The Evolution of LGBTQ Teen Drama Characters
When “Beverly Hills, 90210” introduced its first gay character in the summer of 1991, the show couldn’t actually say he was gay. I know that sounds hard to believe in 2020, but this is where LGBTQ characters on the teen dramas began. The evolution since then has been quite the journey.
Before David Lascher broke out on “Blossom,” he debuted on “Beverly Hills, 90210” as Kyle in episode 2.03, “Summer Storm.” Introduced as classmate from West Beverly, he and Kelly (Jennie Garth) strike up a flirtation. But after he hesitates to take things further, he confesses, “I’ve never slept with a girl before and I don’t know if I want to.” Kelly point-blank asks Kyle if he’s gay, but he demurs. He expresses his confusion and asks her not to tell anyone.
Reflecting on this plot in 2015, “Beverly Hills, 90210” creator Darren Star told Variety, “It was a small storyline, but it was important for me to start that conversation early in the series.” When asked how the network, FOX, reacted, he said:
“It was definitely a hot-button area. It was more ‘talk about it, don’t show it.’ But introducing that idea into the world of high-school students, and talking about a character struggling with his sexuality among characters that people already loved, and seeing people having a positive reaction to him was a great moment.”
I think that’s being a little generous. In actuality, this episode barely scratched the surface of such a topic, and while Kelly is empathetic, she is much less concerned about Kyle’s struggles than she is relieved that his lack of interest in her had nothing to do with her attractiveness. To be fair, though, the matter comes back up later in the season, with Kelly keeping Kyle’s secret even as a jealous Steve (Ian Ziering) suspects something’s going on between them. But again, it was all extremely surface-level stuff.
The next LGBTQ-centric storyline came in episode 4.26, “Blind Spot,” when Steve is uncomfortable upon learning his fraternity president is gay and inadvertently outs him. On the “Beverly Hills 90210 Show” podcast back in May, executive producer Charles Rosin revealed the actor originally cast as the frat prez would not participate in this episode because he didn’t want to be associated with such a storyline “even though there was no display of affection.” The role was recast and I think the episode, which aired in 1994, still resonates today in the way it addresses topics like masculinity and homophobia.
But the following year, a storyline in the season 5 finale makes me cringe. In episodes 5.31 and 5.32, “P.S. I Love You,” after Alison (Sara Melson), with whom Kelly was burned in a fire earlier in the season, confesses her romantic feelings, it leads to mockery among the other characters, who are simultaneously perplexed and humored. Alison is portrayed in such a creepy way that even today fans joke about Kelly having a “lesbian stalker” (and sometimes she’s confused for season’s 6 Tara, who figured into a Single White Female plot). To make matters worse, there is also a storyline in this same finale in which Steve meets a beautiful woman named Elle (played by the cisgender supermodel Monika Schnarre), pursues her, and mid-makeout discovers she’s actually, physically, a guy, and runs away screaming. It’s played for laughs not only then, but again when Elle returns in episode 6.19, “Nancy’s Choice,” and strikes up a flirtation with Chancellor Arnold (Nicholas Pryor), and Clare (Kathleen Robertson) doesn’t believe him when Steve tries to warn her that Elle is transgender (though that word isn’t used). These plot points have aged horribly, but if we’re being honest, they were extremely offensive back when they aired too.
Things aren’t much better in “Crime and Misdemeanors,” episode 8.19, when Brandon (Jason Priestley) and Steve go on what they think is a date with two women interested in them and are surprised to learn the ladies are actually dating each other and had assumed Brandon and Steve were a couple too. The plot is played for laughs in a way that I think wouldn’t be done today, in large part because Steve seems almost grossed out by the idea that it was thought he and Brandon were gay. (Fun fact that is also a weird casting decision: Half of that lesbian couple was played by Josie Davis, who returned in season 10 to play the very straight Camille, David’s girlfriend.) It also feels gimmicky when, in season 9, Steve’s mom Samantha Sanders (Christine Belford) announces she’s gay. Steve is still uncomfortable with homosexuality, tries to push his mother back into the closet, and even emphasizes that he’s adopted.
I would argue things improved in the show’s final season, with episodes 10.08, “Baby You Can Drive My Car,” and 10.09, “Family Tree,” showcasing a storyline in which Dylan (Luke Perry) and his gay friend are violently attacked by bigots and the friend, Andrew (Robb Derringer), is actually fired from his job in a disgusting instance of discrimination. Dylan’s progressive morals are front and center as he stands up for Andrew in the wake of the hate crime and his unjust firing, just as Kelly’s ethics play a similar role later in the season, in episode 10.18, “Eddie Waitkus.” Working for a PR firm, she’s tasked with advocating in favor of a ban on gay-friendly clubs in schools. Viewers see Kelly have a crisis of conscience, with her ultimately refusing to fight for something so horribly wrong.
