37 LGBTQ+ TV stars who have made history
- During Pride Month, take a look back at the LGBTQ+ TV stars who have made history.
- Actually queer actors who play queer characters can especially help with visibility and representation.
- Stars like Laverne Cox, Asia Kate Dillon, and Bowen Yang have had significant firsts in TV history.
“The Real World” star Pedro Zamora was one of the first HIV-positive people on TV, and had the first televised same-sex wedding ceremony with Sean Sasser in 1994.
“The Real World” is a reality TV series that changes its cast seasonally, showing strangers living together as roommates, interacting and forming relationships. The long-running series became an archetype for many reality shows and competitions.
In 1994, “The Real World: San Francisco” featured Pedro Zamora, the first HIV-positive, openly gay person to star on the show. Zamora was open about his status to his roommates and to the show’s audience, bringing awareness and taking a step toward de-stigmatizing the disease.
Prior to the show, in 1993, Zamora met Sean Sasser at the March on Washington for equal rights for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, according to Today. Zamora reconnected with Sasser when he came to San Francisco for the show and they began their relationship, which Sasser allowed to be filmed, although he wasn’t a cast member.
In another first, MTV aired the couple’s commitment ceremony to each other, becoming the first real-life same-sex wedding shown on TV, according to Metro.
Tragically, Zamora died from HIV-related complications just days after his marriage and after the show’s season finished. Sasser, who was also HIV-positive, died in 2013 from lung cancer.
Ellen DeGeneres came out as gay on her sitcom in 1997, making “Ellen” the first prime-time sitcom to have a gay main character.
DeGeneres’ character on the sitcom “Ellen” came out as gay in 1997, making the show the first prime-time sitcom to focus on a gay character. The airing of the episode was in sync with DeGeneres’ real-life announcement of her sexuality, which was shared on an iconic Time magazine cover on April 14, 1997.
“The Puppy Episode” aired on April 30. It caused a stir among conservative organizations and sponsors before it was even broadcast, although it ended up having huge ratings.
However, “Ellen” had parental advisory warnings slapped on the following episodes, and was canceled after its fifth season in 1998. Both DeGeneres and Laura Dern, who guest-starred on “The Puppy Episode” as a woman who had a crush on DeGeneres’ character, couldn’t find work for a couple of years after the episode.
DeGeneres had a revival and new phase of her successful TV career, though, with her popular daytime talk show, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” which ended in 2022 after 19 years.
At the 2020 Golden Globes, DeGeneres received the Carol Burnett Award for Achievement in Television, becoming the first recipient of it after Burnett herself.
Unfortunately, accusations by guests and crew-members in 2020 painted a less-than-kind picture of the host. In a letter to staff in July 2020, DeGeneres said she was “disappointed to learn” that people working for her did not feel happy or respected. Two years later, the show concluded.
Both casts of the “Queer Eye” franchise helped break down stigmas and stereotypes surrounding gay men.
“Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” which originally aired from 2003 to 2007, was groundbreaking because it starred five openly gay men, known as the “Fab Five,” each with very different personalities and skills. The cast included Carson Kressley, Jai Rodriguez, Kyan Douglas, Ted Allen, and Thom Filicia.
The premise of the show was for them to use their expertise (surrounding fashion, grooming culture, and more) to help make over straight men. It helped show that gay and straight men could easily interact and collaborate together.
In 2018, the show was rebooted on Netflix as simply “Queer Eye,” and it became more inclusive, allowing anyone, despite their gender identity or sexuality to get a makeover. A new “Fab Five” was also introduced, which was again groundbreaking because they were more diverse than their predominantly white predecessors.
The highly popular series includes non-binary hairstylist Jonathan Van Ness, and gay industry experts Tan France, Karamo Brown, Antoni Porowski, and Bobby Berk.
Sara Ramirez, an openly bisexual and non-binary actor, has played several groundbreaking LGBTQ+ roles on television.
Ramirez first played orthopedic surgeon Callie Torres on “Grey’s Anatomy” for 10 years. On the fourth season, Ramirez, who was not publicly bisexual yet, convinced creator Shonda Rhimes to make Callie bisexual and explore relationships with women, they told Variety in June 2022.
Callie went on to become the longest continuously running LGBTQ+ character in television history.
