of the so-called ‘Runaways’.
She tackles all of this head-on, unafraid to be completely herself even before she was sure who that was. Most importantly, the lesbians don’t die in this one. Their relationship takes some hits – understandably, given that Karolina’s father killed Nico’s sister – but Karolina and Nico stay connected. And, most importantly, alive. It’s a game-changer to have two openly queer characters live through all three seasons, especially when Karolina’s relationship with Nico undeniably affects the plot of the series. Without Karolina and Nico’s love, Runaways wouldn’t have survived – and neither would I.
Caroline Dawson (Last Tango in Halifax)
Long before Gentleman Jack, there was Last Tango in Halifax. Sally Wainwright might be the only straight screenwriter alive who’s attempted to include lesbian characters in so many of her shows — including Nicola Walker‘s role in Scott & Bailey — that she now knows how to write lesbian characters with grace, compassion, and respect. Both Last Tango in Halifax and Scott & Bailey have been accused of killing off lesbian characters for shock value, which is disappointing for several reasons – foremost among them is that Wainwright is more than capable of writing complex, nuanced, and authentic female characters who live to see the day. She’s since apologized for her mistakes and wrote the critically acclaimed lesbian period drama Gentleman Jack to atone for her many sins, so we are all good.
Don’t worry: Caroline Dawson (Sarah Lancashire) in Last Tango in Halifax does not die, but her wife, Kate (Nina Sosanya), does in a car accident, leaving Caroline a grieving widow. Given the growing slate of media that centers queer teenagers, watching Caroline blossom into her lesbian sexuality late in her forties after an unhappy marriage to a wet wipe of a man feels wonderful. I prefer seeing middle-aged lesbian and queer characters on-screen because it reminds me that I have second chances, despite everything. I will never relate to a more joyful representation of gay teenagers (these stories are important, of course) because my teenage years as a closeted lesbian were awful. For me, it’s more important that queer media acknowledges the sadness, loneliness, and wasted years of homophobia.
Like Caroline, my mother would struggle to accept me as I am, and every day I anticipate the disappointment she would feel when she finds out the truth. Like Caroline, I also see myself coming out extremely late in life. Or maybe not at all. Watching the Last Tango in Halifax while barely out the age of nineteen meant the world to me – especially since Caroline, like Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) in Gentleman Jack, is unashamed of who she is. Despite all the homophobia she endures, Caroline rises above it. She moves Kate into her home against everyone’s wishes. She shuts down a colleague who threatens to out her. There is a certain foresight that comes with Caroline’s older age; she knows that it’s better not to waste her precious time placating homophobes. Caroline is a complicated woman – sometimes even a snobbish asshole! – and seeing on-screen a middle-aged lesbian character as fully realized as that remains rare.
– Shar Tan