LGBTQ representation since 'Ellen:' 13 game-changing shows from the last 20 years

This coming Sunday, April 30 will be the 20th anniversary of the historic "The Puppy Episode" of ABC's Ellen, which centered on lead character Ellen Morgan coming out. Series star Ellen DeGeneres came out alongside her character on the cover of the April 14, 1997 edition of Time Magazine. The series made history as the first to feature a lead LGBTQ character coming out. You can thank Ellen for changing the game at

"The Puppy Episode" drew an astounding 42 million viewers and went on to win two Primetime Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award. The series also received the GLAAD Media Award in Outstanding Comedy Series at the 9th Annual GLAAD Media Awards where Ellen DeGeneres was honored with GLAAD's Stephen F. Kolzak Award.

Join GLAAD in celebrating the 20th anniversary of Ellen DeGeneres making history by coming out as gay to audiences worldwide. You can take action in a few ways:

  • Sign your name to Ellen’s thank you card & let her know what her coming out has meant to you
  • Share the card with your friends & family using #ThankYouEllen on social media
  • Follow GLAAD on Twitter and Facebook where we will be highlighting some ways Ellen has changed the game for LGBTQ representation through the week
  • Tune into The Ellen DeGeneres Show on Friday 4/28/2017 for to see the cast of Ellen reunite to commemorate the series’ groundbreaking "The Puppy Episode"
  • Share this post using #ThankYouEllen and tell us some of your favorite LGBTQ TV characters since Ellen came out

Since Ellen, there has been tremendous progress made in LGBTQ representation on television. From teen witches to hardened criminals to regular teens to animated gems, LGBTQ characters on our screens have increased exponentially since 1997. GLAAD's most recent Where We Are on TV report found a record high percentage of LGBTQ series regulars on primetime scripted broadcast series. These characters have paved the way for culture change. Check out just a few of the notable LGBTQ-inclusive series which have changed the game by connecting with audiences worldwide.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003, The WB/UPN)

One of the core characters in this acclaimed teen supernatural show is Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan), a witch and computer whiz who is an integral member of the "Scooby Gang" who fight against vampires, demons, and other dark forces. In the fourth season, Willow starts a relationship with Tara Maclay (Amber Benson), which lasts until the sixth season when Tara is accidentally killed by a stray bullet. Willow's next relationship is with another woman, Kennedy, with whom she shared the first same-sex scene betweem women on primetime broadcast television in the May 2003 episode "Touched." Though the series ended nearly 15 years ago, new audiences are still finding it and connecting with Willow's story, which continued in the canonical comic spinoff beginning in 2007 and which is still ongoing today.

True Life (1998-present, MTV)

MTV’s Emmy-winning documentary series tackles real life issues in each episode as a series of subjects let a camera crew follow their lives. The series has covered a range of LGBTQ experiences with real people being empowered to share their own stories. Unscripted series have a long history of diverse LGBTQ representations, oftentimes giving a voice to our community before LGBTQ characters were regularly included in scripted programming. Audiences across America--and the world even--have gotten to know more about LGBTQ lives since the series' 1998 premiere through episodes including 2004's "I'm Gay and Getting Married." which received a GLAAD Media Award. Other LGBTQ-inclusive episodes have included "Matthew's Murder" about Matthew Shepard, "I'm Coming Out" and "I'm Coming Out 2," "I'm Bisexual," "I'm a Gay Athlete," and more. True Life is still on the air and continues to regularly include LGBTQ people, recent episodes have included the special "#WeAreOrlando" which profiled four survivors of the Pulse shooting and "We Are Transitioning." Check MTV's site to find new episodes.

Dawson's Creek (1998-2003, The WB)

Jack McPhee (Kerr Smith), the new kid and a football star at Capeside High, is introduced in the second season of this teen drama. Jack, who is initially in a relationship with Katie Holmes' character, comes out as gay near the end of that season. Though his father initially doesn't accept him, the two do eventually reconnect and agree to start over. In the season three finale, "True Love," Dawson's Creek aired a kiss between Jack and his longtime crush Ethan (Adam Kaufman), which has been credited as the first "passionate" kiss between two men on primetime broadcast television. Jack continued to have boyfriends and kiss men on the show as the series moved from high school to college. In the series finale, set five years into the future, Jack is raising a child with his partner, Doug Witter (Dylan Neal), who comes out in the finale.Out writer/producer Greg Berlanti (Arrow, Political Animals, Supergirl) co-wrote Jack's coming out episodes, and series creator Kevin Williamson said much of it was based on Berlanti's own experiences.

