The 20 Most Important LGBTQ TV Shows of the Decade
The past decade has seen an explosion of LGBTQ content on television. In fact, the latest report from GLAAD indicates that more than 10 percent of series regulars on broadcast TV represent members of our community.
Within this golden age, a number of shows stand out. Some, like Modern Family, brought a story of gay love and family to an international audience. Others, like Pose, have revolutionized transgender storytelling by placing the roles -- and the director's chair -- in the hands of trans people. Through these diverse and humanizing portrayals, many members of the LGBTQ community have finally felt seen. And many other hearts and minds have been moved toward the cause of equality.
Below, The Advocate's editors selected and ranked the TV shows that have helped change the world for LGBTQ people from 2010 to 2019.
Created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, FX's long-running anthology series American Horror Story has queered the horror genre while also giving a platform for LGBTQ actors to showcase their talent as heroes -- and villains. Sarah Paulson, Denis O'Hare, Cheyenne Jackson, Erika Ervin, Angelica Ross, Gus Kenworthy, and Lady Gaga (who won a Golden Globe!) were among the out names who have haunted the mansions, asylums, freak shows, summer camps, and various other creepy milieus since the show premiered in 2011. Not to mention the incomparable icon Jessica Lange. And the series, like many of Murphy's, still stands at the vanguard of LGBTQ stories. Its persistence throughout the decade -- although, let's face it, some seasons have been stronger than others -- demonstrates the staying power of diverse storytelling.
Amid a spate of period pieces about women in love that have proliferated on the big screen in recent years like Carol, The Favourite, and Vita & Virginia, the tale of pioneering lesbian Anne Lister (based on the real woman) took TV by storm when it premiered on HBO and the BBC in June 2019.
Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax creator Sally Wainwright worked for over a decade to bring Gentleman Jack to the small screen, and it paid off!
Before the first season ended, the series got a second season pickup as the series was praised for its sexual frankness and Suranne Jones's brash portrayal of Lister, who is often considered to be the "first modern lesbian."
Set in 1832 in Halifax, West Yorkshire, the series costars Sophie Rundle (Bodyguard) as Ann Walker, a landowner on whom Lister sets her sights to be her life partner. The plot weaves the story of Lister and Walker trying to make a 19th-century lesbian love affair work in small-town Britain in with Lister's business dealings as she schemes to reclaim control over her coal mines from which a set of influential brothers have been stealing.
The series made a mark not only for its pristine performances and production values but because it depicts queer women bucking against societal strictures while also exploring power dynamics within their relationship.
There is no question that Will & Grace changed the world for LGBTQ people when it first aired from 1998 to 2006. Showcasing gay leads in Will and Jack -- and a bisexual one, in the case of Karen -- helped move America toward marriage equality, a fact that was acknowledged by none other than Vice President Joe Biden. The show's return to NBC in September 2017 was also a noteworthy event. It led the wave of Hollywood's era of TV revivals, but not out of nostalgia, out of necessity. The cast members reunited in direct response to the presidential election of Donald Trump and the need to bolster queer representation in an era when LGBTQ rights were once again under attack. Also, we all just needed to laugh again. While the revival has sadly been canceled with its third season (currently airing), Will & Grace came back for the community when it was needed and made history in the process.
A Very English Scandal is one of the decade's best shows -- LGBTQ or otherwise. This period miniseries, available to stream on Amazon, follows Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant), a closeted member of Parliament who tries to hide his past affair with Norman Josiffe (Ben Whishaw). His attempts at a coverup lead to extraordinary measures that we won't spoil here; it really must be seen to be believed. But don't miss this ripped-from-the-headlines tale or its stellar performances from Grant (never better) and Whishaw. The miniseries is also a fascinating chronicle of the homophobia of 1970s and '80s England and the desperate actions it could spark in those it impacted.
Killing Eve's story is a far cry from its creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge's dark comedy Fleabag, but she manages to infuse the new series' spy-thriller narrative with plenty of her signature bons mots. Sandra Oh finally gets a role worthy of her immense talent as Eve Polastri, a sardonic MI6 investigator who discovers the existence of a new female assassin wreaking havoc around the world. British TV veteran Jodie Comer plays Villanelle, the gorgeous bisexual polyglot of an assassin who becomes obsessed with Eve. The series is delicious, dark-humored fun bolstered by a solid cat-and-mouse plot. If that weren't enough, the inimitable out actress Fiona Shaw costars.