After they left “Grey’s” in 2016, Ramirez publicly came out as bisexual and took on the role of Kat Sandoval, a gender nonconforming policy adviser in the political drama “Madam Secretary.”
Then in 2020, Ramirez publicly shared that they were non-binary and use they/them pronouns. The actor was then approached by the makers of “And Just Like That,” the reboot of “Sex and the City,” to play non-binary comedian and podcaster Che Diaz.
Che instantly became one of the most polarizing LGBTQ+ characters on TV for a number of reasons, from simply being a non-femme queer person, being unapologetic about their personality or sexuality, or being a catalyst for the end of Miranda Hobbs’ (Cynthia Nixon) marriage.
Showrunner Michael Patrick King told Variety, “One of my burning passions about season two is Che,”adding, “I want to show the dimension of Che that people didn’t see, for whatever reason — because they were blinded, out of fear or terror.”
In 2007, Candis Cayne was the first openly transgender actress to play a recurring role as a transgender character on prime-time TV.
In 2007, Cayne played the main character’s mistress (who happened to be trans) on ABC’s “Dirty Sexy Money.” She was an LGBTQ+ actress playing an LGBTQ+ character, rather than a cis actor playing a transgender person, which was groundbreaking. It set the landscape for more transgender actors to be hired for meaningful roles.
Cayne didn’t realize the impact of her presence on TV until the 2017 GLAAD Media Awards when a scene of hers was played and the audience erupted in applause.
“That was the first time I realized, ‘Yeah, this is a lot more than me just getting a gig. This is moving our community forward.’ So it was impactful, finally, in that moment,” Cayne told “Today” in 2021.
“The character had heart,” she told Time for its “Women Firsts” project. “The trans community can be more than just a prostitute or a drug addict or killer.”
Rachel Maddow became the first openly gay news anchor to host a prime-time show in 2008.
Maddow was given her own news program, “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC in 2008, becoming the first openly gay person to achieve this. Maddow has been publicly out since college.
She has since become a representative for the LGBTQ+ community in the television space, outside of scripted sitcoms and reality TV.
Time included Maddow in their “Firsts” list. She told the publication, “Being the first always creates a pressure that you don’t want to be the last.”
“It creates a feeling of responsibility that you want to handle the trust that’s been placed in you well,” she added, saying that her performance would dictate whether or not the door stayed open for women and for the LGBTQ+ community.
As of May 2022, Maddow is the highest-rated star on MSNBC, but her show is switching from daily to weekly news coverage, according to CNN.
RuPaul Charles used his stardom to help bring drag culture to the mainstream through his competition series “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
The gay drag queen, singer, model, and TV personality is a huge figure in the LGBTQ+ community. Beyond becoming a star himself, RuPaul has helped shape and create many queer stars through his competition series “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which has aired since 2009.
The series was one-of-a-kind when it premiered, showcasing amateur and working drag queens competing in different challenges like dancing, lip-syncing, designing, and more. RuPaul serves as a head judge on the show, mentoring and critiquing competitors, and frequently shows up in drag himself.
Each season’s contestants and winners have transformed TV and helped “Drag Race” become a wildly popular show. It has even changed the global TV landscape, with several spin-offs and international editions.
In practice, “Drag Race” has become something of a professional sport, with all-stars, bars hosting viewing parties, and real rivalries between queens.
In 2012, Kate McKinnon became the first out lesbian to join the cast of “Saturday Night Live.”
McKinnon became well known for her quirky celebrity impersonations and especially her portrayal of queer characters in skits. She’s played Ellen DeGeneres, an “affluent lesbian,” and many more.
A year after being hired as a featured player on “SNL,” the fan-favorite was promoted to be a full-time cast member, or a repertory player.
While there had been lesbians on the show before, they were not publicly out like McKinnon was while she was on the show.
McKinnon had an outstanding 10-year-run on the show, recently stepping away from the show in May 2022. She was nominated for nine Emmys and won two for her work on “SNL.”
After Stephanie Beatriz came out as bisexual, her character Rosa on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” also came out.
Beatriz played the beloved character Detective Rosa Diaz in all eight seasons of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” from 2013 to 2021. She came out publicly as bisexual in 2016 and fans started picturing her character as bi too, which inspired the writers to add this into Rosa’s story.
