LGBT+ visibility in media is at an all time high right now. Mainstream TV shows have plenty of gay characters in them and the stigma surrounding coming out is lessening all the time. This is great news for LGBT+ youth, but some of us old stalwarts of the scene can remember a time when things really weren’t this easy. Finding gay content to associate with and identify with was hard. Growing up in the late 80’s / early 90’s was an entirely different landscape to what today’s youths are used to. Here we break down some of the most groundbreaking LGBT+ TV shows and TV mini-series to have aired from 1990 onward.
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
TV Mini Series – 1990
This was a huge deal at the time. It aired in 1990 on the BBC to uproarious backlash. It is based on the 1985, semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, by prolific lesbian writer, Jeannette Winterson. It follows the life of Jessica, who is being brought up in an extremely strict Pentecostal, evangelical family. She is a young woman imbibed with an extraordinarily strong will and heart which enables her to rebel against her fanatical, cult-like upbringing. She befriends a girl called Melanie, and their friendship soon blossoms into a forbidden romance. This was a very important moment in television history, as, not only did it portray a young lesbian, grappling with her burgeoning sexuality, it also highlighted the damage that a close minded religious ethos can have on a young flowering mind.
Tales Of The City
TV Mini Series – 1993
Tales of the City is based on Armistead Maupins book of the same name. It follows the life of Mary Ann Singleton, a young Ohio secretary, as she moves to San Francisco in 1976. It chronicles her many adventures and the plethora of colourful characters she meets along the way. Set against the back drop of the heady, gay, disco culture of the 70’s, and before the 1980’s AIDS crisis, the story unfolds in a beautiful and tender way, as seen through the eyes of an innocent, small town heroine. This was a show that was important for showing the LGBT community as they really were, and not as clichéd parodies of themselves. Depicting the community to be just a bunch of average people with the same trials, tribulations and problems as everyone else.
TV Series – 1994 – 1998
Ellen Degeneres first came to fame in the early 90’s with her show: Ellen. Degeneres played the title character, a neurotic bookshop owner, unlucky in love, but with a strong set of friends around her. It was typical sitcom fare, until the end of the fourth season. During this time, Ellen Degeneres was struggling with her own sexuality in her personal life. Up until that point, the character on the show Ellen, was straight, however, Degeneres decided to make both her fictional character, and herself, come out as gay. At the time this sparked huge controversy. Upon airing the 22nd episode of the fourth season, ‘The Puppy Episode’, (the episode where Ellen comes out), there were picket lines at the studio, the show lost tons of its sponsors, and ABC even received a bomb threat. The show was then axed after its fifth season. This was a key moment to many of us watching at the time. Despite the US reaction being so negative, the UK embraced Ellen, and Channel 4 even had a ‘Coming Out Party’ for Ellen, where they aired the episode along with various other gay themed TV shows and documentaries. The night was hosted by Graham Norton, and Ellen’s courage under fire was truly inspiration to many LGBT people around the globe.
Will & Grace
TV Series – 1998 – Ongoing
Before Will & Grace, there was a severe lack of popular gay-themed TV shows. Immediately after the failure of Ellen, and in the midst of that backlash, NBC-TV chose to air a show that would go on to be one of the most popular American sitcoms of all time. Will & Grace presented the world with a counter to the old adages of what gay people were. It was the first TV show to have an openly gay male character as the lead on prime-time television. Despite the networks trepidation, the show was a huge success. Originally running from 1998 to 2006, the show returned to rave reviews and delighted fans in 2017. Despite two of the main characters being gay, the show was very careful not to make homosexuality the emphasis of the show itself. In doing so it ‘normalised’ homosexuality in the eyes of the general public and steered them away from tired stereotypes.
Queer As Folk
TV Series – 1999 – 2000
Queer As Folk blasted its way onto our screens in 1999, and caused huge controversy. It focused exclusively on a cast of gay characters, and showed explicit sex scenes, and had more than its fair share of explicit sexual references. It focused mainly on the lives of Vince, Stuart and Nathan and was written by Russell T. Davies. There had never been anything as daring or unapologetic on TV screens before, and many of the cast went on to have huge careers. Most notably Aiden Gillen who played Stuart, and Charlie Hunman who played Nathan. Russell T. Davies also went on to reboot Doctor Who. The show also had an American counterpart that ran for longer than its original. This show was hugely influential and important in terms of visibility for young gay men.
