This August marks the 25th anniversary of the debut of My So-Called Life, the short-lived but influential teen drama that was also one of the first network shows to have a gay character as a series regular. Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz) faced some of the same adolescent woes as his peers Angela Chase (Claire Danes) and Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer), but as an out teen, he also faced homophobia at home and school. Despite the show’s limited run, Rickie became a beacon for queer teen viewers, especially queer teens of color who’d waited a long time to see themselves on TV.
In the years since My So-Called Life premiered, teen dramas like Dawson’s Creek and Degrassi have featured gay characters, while Buffy The Vampire Slayer gave us one of the most memorable queer adolescent relationships in Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson). But representation remained spotty at best, as the focus remained primarily on cis queer teens and even some of the best shows gave in to the “bury your gays” trope.
In the 25 years since audiences first fell in love with Rickie Cruz, though, TV has made strides in LGBTQ+ representation—there are more queer teens, queer teens of color, trans teens, and nonbinary teens than ever before (which is still significantly fewer than straight or cis roles, but still an improvement!). Here, we highlight some of our favorite LGBTQ+ teens on TV, and the episodes that served as their showcases.
Theo Putnam, Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina: “Chapter Thirteen: The Passion Of Sabrina Spellman” (season one, episode 13)
Even if it remained an enjoyable enough watch throughout, part two of Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina’s first season was plagued with uneven timing, plotting, and character development, and unfortunately no number of incantations could’ve spared Theo Putnam (Lachlan Watson), the series’ charming transgender teen, the same fate. Theo’s sudden interest in joining the basketball team, for example, felt forced and ill-explained, undercutting an important story that we rarely get to see on television. Still, it’s a testament to Watson’s performance that they were able to overcome the show’s larger issues to make Theo’s coming out a highlight of this season’s second half.
“Lupercalia” is the more satisfying episode for Theo’s storyline, but the difficult “The Passion Of Sabrina Spellman” is the better overall watch, as Theo gets plenty of screentime to contend with the immediate obstacles to living his truth—namely, trying to use the locker room that matches his gender expression. Entering the boys’ locker room for the first time, Theo is taunted by teammate Billy and his posse, who lecherously encourage him to “take it all off.” It is a harrowing, well-acted scene in which Watson conveys a heartbreaking blend of rage and humiliation. Returning to the girls’ locker room (a different kind of humiliation), Theo asks Sabrina for a “witchy way” to deal with his bullies, and she gives him a charm rope to trip Billy with. Theo tries braving the boys’ locker room one more time, but when he opens his locker to a downpour of tampons and maxipads, he reaches his breaking point. Literally: He finds Billy and uses the charm to send him tumbling down the stairs, snapping the jock’s leg.
It’s a gruesome ending, one that mirrors Sabrina’s larger storyline about giving into—and getting spooked by—our darkest impulses, but it also works: Even if he is assisted by Sabrina’s over-involvement (who among her mortal friends isn’t?), Theo asserts himself. And Billy, sobered by the accident, soon sees the errors of his ways and accepts Theo for who he is. [Kelsey J. Waite]
Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina season one is available on Netflix
Elena Alvarez, One Day At A Time: “The First Time” (season three, episode 7)
One Day At A Time’s future may be uncertain, but one thing’s for sure—the reboot has provided a nurturing environment for all members of the Alvarez family, including the college-bound intersectional feminist Elena (Isabella Gomez). She’s an overachiever and a ball of nerdy energy, not so much bouncing from cause to cause as accumulating ever more reasons to care about and engage with the world around her. Elena’s coming-out story in season one remains one of the most compelling arcs of the series, and the show has continued its nuanced exploration of queerness and romance in subsequent seasons.
In season two, Elena found her Syd-nificant other, Syd (Sheridan Pierce), a nonbinary teen and fellow activist with exactly zero chill. From their first sweet meeting, this couple has had the support of viewers, many of whom relate to these delightfully dorky teens, including queer teens of color. The third season developed their relationship further, culminating with the incredibly moving episode, “The First Time.” Elena and Syd steal away for the day to have sex with each other for the first time, an event that’s treated with a thoughtfulness that’s been a hallmark of the show. They’re both typically overly earnest, whether they’re cueing up The X-Files theme song to “set the mood” or giving each other enthusiastic consent. Elena gets cold feet, and her hyperverbal pep talk with herself elicits some laughs, but Syd is nothing but understanding. They reassure Elena that they’ll wait until the moment feels right for her, which turns out to be just a few seconds later.
“The First Time” is heartwarming and revolutionary, but the story resonates so well because of all the groundwork the show had already done. And a good deal of that credit goes to Gomez, who brings such verve and charm to the character of Elena.