In 2017, during season five, Rosa came out to her coworkers and parents, receiving mixed reactions and questions before being supported by everyone. She went on to have several romantic relationships with women throughout the series.
“I’m so proud ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ took that risk and said, ‘Yeah, we want to make one of our core ensemble members come out and come out in this very public way on the show and in her own personal life,'” she told BuzzFeed’s “AM to DM” show in 2019.
Laverne Cox opened doors for transgender actors and was the first-ever transgender Emmy nominee.
Cox is one of the leaders of Hollywood’s transgender community due to her passionate support of transgender representation and activism during her career. She’s best known for her role as inmate Sophie on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black,” which concluded in 2019.
Cox was the first transgender actress to be nominated for an Emmy in 2014, and she banked three nominations throughout the show’s run.
She also executive-produced the TV special “Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word” and won a Daytime Emmy for it in 2015, becoming the first transgender woman to win this award.
In 2016, she played Frank N. Furter (a gender-bending part originally played by cisgender actor Tim Curry in the 1975 film) in the TV remake of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again.”
Cox has also appeared in multiple comedy and drama shows, and was most recently in Netflix’s series “Inventing Anna” in 2022. She also became a red carpet correspondent for E! News in late 2021, taking over for longtime host Giuliana Rancic.
Dan Levy created, wrote and starred in “Schitt’s Creek” as David Rose, a beloved, complex, pansexual character.
Levy co-created and starred in the heartwarming and hilarious Canadian sitcom “Schitt’s Creek” from 2015 to 2020. Levy’s affluent character, David Rose, is pansexual, meaning he’s not necessarily attracted to someone based on their sex, gender, or gender identity.
In the season one episode “Honeymoon,” David alludes to being pansexual through a wine analogy. “I do drink red wine. But I also drink white wine. And I’ve been known to sample the occasional rosé. And a couple summers back, I tried a Merlot that used to be a chardonnay,” he said. “I like the wine and not the label. Does that make sense?”
This explanation simplified pansexuality into something that anyone could understand. In a documentary about the show, “Best Wishes, Warmest Regards,” Levy discussed how fans tell him that they’ve used this analogy to come out to their families, according to Yahoo.
David also starts a relationship with a man, Patrick, who learns that he’s queer through his relationship with David. Their relationship is joyful, heartwarming, comical, and helped normalize gay couples on TV.
In the documentary, the cast read a letter signed by over 1,800 mothers of LGBTQ+ children thanking them for the writing and storylines on the show.
One line read, “We sincerely believe that shows like ‘Schitt’s Creek’ will serve as a catalyst to help change the world into a kinder, safer, more loving place for all LGBTQ people to live,” according to Daily News.
Ian Alexander was the first Asian-American trans actor on TV in 2016, and later portrayed the first trans character in “Star Trek’s” 56-year history.
At 15 years old, Alexander joined Netflix’s sci-fi series “The OA,” which wrapped up in 2019. He played Vietnamese-American transgender teenager Buck.
The show’s creators knew they wanted a transgender Asian-American actor for the role so they used unconventional methods, like posting on chat-rooms, to find the perfect match. This led to eventually finding Alexander, as Insider previously reported.
“There is the side where cisgender actors can’t really accurately portray a character that is trans, because they’ve never experienced gender dysphoria themselves,” Alexander told Them in 2019.
Alexander, who now identifies as transmasculine and uses he/they rolling pronouns, moved on to movies and video games, and accomplished another TV first. He became the first transgender character in “Star Trek” history when he joined the third season of “Star Trek: Discovery” in 2020, playing trans character Gray.
Asia Kate Dillon has had many firsts as a non-binary actor and influenced the way many award shows label their categories.
Dillon became one of the first non-binary actors to be cast in a major TV show when they joined “Orange is the New Black” in 2016. Dillon played white supremacist inmate Brandy Epps for two seasons of the show.
Then they had another first when they were cast as a leading non-binary character, Taylor Mason, on the series “Billions” in 2017. Taylor is an intern-turned-millionaire entrepreneur.
When Showtime asked them if they wanted Taylor to be non-binary, Dillon said yes, telling Forbes in 2022, “I know that visibility and representation save lives.”