It was a great sign of growth compared to the Kelly of season 2 (though again, I stress, she was very kind toward Kyle), but contrast all that — very small storylines here and there — with what “Dawson’s Creek” was doing that same year. In 2000, when “Beverly Hills, 90210” was still just dipping its toes into the world of LGBTQ storylines and characters, The WB’s teen drama was featuring an out character who was part of the main ensemble. In fact, the show had actually taken this bold step the year before.
Across episodes 2.14 and 2.15, “To Be or Not To Be… That Is the Question,” in 1999, series regular Kerr Smith phenomenally and emotionally depicted a coming-out storyline, with Jack being forced to come to terms with his sexual orientation after a teacher cruelly makes him read a very personal poem aloud to the class. As rumors spread and girlfriend Joey (Katie Holmes) becomes more and more concerned, Jack also has to deal with his father’s refusal to accept that his son may be gay.
From then on out, the series regularly incorporated plots related to Jack’s sexuality — and made TV history in 2000. Episode 3.22, “The Anti-Prom,” revolves around Jack being prohibited from bringing a guy as his date to prom and, to make matters worse, his love interest, Ethan (Adam Kaufman), realizes Jack’s not quite ready to make the leap from being out to actually being in a same-sex relationship and dumps him. This issue culminates with a groundbreaking kiss in episode 3.23, “True Love.” The season finale’s romantic smooch between Jack and Ethan marked the first time primetime television featured such a “gay kiss.”
Producers Greg Berlanti and Gina Fattore recounted this milestone — and the difficulty they encountered getting the network to give them the green light to even do it — in a 2018 Vanity Fair feature. It got to the point where Berlanti even threatened to quit the show if execs wouldn’t allow them to do the storyline. For the rest of the series, though, viewers saw Jack navigate romantic relationships just like his heterosexual counterparts. Today “Dawson’s Creek” is championed for all of this, and it’s worth mentioning some of the storylines were based on Berlanti and creator Kevin Williamson’s own experiences as gay men, as Williamson revealed to The Hollywood Reporter in an interview timed to the show’s 20th anniversary two years ago. He even admitted, “I believe my greatest point of pride was me, Greg and Julie [Plec] sitting in a room and breaking the coming-out episodes.”
It is a point of pride for Smith too. It should also be noted that his unprecedented onscreen kiss led to a full-circle moment between Jack and his father. More than a year after his dad refused to accept his sexuality, a crying Jack is comforted by his father after that kiss with Ethan doesn’t have the “happily ever after” outcome he was hoping for. The show was able to movingly move from familial rejection to acceptance in a believable way. Looking back in 2015, Smith observed to HuffPost, “Every show has a gay character now. It’s no big deal, and that’s the way that it should be... We’re proud of what we did. We paved the way for the way things are today.”
Perhaps “The O.C.” and “One Tree Hill” didn’t quite get the memo. Both of these teen dramas debuted in 2003 — just months after “Dawson’s Creek” ended with Jack in a loving relationship with Doug (Dylan Neal) and embracing unexpected fatherhood — and both of them dealt with LGBTQ characters in largely disappointing ways. In season one of “The O.C.,” episode 1.12, “The Secret,” Ryan and Luke go from rivals to awkward pals (frenemies?) when the two accidentally stumble across Luke’s dad kissing another man. Ryan ends up helping Luke cope with the situation, which sounds more heartwarming than it actually was.
Then in season 2, an arc in which Mischa Barton’s Marissa embarks on a romance with Olivia Wilde’s Alex also sounds better than it was. Their same-sex coupling was portrayed, especially in promos and the media, as something titillating. Consider the scene where the pair kiss literally behind Marissa mom’s back in episode 2.14, “The Rainy Day Women,” or the scene in that same hour where Seth walks in on a barely dressed Marissa at Alex’s place and realizes they’re hooking up.
Sure, this 2005 storyline did have some emotional beats, particularly in episode 2.16, “The Blaze of Glory,” when Marissa and Alex tearfully break up. But creator Josh Schwartz later admitted, according to Buzzfeed, that the storyline wasn’t driven by a sincere desire to “advanc[e] the perception of bisexual relationships in the 21st century,” but merely to have an amusing plotline in which Seth’s ex-girlfriend ends up dating one of his female friends. Yet in other comments, Schwartz claimed he wanted to take the storyline much further but FOX interfered. He told Vulture in 2007:
“The only thing I’m bummed about that is that they made us write Olivia Wilde off the show much, much sooner than we had planned. I wanted her to stick around. I love Olivia Wilde. I think she’s terrific. I wanted to keep that character on. But they told us, ‘People are worried about this episode and this storyline and blah blah blah.’ So we had to write her out way sooner than we expected, so it just became much more rushed. But I liked the whole idea. I thought it was intriguing, beyond the obvious factor. The other interesting thing is that the first time they kissed, it was actually very romantic and surprising and kind of [a] touching kiss, and they made us cut like three-quarters of it out, so what you got was like this peck, basically. And then you saw the commercials for it, like, ‘Don’t miss the last five seconds for the hottest kiss ever!’ And you’re like, ‘We’re dead.’ Not only did we lose all credibility with the way we were selling it, but what we were told to do was not what we were selling.”