Not only is Broad City feminist and queer in its DNA, but it's also one of the great comedies of the 21st century. The Comedy Central series about weed-smoking, sex-positive best friends Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) and Ilana (Ilana Glazer) navigating life in New York City was hailed as an Absolutely Fabulous for a new, decidedly less moneyed generation. What began as a humble web series got a boost of female solidarity when Amy Poehler signed on to help executive-produce the show, which ran on TV for five seasons, 2014-2019.
At the time the series premiered, it was rare to see a lead bisexual character, but Glazer's Ilana affirmed her sexuality early on in the show's run and she continually celebrated her sexual identity with verve. Eventually, Abbi the character and Jacobson both came out as bisexual. The series also included Ilana's gay weed-loving roommate, Jaime (Arturo Castro), and her gay brother, Eliot (played by Glazer's actual brother Eliot Glazer).
Between wild antics that included Ilana risking shock by ignoring her shellfish allergy on her birthday, Abbi channeling her Judy Garland-esque alter ego Val, various drug-induced revelations, and celebrating the art of pegging, along with a chronicle of several relationships, abiding friendship between women was always at Broad City's core.
Created by out showrunner Justin Simien, Dear White People explores how issues related to race and sexuality operate on a college campus -- and by extension, in America. The show also delves into how mediums like radio and social media influence these conversations and at times inflame them. Dear White People features a central gay character, Lionel (DeRon Horton), whose exploration of the different queer scenes on his college campus is a must-see lesson in intersectionality. As a bonus, Lena Waithe and Tessa Thompson have made fantastic cameos.
Was anyone in Bon Temps, the Louisiana setting of HBO's True Blood, straight? The series, which ran from 2008 to 2014, showcased a range of fluid vampires, humans, fairies, werewolves, werepanthers, shapeshifters, and other supernatural creatures. But beyond representation -- and steamy sex fantasies -- the Alan Ball series emerged at an important political moment. Premiering just prior to the election of Barack Obama and the passage of Proposition 8 in California, True Blood established itself as a thinly veiled metaphor for the fight for LGBTQ equality. "God Hates Fangs" memorably appeared in the opening credits, vampires were "coming out of the coffin" to demand rights, and Lafayette Reynolds (Nelsan Ellis) served up one of television's most beloved gay characters. That the show was led by a bisexual actress, Anna Paquin, was just icing on the cake.
Kristin Bauer van Straten, who played the gay icon Pam on the series, spoke to the many parallels at the end of True Blood's run. "Crazy stuff happens in Bon Temps," she said. "But really, it's nothing crazier than what we deal with in life on earth."
This summer, HBO's Euphoria exploded onto TV screens like a supernova of kinetic energy, teen angst, and pinballing hormones. Before the pilot episode was over, the series had depicted rampant drug and alcohol use, distorted sexual roles as a result of porn viewing, bullying, gender-based violence, and statutory rape. But the final moments of the episode offered a palate cleanser of pure tenderness between young women when, in the light of daybreak, Zendaya's Rue (fresh out of rehab) cleans and dresses a deep slice on her new friend and soon-to-be love interest Jules's arm before they fall back side-by-side, their arms just grazing one another's. That love story would prove to be the heart of the series's first season that was often difficult to watch due to its frank treatment of the teen experience.
Despite some tough subject matter, the series is refreshing in terms of telling a love story between a cis woman and trans woman (played by Hunter Schafer, who is trans and a revelation in terms of talent), which TV has not often taken on.
"One of the parts of Jules that I identify most with is her transition from having this pretty toxic idealization of men and having certain desires towards them, and not knowing why. Then ultimately realizing that it's not working and that what she's searching for can be found in a safety and a solace that she finds in her best friend," Schafer told The Advocate.
"And that it's feminine and loving," Schafer added. "There's no dynamic of misogyny because it's not really possible within their relationship."