They have praised the writing for their character, telling Thrillist in 2022 that the writers don’t make it “a tokenized version of an experience, but actually a fully thought-out, fully lived-in human experience.”
After successfully getting MTV to change their Movie & TV Awards categories to be more gender-neutral in 2017, Dillon called for award shows to end gender-specific categories in 2020. The Gotham Awards complied.
Lena Waithe often writes stories for LGBTQ+ audiences and stars as gay characters.
Waithe, who is openly gay, is a powerhouse executive producer, writer, and actress across many TV projects and films.
In the Netflix dramedy series “Master of None,” Waithe plays Aziz Ansari’s best friend, Denise. In 2017, Waithe wrote the episode “Thanksgiving,” in which her character comes out to her family. She won an Emmy for comedy writing for the episode, becoming the first Black woman to win in the category.
For her acceptance speech, she said, “I love you all and last but certainly not least my LGBTQIA family. I see each and every one of you. The things that make us different, those are our superpowers,” according to Time.
For the third season of “Master of None” in 2021, the focus shifted onto Denise and the complexities of her relationship with her wife, and the decisions around trying to build their family. Waithe also executive-produced the season.
Nicole Maines, a transgender actress, was the first person to play a transgender superhero when she appeared in The CW’s “Supergirl.”
In 2018, Maines became the first transgender superhero on TV when she played reporter Nia Nal, who goes by the name Dreamer, on The CW’s “Supergirl,” starting in season four. She also played her character in a crossover episode of “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.” Her presence was groundbreaking for the trans community.
“Having trans people play trans roles show that we are valid in our identities and we exist,” she told Variety in 2018.
Before her contribution to the superhero universe and as a role model for young people, Maines was also in documentaries about the trans experience.
During a San Diego Comic-Con panel in 2018, she said, “I’ve been doing a lot of auditions lately because a lot of different shows have been really eager to tell the story of transgender people.”
Since “Supergirl” wrapped up in 2021, she began appearing in the Freeform series “Good Trouble” in 2022.
The diverse cast of “Pose” shined a light on the complex situations LGBTQ+ people have gone through throughout history.
“Pose” follows the lives of drag performers and transgender people in the NYC ballroom scene in the ’80s and ’90s. Its cast is predominantly made up of LGBTQ+ actors of color, including Billy Porter, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, Indya Moore, and Dominique Jackson.
The cast became more and more diverse over the course of its three seasons. Each actor and character greatly shaped TV and started conversations about sexuality, sex reassignment surgeries, sex work, and more.
Porter is a gay actor who played gay emcee Pray Tell in the show. In 2019, he became the first openly gay Black man to win outstanding lead actor in a drama for his role in “Pose” at the Emmys.
Trans actress Rodriguez played trans ballroom house mother Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista. She became the first transgender person to win a Golden Globe in 2022, winning for best television actress in a drama series.
Jackson is also a trans woman playing a trans ballroom house mother. She played the role of Elektra Abundance. During the series, her character underwent sex-reassignment surgery in an particularly impactful storyline.
Another lead, Moore, is a non-binary trans actor who played non-binary sex worker Angel. This was Moore’s first acting credit and a significant one for LGBTQ+ representation.
Both versions of Batwoman, Ruby Rose’s Kate Kane and Javicia Leslie’s Ryan Wilder, were groundbreaking examples of representation.
Gender-fluid and lesbian actor Rose, who uses she/they pronouns, previously starred on “Orange Is the New Black” as gender-fluid lesbian inmate Stella Carlin.
Rose then made history when they became the first openly lesbian superhero to lead a network TV show when they were cast in “Batwoman” in 2018.
Rose decided to depart the show after the first season. Rose claimed it was due to poor working conditions, including being told to start working immediately after getting back surgery for an on-set injury. Meanwhile, crew-members of the show claimed Rose was fired because of poor behavior.
Rose was replaced by Javicia Leslie, a Black bisexual actress who became the first Black Batwoman, Ryan Wilder, who was also an out bisexual superhero.
“I feel like there are so many little Javicias, little Black girls who didn’t have voices, little bisexual, bi-curious, lesbian, gay, everything, that just didn’t have voices,” Leslie wrote on Instagram, according to the Daily Mail. “I feel honored to be able to be a voice for my community and the entirety of my community.”
“Batwoman” was canceled in 2022 after three seasons.
