Growing up as a scared, closeted little gay boy in rural Pennsylvania, I felt certain that I’d never share the secret of my sexuality. I barely even believed I was gay myself.
Whenever I saw gay people on TV or in movies, they were over-the-top caricatures that were mainly there to provide sassy comic relief. And while they were certainly funny, it led me to believe that I ultimately fit into the gay world as poorly as I did the straight.
It wasn’t until I moved to a big city — a gay tale as old as time — that I met gay men who were fully realized human beings, full of flaws and fears, passions and problems. I finally recognized myself in other queer people and was able to officially accept my sexuality for the first time. (And, honey, there was no turning back!)
But for young gay kids who are stuck in a hometown where there’s no one who looks like them, they need to be able to turn to their television screens to find queer representation in order to see they’re not alone. Representation matters, and thankfully, it’s better in 2018 than it’s ever been before.
But as deep in denial as I may have been while growing up, there were still TV characters who had an effect on my journey to acceptance when I was younger (and well into adulthood, for that matter). Because, in many ways, coming out is a lifelong process. And each one of these fictional characters, which I’ve conveniently listed for you below, taught me something about my own experience as a gay man.
Will and Jack from Will & Grace
I was just starting high school when Will & Grace premiered on NBC in 1998 and it was definitely my first time seeing gay characters take center stage on primetime television. While Jack certainly fell into that over-the-top flamboyant category that I didn’t recognize in myself at the time, Sean Hayes’ brilliant comedic timing still had me wishing we were friends. Plus, there was the character of Will (Eric McCormack) to balance him out and keep the show grounded.
At first, it was incredible to be able to tune in each week as a teen and watch gay men go on dates and deal with the same problems as their straight counterparts. But eventually, I had to stop watching because it all got too real for me. I was nowhere near ready to admit to myself or anyone else that I was gay, and seeing these characters on the screen became a constant reminder of my secret. Luckily, the show returned in 2017 so I can tune in again each week and relate to Will and Jack in ways I would have never been able to in the ’90s anyway.
Danny Roberts from The Real World: New Orleans
Okay, so Danny isn’t a TV character so much as a real-life person, but his time on The Real World back in 2000 was impactful. I was obsessed with the MTV reality show during this era, even applying several times to become a cast member. (I’m shocked they weren’t interested in a shy closeted boy who would have refused to discuss his sexuality and didn’t know himself at all.)
The series was a pioneer in showcasing the lives of queer people, including Real World: San Francisco‘s Pedro Zamora, who was one of the first openly gay men with AIDS to appear on TV. Unfortunately, I didn’t watch the show back in those early years, so Danny Roberts became one of my first examples of a real gay person at a time before reality TV was truly a thing. Sure, he was cute, but his storyline also shined a light on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell because of his closeted Army-officer boyfriend. It was thrilling to see a gay man live openly on TV, but his boyfriend’s blurred-out face served as a reminder that it still wasn’t always okay to be out and proud.
Justin from Queer as Folk
I don’t remember how I first discovered Showtime’s steamy soap Queer as Folk as a closeted high school student, but the moment I did, it became my mission to sneak over to the television when no one was home and binge as many episodes as possible. The graphic sex scenes and provocative nature of the series certainly served as a sexual awakening on their own, but the character of Justin Taylor (Randy Harrison) helped make the series even more relatable.
Justin was a 17-year-old student, but much further along on his coming out journey than I was while watching. The series documented his coming out, falling in love, and run-ins with homophobic bullies, and while many of the storylines may have pushed me temporarily further in the closet — including the graphic beating that he received at the end of Season 1 — it was exciting to watch a character who was navigating the same complicated feelings that I was.
Kurt from Glee
When Ryan Murphy’s musical series Glee debuted in 2009, it became an instant phenomenon that celebrated the outcasts of the world. The show itself was as gay as could be on its own, but it was the character of Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) that really changed the conversation around queer representation on TV. Kurt was not just a side character used for comic relief, but instead, one who had to endure the many trials and tribulations of a gay teenager — something extremely hard to find on primetime television at the time. When Kurt met Blaine Anderson (Darren Criss), many young queer kids got to watch a gay relationship bloom before their eyes for the first time.