Sense8, the Netflix science fiction series about eight strangers with a psychic connection to each other, traveled around the globe in its fight against the nefarious Biologic Preservation Organization and the diabolical villain Whispers. But beyond the dazzling cinematography and action sequences was a simple message: Humans, regardless of their race, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation, and gender identity, are interconnected. Created by the Wachowski siblings, the show had a diverse cast including several LGBTQ performers, such as Jamie Clayton and Brian J. Smith, who recently came out as gay. A dazzling scene at Sao Paulo Pride also featured a game-changing kiss between a closeted actor, Lito Rodriguez (Miguel Angel Silvestre) and his partner Hernando (Alfonso Herrera), which delivered an empowering message to the streaming universe about the power of love and visibility. As did the infamous orgy scenes!
Created by Michael Lannon, Looking took the torch from Tales of the City in its showcase of gay life in San Francisco. Through the eyes of Patrick (Jonathan Groff), a 29-year-old navigating life and love in the Golden Gate City, the HBO dramedy explored many issues impacting (then) modern queer life, including PrEP, serodiscordant dating, generational divides, and the advent of marriage equality. The show was sadly canceled after two seasons (and a two-hour finale special), but it remains a beautiful love letter to S.F. and its vibrant queer history and present. The cast (Groff, Frankie J. Alvarez, Murray Bartlett, Russell Tovey, Raul Castillo, and Lauren Weedman) wasn't bad to look at either!
Netflix's One Day at a Time takes the beloved '70s sitcom about a divorced mom raising teen daughters and gives it a fresh focus by reimagining the premise with a Latinx family. Justina Machado (Six Feet Under) stars as Penelope, the single mom raising son Alex (Marcel Ruiz) and daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez), who comes out as a lesbian in season 1. Of course, the legendary Rita Moreno plays Penelope's over-the-top mother Lydia, who lends a classic air of camp to the entire show.
Funny and heartfelt, One Day at a Time in its second season focused on a newly out and deeply political Elena who joined protests and fought for LGBTQ rights at her school even as she navigated dating. The series did a deep dive into intersectionality and highlighted various sexualities and genders at a teen level, eventually giving Elena a girlfriend, Syd, who is nonbinary.
When Netflix canceled the show after its third season, the outcry from fans was so massive that Schitt's Creek's network, Pop TV, stepped in and saved One Day at a Time.
Schitt's Creek is a bright spot on the comedy landscape. Created by Eugene Levy (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind) and his son Daniel Levy, who is gay, Schitt's Creek brims with absurdist humor that's (mostly) sadly missing from pop culture these days. The series, about a wealthy family that loses it all and is forced to rebuild in the podunk town they happen to own, stars Eugene Levy as the patriarch of the family opposite his frequent on-screen partner Catherine O'Hara, who plays his kooky, over-the-top wife Moira. Daniel Levy plays the family's pansexual son David while the wonderful Annie Murphy stars as their bizarrely worldly daughter Alexis. Over the seasons, David has engaged in relationships with men and women on the show, including the town's motel's owner Stevie, played by out actress Emily Hampshire. Loaded with camp and a queer sensibility, Schitt's Creek continues to be a panacea for the daily news cycle.
Modern Family has run the entire decade, giving ABC audience members a front-row seat to a family with gay members. Although Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cam (Eric Stonestreet) run into trope territory, and their relationship has been criticized as being neutered for television -- it took until the second season for the couple to kiss -- there is no denying the hearts and minds the pair changed as they raised their adoptive daughter, Lily, in a loving household.
After five seasons and a three-hour finale, Freeform's (formerly ABC Family)The Fosters, the series from out creators and showrunners Peter Paige, Bradley Bredeweg, and Joanna Johnson about lesbian moms raising biological, adopted, and foster kids, went down as one of the most consistently groundbreaking series in TV history.
The show explored the importance of marriage equality; tackled racism; featured one of TV's first transgender characters played by a trans man; and covered rape, school shootings, immigration and ICE, sex trafficking, breast cancer, and the multitude of issues kids in the foster system face daily. The Fosters ended its run in 2018, but the characters live on in the spin-off Good Trouble, with Maia Mitchell and Cierra Ramirez reprising their characters as they navigate love, career, and social issues while living in a communal space in downtown Los Angeles. Good Trouble continues to move the needle forward for representation with both characters and cast members who span identities of pansexual, lesbian, bisexual, nonbinary, trans, and gay. Storylines for the spin-off have taken on workplace sexual harassment, the police shooting of an unarmed black man, and body image issues. And like its parent show, it does it all with heart and humor.