For her part, Wilde looks back on the experience fondly, and has recalled in a number of interviews the feedback she’s received over the years from young women who were positively impacted by her portrayal of Alex. But from my perspective, the show and the network dropped the ball.
Around the very same time, in 2004, “One Tree Hill” did its own short and largely unsatisfying LGBTQ storyline with the character of Anna, played by Daniella Alonso. Somewhat similar to Jack and Joey on “Dawson’s Creek,” Anna was initially introduced as a love interest for Lucas (Chad Michael Murray). In episode 2.09, “The Trick is to Keep Breathing,” a gay joke from her own brother, Felix (Michael Copon), leads Anna to make a derogatory comment to hide her own sexual identity. In the following installment, 2.10’s “Don’t Take Me for Granted,” rumors about Peyton (Hilarie Burton) being a lesbian run rampant, thanks in part to Felix spray-painting “dyke” on her locker. For me, this leads to one of the storyline’s few notable moments: Peyton wanting to teach her classmates that there’s nothing wrong with being gay, wears a shirt painted with “dyke” on it, only to have her principal demand she take it off.
In episode 2.11, “The Heart Brings You Back,” after Lucas breaks up with Anna because of his feelings for ex-girlfriend Brooke (Sophia Bush), she seeks solace with Peyton and impulsively kisses her, believing they were having a moment. Anna is beyond embarrassed for misreading the situation, but Peyton is nothing but supportive.
It ultimately leads to Anna confessing to Lucas that she likes girls and that the reason her family moved to Tree Hill in the first place was because rumors spread about her sexuality at her prior school. The pair continue to discuss her confusion over whether she’s bisexual or gay in episode 2.12, “Between Order and Randomness,” and then a few installments later, in episode 2.15, “Unopened Letter to the World,” Anna has seemingly finally come to terms with her sexual orientation.
To be fair, the second scene above is another impactful moment for the show. So what’s my problem? Well, for starters, this is virtually the only explicitly LGBTQ storyline “One Tree Hill” did in nine seasons (the less we say about Josh in season 7, the better). Furthermore, not long after this episode aired in 2005, Anna and Felix were written out of the series. In an interview with AfterEllen that year, the show’s now-disgraced creator Mark Schwahn asserted it was “my fault” fans didn’t take to Anna’s character because he initially set her up as a romantic roadblock for Lucas and Brooke. He predicted, however, that once the rest of her storyline unfolded, “I think viewers are really going to love Anna in the next couple episodes.” If only that was the case. Fans’ strong dislike of her character is still a subject of chatter on message boards today.
So compared to “Dawson’s Creek,” “The O.C.” and “One Tree Hill” have little to boast about and didn’t do much to evolve LGBTQ characters in the genre. Now what about The CW’s “Gossip Girl”? Well, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The series starts in 2008 with Eric (Connor Paolo) institutionalized following a suicide attempt and, later in the season, after his release, he’s outed in episode 1.16, “All About My Brother,” by Georgina (Michelle Trachtenberg). Mom Lily (Kelly Rutherford) struggles to digest the news while sister Serena (Blake Lively) is genuinely concerned for his well-being.
In season 2, Eric gets a boyfriend, Jonathan (Matt Doyle), and they’re depicted in a number of episodes between 2008 and 2009, which seems great until the pairing gradually becomes less and less important in the series. Eric does get another love interest for seasons 3 and 4, but then he’s essentially written out of the show. Paolo ultimately appears in only 53 episodes of the series out of more than 120. His appearance in the series finale in December 2012 comes after not being seen since the season 4 finale in May 2011.
True, it was reported in 2011 that Paolo had previously declined the opportunity to become a series regular, with the actor telling TVLine, “I’m very happy with my position on the show and I have no interest in changing it.” Later that year, he confirmed his exit from “Gossip Girl” and embarked on a series regular role on “Revenge.” In his absence, the show didn’t provide a new LGBTQ character, despite toying with Chuck’s sexuality and feminine side over the years. In episode 3.06, “Enough About Eve,” he has a same-sex kiss, which is presented as little more than a titillating moment that has its genesis in one of Blair’s many schemes. Also consider that producers’ original intentions were to make Eric the identity of Gossip Girl — in other words, its main LGBTQ character would’ve been the one secretly tormenting everyone. They arguably dodged a bullet by going in a different direction, something the “Pretty Little Liars” folks learned the hard way.