Will & Grace (1998-2006, NBC)

This Emmy award-winning sitcom about two gay men and two straight women living in New York was the first prime time television show to have an openly gay lead, not to mention two of them. The characters of Will (Eric McCormack) and Jack (Sean Hayes) showed two different perspectives of being gay and young in New York, and both of them were given several romantic interests over the show's eight season run. Will & Grace is often acknowledged as opening the doors for LGBTQ-inclusive series that followed, and was even cited by former Vice President Joe Biden as being hugely impactful on his coming to support marriage equality. In an interview with Meet the Press, he said the show "probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has done so far". Earlier this year, NBC confirmed the return of Will & Grace with an order for a 12-episode ninth season. Star Debra Messing will be honored with GLAAD's Excellence in Media Award at the 28th Annual GLAAD Media Awards in New York next weekend and tickets are available now.

Queer as Folk (2000-2005, Showtime)

Based on the UK series of the same name, the American version of Queer as Folk was the first hour-long drama on American television to exclusively focus on portraying the lives of gay men and women.The series centered on a group of friends in Pittsburgh, five gay men and a lesbian couple, and the ups and downs of their lives, families, and relationships. Queer as Folk's premiere episode scored Showtime its best rating for a series premiere in three years at the time, and it remained among the highest rated series on the network for a majority of its run. The show's success proved that a series with an LGBTQ ensemble could be popular and paved the way for more modern programs that followed with a core cast of LGBTQ characters. Series star Peter Paige (Emmett Honeycutt) continued to break new ground and went on to create the Freeform drama The Fosters, a series following a family led by a lesbian couple and which includes several LGBTQ characters, which was recently renewed for a fifth season.

The Wire (2002-2008, HBO)

Omar Little (Michael K Williams), the notorious and openly gay stick-up man who frequently robbed street-level dealers, was one of the most talked about and beloved characters from this critically acclaimed crime drama about corruption and law enforcement in Baltimore. Omar had several boyfriends throughout the series and his sexuality and relationships were integral to who he was, but the character was also given a story outside of just being 'the gay character.' Omar had a strict moral code despite his line of work, and was known for refusing to harm innocent people or use profanity. The Wire also included Kima Greggs (Sonja Son), an out lesbian detective who throughout the series struggled with off-the-job problems with alcohol and relationships before ultimately arriving at a happier place. These characters are notable for challenging stereotypes both about race and sexuality, and reminded viewers that LGBTQ people exist in all walks of life and in all communities.

The L Word (2004-2009, Showtime)

This series followed a group of queer women friends living in West Hollywood, and explored their friendships, families, and romantic and sexual entanglements. The show was groundbreaking in almost exclusively focusing on lesbian, bisexual, and queer women. At a time when having one lesbian on a television show was rare, this kind of ensemble drama was really one of a kind in showing the different nuances, relationships, and experiences of its core characters. After the finale of the scripted series, Showtime premiered the reality series The Real L Word which followed the lives of a group of queer women in Los Angeles and later Brooklyn from 2010 to 2012. The franchise wrapped with a final tv movie special L Word Mississippi: Hate the Sin which aired in 2014, and received the GLAAD Media Award in Outstanding Documentary at the 26th Annual GLAAD Media Awards.

Grey’s Anatomy (2005-present, ABC)

In season four of the long-running Shonda Rhimes medical drama, orthopedic surgeon Callie Torres began her journey towards coming out as bisexual. Callie, whose series run ended last year after twelve seasons, is still lauded as one of the most well-rounded bisexual characters in entertainment media and we hope to see more bi characters follow in her footsteps. Callie was played by Sara Ramirez, who came out herself as bisexual and queer at a True Colors Fund event last year. Bisexual people, especially women of color, are underrepresented in mainstream media, but Sara brought Callie to life as a multifaceted character who was proud to be bi, a leader in her professional field, and devoted to her friends and family. Grey's Anatomy has featured and continues to include several LGBTQ characters including Callie's ex, Dr. Arizona Robbins,Dr. Leah Murphy, Dr. Eliza Minnick and more. 

Glee (2009-2015, FOX)

This award-winning musical comedy counted several LGBTQ characters throughout its run, including fan favorites Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer), Blaine Anderson (Darren Criss), Santana Lopez (Naya Rivera), Brittany Pierce (Heather Morris), and Unique (Alex Newell). GLAAD's final Network Responibility Index (NRI) found that FOX's 2014-15 season featured the highest percentage of LGBTQ-inclusive original primetime programming hours (45.4%) of any broadcast network tracked since the report began in 2006, thanks in large part to Glee (and FOX's other musical hit series, Empire). This is compared to the inaugural NRI report where only 6% of FOX's total primetime programming was found to be LGBTQ-inclusive. Glee covered several issues faced by real LGBTQ people including bullying, coming out, family acceptance, access to public facilities, coming out as trans at work, and more. Telling these stories helps educate audiences by connecting with them where they are most comfortable - their living rooms - and accelerates acceptance.

