In 2015, when I was 16 years old, I came out as bisexual. It was a daunting time, as it is for any (especially young) LGBTQ+ person; it’s confusing, lonely, and really quite frightening. While I was still figuring things out, no one else I knew was out as queer. There was no one to guide me through how I was feeling, help me to realise what it meant, or tell me that it was perfectly normal and okay. Going to a Catholic school definitely didn’t make it any easier. This was only six years ago as well, but it feels like a lifetime has passed since. Obviously a lot still needs to change, but I’d like to think there is significantly better support out there for LGBTQ+ kids currently. The two outlets and forms of escapism I had, as was the case for anyone my age, were film/television and the Internet.
I was the kind of nerdy kid who was always wrapped up in whatever novel or TV show I was into at the time. (Okay, maybe not much has changed.) Sci-fi, fantasy, and supernatural fiction took up all my free time and kept me preoccupied—more than that, it delighted me and made me feel at peace. As much as fandoms can be toxic places, they also create a space where you belong, which is particularly formative for an out-of-place queer teen struggling to keep their head above water. Even better is when said TV shows include LGBTQ+ characters.
I find that a lot of media that has a cult following either has queer characters in it, or has an inherently queer feel to it in a way that attracts a prominently LGBTQ+ fanbase. I’ve written about this in regards to Doctor Who, a show that paved the way with queerness in the mid-2000s. Including that, there’s a few queer characters in TV shows with large fandoms that had an impact on me as a 15/16-year-old baby gay coming to terms with my sexuality. Now, before we start, I’m not necessarily saying that these TV shows are good, or even that the LGBTQ+ representation in them is good. It’s simply that I was very fond of the characters at the time, and they helped me to edge out of the closet just that little bit further. Anything that brought me joy at that pivotal time in my life has value.
Willow Rosenberg – Buffy the Vampire Slayer
I think it’s safe to say that Buffy played an integral role in shaping who I am as a person. In spite of Joss Whedon’s horrific attitudes and abusive behaviour towards women on set, the TV show influenced a generation of young people, especially women and LGBTQ+ people. One of these key influences for me was the character of Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan), best friend to the eponymous Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar).
When we first meet Willow in Season 1, she’s nerdy and shy, majorly lacking in self-confidence. As I’ve discussed in an article about her journey in becoming a witch, Willow gains independence and power once she starts practising magic in Season 2. However, her real rise to self-realisation occurs in Season 4 after she meets Tara Maclay (Amber Benson). The two women immediately connect, and begin an official relationship towards the end of the season. Fans adored them, and the show received international praise for the sapphic representation. When Tara was killed off in Season 6, it caused a huge uproar. Having a lesbian character die in a shockingly awful way wasn’t the best decision, but showrunner at the time Marti Noxon has since expressed regret of this.
I remember watching Willow and Tara’s love develop on the screen as a teenager and being so utterly transfixed by it, shipping them far more than any other couple on the show (let’s be real, this is probably the healthiest relationship in the show, the bar is rather low). I’d just be thinking, “Wow, I support them so much, they’re so adorable as a couple!” without putting two and two together and realising I related to them a little too much. From the start of the show, Willow was the character I identified with the most, and so the Season 4 plot with her coming to terms with her sexuality struck a chord with me before I even realised I was bi. Although Willow labels herself as a lesbian from Season 4 onwards, Whedon has claimed Willow would be bisexual if the show was made today. I definitely agree, considering her deeply loving relationship with Oz (Seth Green) before Tara. But having an actual sapphic character to admire and identify with while I was figuring out my own sexuality was still a huge deal for me at the time.
Ianto Jones – Torchwood
Before I go on to discuss Ianto in Torchwood, I must acknowledge Captain Jack in Doctor Who—without him, neither Ianto nor Torchwood would exist. Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) was introduced in Series 1 of New Who, and was immediately established as a 51st-century man attracted to people of any gender (i.e. bisexual, pansexual, omnisexual; each of these terms have been used to describe him by the actor, writers, and fans). He shared the first kiss between men (with the Doctor no less) in the show, and represented such a normalised openness with being queer like nothing I’d ever seen before. Considering I was only six years old when I saw that on television, as many other people from my generation would have been, it was truly groundbreaking.
When Captain Jack got his own spin-off in the form of Torchwood in 2006, Russell T Davies took the opportunity to expand on and explore sexuality and queerness. Each of the main cast of characters shares at least one same-gender kiss throughout the show. But the character that I strongly identified with when I watched the show a little later as a teenager was Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd).