In 2017, executive producer Joshua Safran told Vulture, “When I look back on ‘Gossip Girl,’ the only things I regret were not as much representation for people of color and gay story lines. Those are the two things I think we probably could have delved into more deeply.” Well, now he’s going to get that opportunity. For the upcoming “Gossip Girl” spinoff on HBO Max, Safran — who has said he was the only gay writer on the original series — is promising the new show will have “a lot of queer content,” as he put it last year at the Vulture Festival. He double-downed on Twitter this past September as the series went into production.
That same day, in response to a fan asking “How gay is it going to be?” he vowed, “It is very, very queer.” The following month, another fan tweeted Safran, “how much homoeroticism can i expect from it???????? be honest pls.” He replied, “Well, considering we have many queer characters, a lot?” We’re still waiting on the first trailer, however, and ultimately time will tell whether all this queerness is actually handled well.
Perhaps surprisingly, LGBTQ storylines are something that “90210” on The CW did do fairly well. The show did continue the trope of introducing a character, in this case Teddy (Trevor Donovan), as someone who is believed to be straight and is presented as a love interest for one of the series’ female leads (actually, two of them) before ultimately revealing he’s gay. Donovan joined as a recurring cast member in season 2 in 2009, but it’s not until season 3 in 2010, when he was upgraded to series regular status, that the coming-out storyline happens. Much like Anna on “One Tree Hill,” Teddy tries to hide his sexual identity by hurling a gay slur and even gets into a fistfight over it with his would-be love interest, Ian (Kyle Riabko). (It is just occurring to me now that it’s kind of weird nu90210 had a recurring character with that name given that Ziering starred on the original series… and is quite sensitive about how his name is pronounced. But I digress.) Teddy’s process of coming to terms with his sexual orientation unfolds over a series of episodes, though the reason he ultimately comes out to his friends in 2011’s episode 3.14, “All About a Boy,” is because of an unfortunate blackmail scheme perpetrated by none other than Ian himself.
Fortunately, though, like with Jack on “Dawson’s Creek,” the show continued to feature Teddy in LGBTQ storylines, with episodes focused on his friends’ own periods of adjustment and plots with additional romantic interests. There is even a gay wedding of sorts for Teddy and Shane (Ryan Rottman) in episode 4.08, “Vegas, Maybe?,” in a storyline that also deals with Teddy’s uncle being homophobic (the marriage isn’t official, however). Then season 5 in 2012 involves a thought-provoking storyline in which Teddy contemplates being a sperm donor for Silver (Jessica Stroup) and the matter of parental rights ends up driving a wedge between them. The pair try to mend their friendship in the series’ penultimate episode, 5.21, “Scandal Royale,” in 2013. If there’s anything to criticize, it’s that Teddy and Shane became less and less prominent in the show’s last two seasons, with Donovan no longer a series regular.
To his credit, though, Donovan took his role as a gay man quite seriously, doing a PSA for the “It Gets Better” campaign (though, oddly, all video of it seems to be deleted from the interwebs, as far as I can tell) and never hesitating to discuss Teddy’s journey in interviews. When the news of his impending exit from the series broke, he told TVLine in a statement, “I look back on getting this real-life story line as a blessing. To be able to simultaneously take on a challenging role and bring awareness to a relevant social issue was a win-win for me.” Even in last month’s “ET Presents… 9021OMG! The Cast Tells All,” Donovan shared:
“I got a lot of fans commenting on how my character and the story and the journey changed their life and saved their life or saved their brother’s life or saved their best friend’s life. I can’t tell you how many messages I got on social media from kids who were like, ‘Your character was the reason I came out.’ It challenged me. It made me think and put myself in someone else’s shoes, which is what we do as actors. It was a life-changing experience for me and to know I was part of something that affected so many people in a positive way is huge.”
Considering all of this across the six core teen dramas, I don’t think there's a straight line, no pun intended, connecting the genre’s LGBTQ characters or storylines. There were steps forward and back, but I think the two shows that succeeded the most in this area were “Dawson’s Creek” and “90210.” (Yes, this is me giving nu90210 credit for something.) But I also realize that as a cis, straight woman, it isn’t exactly my place to judge which shows are or aren’t successful on this topic to begin with. And while I used the term “LGBTQ” throughout this essay, it’s clear none of the shows really embraced the “TQ” part (aside from the awful Elle situation on “Beverly Hills, 90210”). I’m looking forward to watching how that changes with the new “Gossip Girl” next year and seeing the evolution of LGBTQ characters on the teen dramas continue.
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