Bowen Yang was the first gay Asian-American member on “Saturday Night Live” when he joined the cast in 2019, and the first person ever to be nominated for an Emmy while still a featured player.
In 2019, Yang became the first gay Asian-American member on “SNL.” He instantly became a fan-favorite even as a featured player. He often plays outlandish queer characters with an infectious energy.
Yang has another first under his belt, becoming the first “SNL” featured player to ever be nominated for an Emmy in 2021. He was nominated for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series, but lost to Brett Goldstein for “Ted Lasso.”
Yang was promoted to the main cast after two seasons in 2021.
Hunter Schafer shares a unique trans experience through her character Jules in “Euphoria.”
Schafer’s very first acting credit is a significant one. She is part of the groundbreaking show “Euphoria,” playing one of its leading roles Jules, who is transgender (like Schafer). Jules is caught up in many complex relationships with her high school peers, older men, and even herself.
“There need to be more roles where trans people aren’t just dealing with being trans; they’re being trans while dealing with other issues,” Schafer told Variety in 2019, adding, “We’re so much more complex than just one identity.”
In addition to helping represent the LGBTQ+ community through her acting, Schafer also wrote and co-produced the special episode “F— Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob,” which focused on a conversation between Jules and her therapist.
Schafer told i-D in 2022 that during the therapy session, Jules is “just a 17-year-old trans girl, still figuring out who she is, and debating queerness within her head.”
“This is a really good opportunity to put some s— on TV that has not been on TV as far as like, what’s actually going on in young trans people’s heads,” she added.
In 2019, Demi Burnett and Kristian Haggerty became the first same-sex couple in US “Bachelor” history.
Burnett was both a villain and a fan-favorite on the 23rd season of “The Bachelor” in 2019. Immediately following “The Bachelor,” she joined other alums on the sixth season of “Bachelor in Paradise” that summer, initially pursuing a relationship with Derek Peth.
Then, Burnett came out as bisexual on the show, first to Tayshia Adams and then to Peth.
“I’m like an openly fluid person and I like guys, I like girls,” she told Adams.
She also revealed that she was in a relationship with a woman before coming on the show and expressed feeling pulled in two directions.
Her love interest outside the show, Haggerty, then joined the season. They became a couple and they each proposed to each other at the end of the season. Although Burnett and Haggerty only remained a couple for a few months after that, their presence and LGBTQ+ representation on “Bachelor in Paradise” was momentous for the notoriously hetero-normative franchise.
Elliot Page came out as transgender in 2020, and his character in the third season of “Umbrella Academy” is also set to transition.
Page, best known for his roles in 2007’s “Juno” and “Umbrella Academy,” came out as trans in late 2020.
Page uses he/they rolling pronouns and shared his new identity publicly on Twitter, saying, “I feel lucky to be writing this. To be here. To have arrived at this place in my life.”
Page told Oprah Winfrey in 2021, “With this platform I have, the privilege that I have, and knowing the pain and the difficulties and the struggles I’ve faced in my life, let alone what so many other people are facing, it absolutely felt crucial and important for me to share that.”
Page’s transition came after shooting two seasons of “Umbrella Academy.” Netflix confirmed that Page would remain in the show and the actor revealed that his character Vanya Hargreeves will be transitioning to Viktor Hargreeves in the third season set to release in June 2022.
“The Crown” actress Emma Corrin said playing Princess Diana helped them realize they’re non-binary.
Corrin, who wasn’t openly non-binary when cast for the fourth season of “The Crown” in 2020, shared that playing Princess Diana helped them explore their sexuality. They came out in 2021.
“I feel like Diana helped me explore so many depths of myself and really do a big internal discovery of what I was feeling about everything,” Corrin told The New York Times in 2021.
A queer actor playing an internationally loved cisgender figure is a huge deal for representation, showing LGBTQ+ actors’ versatility and helping break stigmas. When the publication asked about the significance of Corrin’s portrayal of Princess Diana, Corrin said, “I think it’s such a joy.”
Corrin, who shared on social media that they use she/they pronouns and wears a compression binder around their chest, told ITV, “I think visibility is key with these things.”
As “The Crown” progresses its timeline, Corrin won’t be returning for season five — but you can see them next opposite Harry Styles in “My Policeman.”