Initially serving as a “tea boy” in a secretary-type role, Ianto came to the forefront of the show more and more as the series went on. He has a secret girlfriend who was partially converted into a Cyberwoman, revealed near the start of Series 1, but she tragically has to die due to the danger she poses. Once Ianto begins to heal from this, a certain romantic tension forms between him and Jack. Jack officially asks him out on a date in the Series 2 premiere, and they begin a sort of casual relationship. However, Ianto truly feels for Jack, but dies in Series 3 before their relationship becomes properly serious.
Although we have another ‘bury your gays’ issue here that many fans kicked off about, Ianto meant a lot to me as a bi teen. He only explicitly refers to himself as bisexual in one of the Torchwood novels, The Twilight Streets by Gary Russell, as the show avoids a specific label. His rather quiet, sweet, yet sarcastic nature was something I related to a lot, and his relationship with Jack was one I found extremely heart-warming. I also had the pleasure of meeting Gareth David-Lloyd (who has also referred to Ianto as bisexual) at Sci-Fi Scarborough in 2017, which was absolutely lovely.
Charlie Bradbury – Supernatural
For the past few years of my life, I’ve worked hard to ignore my teenage phase of being obsessed with Supernatural. Last year, the show finally ended—I’m gonna do you the favour of not discussing the Destiel discourse because that’s just a Whole Mess. I stopped watching the show after Season 11 (don’t know how I managed to hang on for that long to be honest), so anything past that is pretty much lost on me. What I’m focusing on here is a certain lesbian that pops up in Season 7: Charlie Bradbury (Felicia Day).
When we first meet Charlie, she’s employed by the seasonal Big Bad, corporate Leviathan leader (don’t ask) Dick Roman (James Patrick Stuart). She uses her computer hacking skills to help the Winchesters’ cause, having such an impact that she returns on various occasions to lend her talents. Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) treat her like a sister, and their relationship is very wholesome. Charlie mentions being a lesbian in her first episode, and she has a brief fling with good fairy Gilda (Tiffany Dupont) in Season 8. Tragically, Charlie is killed off in Season 10 in one of the most horrific deaths in the show by a member of the Styne family, a group of characters who are basically Nazis. It’s one of the worst examples of ‘bury your gays’ I’ve ever seen, so I felt awful watching it at the time. Apparently there’s some kind of alternate reality situation in the later seasons that uses the opportunity to bring her back, but it isn’t the same.
Aside from this pretty terrible treatment of her, Charlie was one of the first queer characters I saw on television and who I related to very strongly before realising I was bi. She’s nerdy and big into fandoms like me, and despite being a little timid, she’s brave and proves her intelligence and strength time and time again. Seeing a lesbian character be so openly attracted to women was a big thing for me then! Felicia Day was also the first female crush I had (we do not talk about Scarlett Johansson).
Rosa Diaz – Brooklyn Nine-Nine
This one was a bit later on in my teenage years since the episode came out in 2017, a few months after I started university. By that time, I was pretty comfortable in my sexuality, but I was still getting to know myself and working to ease that slight nervousness I still had when mentioning to someone that I was bi. So it’s no surprise that when Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz), a brilliantly deadpan badass in a show that has brought me a lot of laughs over the years, came out as bisexual, I was extremely emotional.
Before this, Captain Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher) had been an openly gay character since the very first episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He’s still one of my favourite LGBTQ+ characters of all time; yes, his sexuality is an important part of who he is, but it doesn’t define him, he’s still a three-dimensional person. The same goes for Rosa, but she doesn’t come out as bi until Season 5, in the 99th episode. Her colleague and friend Charles Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio) happens to overhear a phone call between her and her girlfriend, so she casually tells him, “I’m dating a woman. I’m bi.”
I think Rosa was the first bisexual character I saw on TV who was overtly labelled as such—low expectations, I know, but it’s astounding how many characters who are attracted to more than one gender never actually use the word ‘bisexual’. Across this episode and the following one which deals with her coming out to her parents and the rest of the squad, the word ‘bi’ or ‘bisexual’ is used a total of 11 times. That was really quite a milestone at the time! Another aspect of the depiction that I loved the most was how Rosa’s coming out isn’t just one over-and-done-with scene, it’s a gradual process. In real life, we don’t just come out once, we have to come out all the time; to friends, family, work colleagues. We get to see all of these situations with Rosa.
In addition to this, Stephanie Beatriz came out as bisexual the year after, and talked about her experiences in such a wonderful way that I strongly connected to. Having a bi actor play a bi character makes the portrayal that much more authentic. I’d also recommend reading Alex Jiménez Nimmo’s article on what Rosa means to her!
These are just a few LGBTQ+ characters out of the ones I grew up with on my TV screen—I’d love to know which queer characters had a positive influence on you growing up! There’s so many more to discuss now, and it truly warms my heart knowing LGBTQ+ kids can see themselves represented more on television today. Happy Pride!