One Day At A Time seasons 1-3 are available on Netflix
Lionel Higgins, Dear White People: “Chapter III” (season two, episode three)
By the end of Dear White People season one, student reporter Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton) had exposed a damning truth about the fictional Winchester University: “The administration is in bed with bigots!” But his coming-out earlier in the season was just as significant a development, as the erudite journalism major offered other socially awkward, black queer teens some much needed representation. Lionel began navigating his newly revealed queerness along with college life, a journey that’s proven to be immensely relatable and eminently watchable.
Season two of the series deepened that exploration, as Lionel hit it off with Wesley (Rudy Martinez), another hyperverbal Winchester student who has difficulty making small talk at parties. Their relationship hasn’t been strictly defined, though they have sex and clearly want to be together, but that could be Lionel’s response to all the labeling going on in the episode that first introduces Wesley, “Chapter III.” Lionel is trying to figure out what’s happening with Silvio (D.J. Blickenstaff), his prickly prick of a former editor who kissed Lionel in the season-one finale. So he follows Silvio around on Pride Night; while running this gamut of gay gatherings, Lionel is asked by everyone from Troy (Brandon P. Bell) who his “people” are. He himself often wonders where he bests fits. Horton’s frequently hushed delivery is perfect for Lionel’s responses, which regularly end in question marks: “They’re gay. They’re writers. Maybe?”
Like most episodes of Dear White People, “Chapter III” is full of incisive social commentary, including touching on the racism and anti-blackness that exists in marginalized groups. But creator Justin Simien is just as concerned with letting Lionel be a teen, which means not necessarily having all the answers.
Dear White People seasons one and two are available on Netflix
Eric Effiong, Sex Education: “Episode 7” (season one, episode seven)
The raunchy comedy of Laurie Nunn’s Sex Education is made all the more heartfelt by Eric Effiong (Ncuti Gatwa, who should be cast in everything going forward), the gay teen at the center of season one’s most poignant episode. Eric is best friends with Otis (Asa Butterfield), the repressed but not unlikeable high school student turned ersatz sex counselor. The first season tests their friendship, as new crushes and revelations push them apart, but they’re mostly supportive of each other—they even have plans to attend a Hedwig And The Angry Inch show in drag.
Sadly, those plans go awry, and Eric is the victim of a homophobic attack. He rightly calls out Otis for letting him down (repeatedly, at that point), then he appears to inch his way back to the closet by dressing in what’s essentially hetero-guy drag for school the following day. Eric is not down for long, though—in “Episode 7,” he makes a beautiful and powerful statement to his family and his schoolmates. He wrestles with doubt for the first half of the episode, but finds comfort in his church’s message of acceptance. A huge smile on his face, Eric heads home to dress appropriately—meaning, with lots of metallic eyeshadow and a gorgeous headwrap—for the big dance. His father stops him on his way out, but at first it’s just to offer him a ride. Later, he tries to stop Eric from entering the dance in drag, telling his son that he fears for him, to which Eric responds: “Your fear doesn’t help me, Dad. It makes me feel weak.”
“Episode 7” is the most affecting episode of Sex Education yet, smartly subverting clichés about oppressive congregations and narrow-minded immigrant families. As Eric, Gatwa provides a strong emotional center, showing as much courage as compassion. We can’t wait to see what’s in store for him in season two.
Sex Education season one is available on Netflix
Nomi Segal, Grown-ish: “C.R.E.A.M.” (season one, episode five)
Grown-ish has inherited plenty from its parent series, Black-ish’s avoidance of easy answers and tidy conclusions especially. This frees up Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi) and friends to be messy and contradictory in ways that TV characters typically aren’t, but that does feel authentic to a group of kids sorting through their feelings and experiences to assemble an identity. That can lead the show down some ill-advised avenues, like the ongoing arc that finds Zoey’s friend Nomi (Emily Arlook) tumbling toward a romance with a gender studies professor played by L Word alum Kate Moennig—Nomi’s bisexuality made for less hackneyed material in the show’s first season, which often challenged her ostensibly open-minded peers to remember the “B” in “LGBTQ+” “Respect the letter, bitch!” she yells at the date who ditches her at the campus bar because she doesn’t want to be “some bi girl’s experiment.”
But one episode later, it’s Nomi who needs the reminder: She’d been seeing a guy, Dave (Barrett Carnahan), who’s also bi, but dumped him because she had doubts about him being attracted to women as well as men. “That’s not about me being bisexual,” Dave says near the end of “C.R.E.A.M.” “That’s about you, being insecure.” It’s an honest moment, and it’s to Grown-ish’s credit (Arlook’s performance) that it continues to portray this aspect of Nomi’s personality as insecurity and not some clichéd indecision or phase. Season two managed to find a motivation for this, even as it pointed Nomi down the rocky road of student-faculty fraternizing: She needed to come out to her parents.
Grown-ish airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. EST on Freeform; seasons one and two are streaming on Hulu.