Good Luck Charlie (2010-2014, Disney Channel)

In a season four episode of this comedy, the show introduced the first out LGBTQ characters in a series on Disney Channel. In the episode "Down a Tree," Amy and Bob Duncan set up a playdate for their daughter Charlie and one of her new friends, who just happens to have two moms. The couples come to find that they just don't get along when Bob bores one mom with work stories and the other continuously cuts Amy off. The inclusion of a family led by two moms was a historic move in the right direction for the network, which had never before included out gay characters in its series and made-for-TV films. In an interview about the Good Luck Charlie episode, a Disney spokesperson said, "Like all Disney Channel programming, it was developed to be relevant to kids and families around the world and to reflect themes of diversity and inclusiveness." Other Disney and Disney XD shows have since included LGBTQ characters including a same-sex kiss earlier this year on Star Vs. The Forces of Evil.

Orange is the New Black (2013 – present, Netflix)

One of the first Netflix original series, this dramedy set in a women's prison broke ground in more ways than one. Many of the characters on Orange is the New Black fall under the LGBTQ umbrella, but the show was particularly notable for its inclusion of prisoner Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), a trans woman character played by a trans woman. Sophia and fellow Netflix character Nomi (Sense8) are examples of trans characters who are not only defined by being transgender; they get the same level of dramatic storylines as other characters on their respective series and are living their lives beyond the "transition narrative" we have seen so much of before. Orange is the New Black also put Laverne Cox in the national spotlight, and she has become one of the most known transgender advocates and consistenly uses her platform to create dialogue, increase visibility, and draw attention to critical issues facing the trans community. GLAAD presented the Stephen F. Kolzak Award to Cox at the 25th Annual GLAAD Media Awards. Orange is the New Black has been renewed for a fifth, sixth, and seventh season with season five premiering June 9.

Steven Universe (2013 – present, Cartoon Network)

This children's fantasy series was the first animated series to be nominated for a GLAAD Media Award in Outstanding Comedy Series. Steven Universe follows the adventures of Steven, a young boy who is half-Gem and half-human, and his mentors, the "Crystal Gems," three magical superhero aliens, as they work together to save the world from Gems who want to end life on Earth to incubate new Gem beings within the planet. One of the Gems, Garnet, is a literal personification of two female-presenting Gems who fused together after falling in love. Another, Pearl, was deeply in love with Steven's mother, Rose Quartz, and is only now beginning to cope with her grief and attempt to find a new love. All-ages programming has been one of the slowest genres to begin to include LGBTQ characters, but it is incredibly important that they do. These portrayals both help real LGBTQ youth to recognize they aren't alone and that their identity is valid, but also foster understanding and accelerate acceptance in their peer groups creating a safer environment for LGBT Q young people. Steven Universe is including our stories, notably front and center with two queer leads, and the series has become such a hit that it has spawned companion books, games, comics, and toy lines. 

Transparent (2014 – present)

The Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning comedy Transparent tells the story of Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), a transgender woman who comes out to her family later in life, and how the family and those surrounding them process this. The series also includes several other lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters. Besides Maura, all the other transgender characters are played by trans actors, bringing well deserved attention and acclaim to trans actors including Trace Lysette, Alexandra Billings, Alexandra Grey, Hari Nef, Ian Harvie, and more. This has allowed the series to explore an area that we haven't seen often, trans people being able to talk to each other rather than being the one trans character in a story. Trans people are also included off camera on the writing staff (Our Lady J), as directors (Silas Howard), as co-producers (Zackary Drucker, Rhys Ernst), and in many other positions among the cast and crew. Season four will premiere on Amazon later this year, Transparent has received the GLAAD Media Award in Outstanding Comedy Series three times.

All of these shows and many more not listed here helped pave the road for more inclusive television, and it is changing all the time. Freeform's Shadowhunters features a positive and nuanced portrayal of a bisexual man, FOX's Star features a central transgender character played by a trans actor, Empire is exploring the intersections of being black and LGBTQ, MTV's Faking It introduced an intersex character, The Fosters and One Day at a Time exploring the stories of LGBTQ young people, ABC recently premiered the miniseries When We Rise, chronicling some of the history of the LGBTQ community, and those are just a few examples. Progress is constantly ongoing, and there is still a long way to go to ensure the meaningful inclusion of underrepresented communities, but if this is how much can change in just two decades, think of where we could be twenty years from now.

Join GLAAD in celebrating the 20th anniversary of Ellen DeGeneres making history. You can take action in a few ways:

  • Sign your name to Ellen’s thank you card & let her know what her coming out has meant to you
  • Share the card with your friends & family using #ThankYouEllen on social media
  • Follow GLAAD on Twitter and Facebook where we will be highlighting some ways Ellen has changed the game for LGBTQ representation through the week
  • Tune into The Ellen DeGeneres Show on Friday 4/28/2017 for to see the cast of Ellen reunite to commemorate the series’ groundbreaking "The Puppy Episode"
  • Share this post using #ThankYouEllen and tell us some of your favorite LGBTQ TV characters since Ellen came out