The Ellen Show
TV Series – 2001 – 2002
After the dust had settled, Ellen Degeneres was ready to get back in saddle, and produce more classic comedy TV. In The Ellen Show, she plays out lesbian Ellen Richmond. Ellen trades her stress filled life in the big city for a more peaceful one in her quaint home town. An eccentric mother, scatty sister, and a cast of hopeless neighbours, and old friends, make this warm hearted comedy a joy to watch. However, the damage had already been done to Ellen’s career at that time, and poor ratings saw the show axed after only one season. It was important though, because it saw Ellen Degeneres rise from the ashes, and fight for her career, and her right to exist in the world the way she wanted to. This courage would see her launch her wildly successful daytime TV talkshow, The Ellen Degeneres Show in 2003. Her talk show is currently in its 16th season and has, to date, aired over 2,600 episodes.
Tipping The Velvet
TV Mini Series – 2002
Based on the novel by Sarah Waters, this three-part miniseries was broadcast by the BBC in 2002. It was adapted for TV by Andrew Davies and is set in 1890s London. It follows Nan Astley, an oyster girl from Whitestable, who falls for the charms of a male impersonator, and music hall star, Kitty Butler. Nan soon follows Kitty to London and the two embark on an intense love affair. After a shocking discovery Nan flees from Kitty and winds up on the streets. Working as a male prostitute, Nan carves out a place for herself in the unforgiving streets of the Victorian underworld. Heart wrenching, moving and hugely enlightening, this was important for highlighting the rich LGBT history that exists in most big cities. All you need to do, is lift the curtain slightly to find the gay underbelly of our past.
Angels In America
TV Mini Series – 2003
Based on the 1991 play by Tony Kushner, this all star adaptation follows the lives of three gay men and their friends and families in the 1980’s. Focusing on themes of religious bigotry, shame, and the AIDS epidemic, it beautifully weaves together the separate but interconnected tales of these men, and their life experiences, at the dawning of the AIDS crisis. The play itself was a Tony Award winning piece, and the TV series boasted stars as big as Meryl Streep and Al Pacino. A hugely important adaptation of an equally important play, it serves to remind us of how far we have come in our understanding of what it is to be gay, and how something as terrible as the AIDS epidemic served to bring entire communities of gay people together.
TV Series – 2004 – 2009
The L Word was everything to all of us young 20 something lesbians in the early 00’s. Up until that point there hadn’t been very much representation on TV for lesbians to look up to, or seek solace in. Most of the LGBT TV of the time had focused largely on gay men. The only representation we had, was either doomed to failure, or, was a side character to a larger, more important male counterpart. Then came The L-Word, an entire show made up of a cast of queer women. It followed the lives and loves of a group of lesbian friends in LA. It ran for six seasons and never shied away from the tough topics. It dealt with miscarriage, sexual identity, trans issues, breast cancer, and even complicated gender identities. It was also lighthearted and fun with beloved characters from across the sphere of lesbian identity. It also featured every lesbians’ favourite lesbian power couple: Bette and Tina. From butch to femme, it had everything. It is also due to come back for a reboot in 2019, with original creator Ilene Chaiken back at the helm, and original cast members, Jennifer Beals, Kate Moennig and Leisha Hailey, already signed up. The show was hugely important for lesbian visibility in the media, and not just young lesbians, the show also featured women of all ages from their 20’s right up to women in their 70’s.
TV Series – 2006 – 2006
What The L-Word did for lesbians in their 20’s and 30’s, Sugar Rush did for the teenage, questioning lesbian. Based on the 2004 novel by Julie Birchill, the show follows teenager Kim. Living in Brighton, surrounded by gay culture, Kim is still having a hard time coming out, and coming to terms with the fact that she is in love with, or at least besotted by, her best friend Sugar. The show was hugely important for young, gay female visibility, and it broke new ground in terms of age representation in the media. It also did away with the idea that you have to be of a certain age to be sure of your sexuality and sexual orientation.
TV Series – 2010 – 2012
It was Scotland’s answer to The L-Word, and the answer to all of our little lesbian prayers, in the post ‘Bette and Tina’ haze that was the year after The L-Word ended. Lip Service was similar in theme to its American predecessor in that it followed the lives of a group of lesbian friends, in their late 20’s/ early 30’s, as they went about their day to day lives. It wasn’t so much groundbreaking as it was important. It was important that we still had representation after The L-Word finished, and it was important that it followed the lives of ordinary women. Gay women with ordinary problems and ordinary lives. It only lasted for two seasons however, but it is still nestled firmly in hearts of most of us 30 something lesbians, who miss that level of quality representation on our screens at the moment.