Ryan Murphy's musical dramedy Glee, which ran on Fox from 2009 to 2015, introduced numerous LGBTQ students and faculty members to the halls of William McKinley High School. The love stories of Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Blaine (Darren Criss), and Santana (Naya Rivera) and Brittany (Heather Morris), gave queer teens around the world romantic possibility models, while transgender characters like Coach Beiste (Dot-Marie Jones) and Unique Adams (Alex Newell) explored gender identity at different ages. The true delight of the show, however, was watching out actress Jane Lynch scheme to bring down the glee club as cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester as well as the various performances themselves, which recruited a new generation of viewers to the wonders of classic musicals and Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" alike.
Transparent, Jill Soloway's series about an elder transgender woman's coming out to her family, was a favorite of awards season that put Amazon Studios on the map. While Tambor's casting is an unfortunate mark on the show's legacy -- the actor is cisgender and he was accused of sexual harassment -- there is no denying the impact of the series, which was the first major TV show to put a trans storyline front and center. The impact is also occupational. Dozens of trans people have worked on the show through its run, in front of and behind the camera, among them Alexandra Billings, Trace Lysette, Ian Harvie, Hari Nef, Zackary Drucker, Our Lady J, and Rhys Ernst. They will undoubtedly influence Hollywood for years to come. The show -- particularly in its early seasons -- was also remarkable in its exploration of Jewish identity through the lens of the Pfefferman clan, employing magical realism to demonstrate how historical trauma, such as the horrors of Nazi Germany, can impact generations to come.
Starz's Vida, from creator Tanya Saracho, is in a class of its own in terms of representation for queer Latinx people on-screen and behind the camera. Based in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, the series tackles gentrification as two sisters, the fastidious Emma (Michel Prada), who is queer, and the free-spirited and self-centered Lyn (Melissa Barrera), return to their mother's home after her death to mourn her and to handle her affairs. Namely, they must decide what to do with the money pit of an apartment building and bar their mother, Vidalia (Vida), owned. In the process, they discover that Vida had a secret life.
Not only does the fresh and deeply funny Vida star several actors who are LGBTQ, but the show's writers and crew also consist overwhelmingly of people of color, queer people, and women. In its second season,Vida hit the ground running and tackled thorny subjects including identity policing among queer and Latinx people.
The series is back for a third season in 2020.
No other show on television has impacted LGBTQ lives like Pose, the groundbreaking FX series that centers on ball culture in 1980s New York. Pose not only centers transgender and queer people of color -- it also stars them, setting a record for the number of transgender series regulars and a new bar for representation in television. The show, created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals, is unafraid to show the hardships and joys within this marginalized community, including issues like HIV, sex work, and found family. Billy Porter received a much-deserved Emmy nomination for his performance as Pray Tell, but all of the trans women -- Indya Moore as Angel, MJ Rodriguez as Blanca Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson as Elektra Abundance, Hailie Sahar as LuluAbundance, and Angelica Ross as Candy Abundance, and producers Our Lady J and Janet Mock -- deserve awards recognition.
When Netflix dropped Orange Is the New Black's first season in the summer of 2013, it changed TV forever. It was one of the first truly binge-able shows to air on streaming -- literally altering the way viewers consumed content. But more than its power to render enthralled fans helpless to turn away for hours when a new season was released, it excavated the intersections of issues facing women of color, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans women. It took on tough issues around classism, white privilege, sexual violence, addiction, police brutality, and the prison industrial complex. And it managed to do it all while remaining funny and without being preachy.
The landmark series from creator Jenji Kohan (Weeds, Glow), based on Piper Kerman's memoir, deployed lead character Piper (Taylor Schilling) -- a bisexual white woman happily enjoying her upper-class suburban advantages until she's remanded to prison for running drugs for her ex-girlfriend 10 years prior -- as a Trojan Horse. Via Piper, the series explored an anthology of stories about a cross section of diverse women. For her work as Sofia Burset on OITNB,Laverne Cox became the first transgender woman to be nominated for an Emmy award.
OITNB filled a void for queer women after The L Word ended in 2009, and it helped pave the way for intersectional LGBTQ shows like Pose and Vida.