I remember a scene where the couple kissed in front of Kurt’s dad and I felt embarrassed for them. His father was willing to accept him for being a homosexual, so why would Kurt push things by shoving his gay love in his dad’s face? And that, my friends, is when I realized a little thing called internalized homophobia still had its icy grip on me. Because while coming out to others is an important part of the gay journey, actually accepting and loving yourself is a whole different story. I had some work to do.
Mitch and Cam from Modern Family
As the name suggests, Modern Family dissects the many unique facets that make up a family tree these days, and that includes two married men raising their adopted daughter. Like many sitcoms, the series masterfully showcases some very relatable situations that pop up in long-term relationships, but it was refreshing to see those relatable moments come from the love of two men — Cameron Tucker (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson).
For a long time, I tried to figure out who was the Cam and who was the Mitch in my own relationship, but it turned out that my boyfriend and I each had similarities to both men. And that’s because Cam and Mitch were actually fleshed out characters. It’s a sitcom, so of course they are often written to be over-the-top, but watching gay men with similar neuroses to my own helped to calm anxieties I had about myself. Oh, these fictional gay men are as neurotic about useless things as I am? What a relief!
Max from Happy Endings
First of all, if you haven’t seen Happy Endings — a magical friends-hanging-out sitcom that was canceled from ABC too soon — please go find it immediately. (Actually, there are only two entries left here so finish reading this, but then go binge.) One of the most exciting parts of this hilarious series was the fact that one of the friends, Max (Adam Pally), was gay. And while that was unique on its own, Max was about as far from being a stereotypical gay character as he could get. The beer-chugging bro was a lazy overeater with an interest in sports.
Getting a great gay character on TV was hard enough, but one who wasn’t just a flamboyant caricature was truly groundbreaking. Max served as a great reminder that the queer community is not just one note and that gay and straight people can come together as best friends without anything getting lost in translation. I wish I could have had a friend like Max growing up. Preferably one who didn’t make me watch sports, though. (Hey, some stereotypes exist for a reason, people!)
Renly Baratheon from Game of Thrones
Westeros is a continent full of characters raging with toxic masculinity who objectify and rape women as they see fit. So to find so many queer characters interspersed throughout Game of Thrones has always felt exciting. For starters, knowing straight dudes have to watch gay sex scenes on one of their favorite shows is satisfying enough. But the fact that one of the queer characters, Renly Baratheon, was an actual king was even better.
I mean, yes, Renly had to marry Margaery Tyrell in order to keep up appearances and form an alliance between the two royal families. But we got to see what actually went down in his royal boudoir, where he was not-so-secretly in love with Margaery’s brother, Loras. The citizens of Westeros may have an easier time believing in fire-breathing dragons than in the idea that two men could be in love, but acceptance takes time. And I’m just grateful we get to see LGBTQ people have as fair a shot at the Iron Throne as everyone else.
RuPaul from RuPaul’s Drag Race
RuPaul already beat the odds once in the ’90s when she became famous as a black 6’4″ drag queen. But the queer icon somehow managed to strike gold twice when her reality show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, became a cultural phenomenon. The series brought drag culture to the masses and the show became our very own sporting event. Finally, we understood what our straight brethren must be feeling when they scream like animals at bars during football games. But beyond the fun of the series itself, it’s the message of love and acceptance that was most transformative for me. Being too feminine was considered unattractive for far too long within the gay community, but as these fabulous drag queens started to infiltrate the zeitgeist, it was suddenly celebrated to let your femme flag fly. And while it obviously couldn’t overturn that outdated thinking completely, it continued to address the problem with conversations around things like Grindr users only being interested in “masc” men and dismissing anyone who may be “femme, fat, or Asian.” RuPaul and her girls helped me to let go of the toxic masculinity that society engrained in me for so long, the final stage in becoming a beautiful gay butterfly.
The urge to put on a dress and sashay down a homemade runway seemed absolutely unacceptable for so many of us for so long, but now, I don’t remember attending a gay party in the past three years that didn’t involve wigs in some way. There’s still so much work to do within our community to get us to love ourselves and each other, but RuPaul, unapologetically herself from day one, has moved us so far ahead and I couldn’t be more grateful. Everybody say love!
Well, we’ve come to the end of the list. The characters here are obviously all male (and unbearably white), on account of that’s what I am. And it also leaves off a slew of new characters that have emerged in the past few years. But we each have a very unique journey and our own set of characters who shaped us along the way. Head to Twitter and share your own list of the TV characters who made you the perfect queer person you are today.