The Academy Awards are over, and they were honestly pretty queer. The Shape of Water, a film featuring a gay character and many queer themes took home the awards for Best Picture and Best Director. A Fantastic Woman—featuring transgender actor Daniela Vega—won Best Foreign Language Film. Call Me by Your Name, another queer narrative, won Best Adapted Screenplay. And last year, Moonlight, the story of a gay black man’s journey through poverty, toxic masculinity, and his sexual identity won Best Picture. Queer narratives are becoming an accepted and regularly occurring part of Hollywood films and media. LGBTQ characters have officially become part of the mainstream.
It’s more then we had when I was a kid, that’s for sure. But an increase in representation doesn't necessarily mean everyone is seeing characters on screen that they're able to identify with. Growing up I would watch Will & Grace and find myself entirely unable to identify with it. I would instead project queer identities onto characters in Francis Ford Coppola's The Outsiders and the X-Men. When I was especially sad I imagined the kind of life I could have if I ran away to 1960s Tulsa, Oklahoma to live in a flop house that was exclusively populated by troubled hunks. I learned more about my identity recontextualizing the characters in the X-Men films and comic books than I did from seeing straight actors play gay in Brokeback Mountain.
Last year, with this idea in mind, I created a show called Queer Film Theory 101 to explore how heteronormative media influenced the identities of LGBTQ writers, comedians, and organizers. I reached out to some of my favorite queer performers about their experience reinterpreting media for the queer gaze.
As told to's have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Jes Tom, Comedian and Writer
I think the first thing that made me feel queer was 2004 movie version of Phantom of the Opera. To me specifically that version of Phantom of the Opera is an unrequited lesbian love story. The character of Meg is the main character and her best friend Christine is hopelessly straight and constantly abused by cis straight men. And it’s sort of about Meg trying to save her from the specter of heterosexuality. I had never been in a relationship and everything I had ever known was being in love with my straight friend or like, girls in my math class. And I really identified with that unrequited experience. I grew up watching Xena: Warrior Princess, and I was always fascinated by her and her relationship with Gabrielle. I didn’t realize until much later that it was sort of a piece of gay media.
Sam Taggart, Comedian
Weirdly, I would say that Mulan was first thing I watched and felt like, “Oh, I can relate to this.” I grew up doing a lot of sports in rural Virginia. I was always trying to “pass” as straight in these really straight male spaces and I remember hiding who I was and trying to butch up my vibe. I know this is really trite but also secretly watched a ton of Sex and the City. I couldn’t talk about it with anyone though! I didn't talk to anyone I grew up with about it. I was very committed to the idea of having two very separate lives. When I realized it was written by a gay person, it made way more sense why I loved it so much. I couldn’t ask for the seasons on DVD because I felt like my secret would be revealed, so I would like stream it online. I didn’t actually come out to my friends until college when I was like, 20, and then my parents when I was like, 24. I was also always a huge fan of sci-fi and fantasy. Samwise Gamgee was an early crush for me. Frodo and Sam’s friendship was so loving. I thought, How do I get a relationship this? The duality of Spider-Man’s life was also a thing. I felt like I was incredible inside but also had to hide parts of myself. Sort of balancing weirdly high confidence and low confidence at the same time.
Sarah Kennedy, Comedian and Writer
It’s so funny but the first thing made me think about queerness was actually Xena. It’s now turned out to be obvious but at the time when I was growing up it was all subtext. It really helped me process feelings that I couldn’t necessarily confront directly. It was so subtle. After Xena ended I was sort of without a show until I started watching Star Trek: Voyager, and I swear during the last season they were amping up this sexual tension-filled relationship between Captain Janeway and Seven of Nine. And I would watch it and be like, “Is everyone seeing this?” There’s so many characters that I identified with growing up. There’s a way you can read Glee where there’s a lot of queerness in Rachel Berry. There was a fandom for a long time rooting for Quinn and Rachel to get together and when you view it that way it makes the character of Rachel so much more interesting and sympathetic. This dynamic sort of translates over to the whole Taylor Swift and Karlie Kloss shippers. I swear Karlie is going to come out any day now.
Jesus Valles, Actor and Activist
Sleeping Beauty was my first queer moment. Maleficent was the first icon for me. And the witch in Snow White, too. When I was young and watching those movies I never gave a shit about the princesses. I was into the evil queens and the powerful women. They were able to summon hell fire and all of this femme and faggy energy. It felt so powerful. And then there was a whole club of us that wanted to be Jasmine but specifically after she was captured by Jafar. Like, when she was trying to seduce him in that outfit and talking about his little beard. Also, Wendy, Casper’s little witch friend. And telenovellas, where the villains were over the top, had the best outfits and the bad people were who you wanted to be. They always had the best lines and the best costumes. They wanted something and they went for it. They fight for it. The first character I ever saw who I knew was gay, you know, where I was like “oh, that's gay” was Niles, the butler from The Nanny and Jeffrey, the butler from Fresh Prince. Butlers are always so gay. They were dragging everyone. I had such a big crush on Jeffrey.
Tommy Pico, Author
A lot of times in heteronormative media, what made me feel queer was identifying with the desires of the female characters. Whether it was Christina Ricci going after the guy in coming-of-age-movie du jour, or Janet Jackson singing "When I Think of You" or the shy nun in Sister Act wanting to sing. In my teens I was drawn to all the pretty girls who throw hands—Eliza Dushku in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Tia Carrere in Wayne's World. Hell, Chun Li in Street Fighter. I always identified with those girls. And, honestly, I think the first gay character I ever saw was Ursula the sea witch. She was so gay. So, so gay.
Carina Magyar, Author and Comedian
It was the Tori Amos album Under the Pink. I think that was the first album that I listened to as a kid where I started to actually understand the lyrics. It opened up feminine sexuality in a way that I had never understood before, and I identified with it so much more than I could with all the male sexuality that was pushed through mainstream radio. That started me on the path of searching for books and films that focused on female sexuality. It filtered my entire media diet for years and years. The thing about film and television [is that] they are much more blunt about heteronormative sexuality. In my position exploring both my sexuality and my gender at the same time, I couldn’t always look past the exploitative nature of how women were sexualized in visual mediums. I was trying to look past both sexual and gender overtones. Music allowed my imagination to take over and allowed more creativity. Usually when I was influenced by a character in film or television it was gothy outsider girls. Poison Ivy, The Craft, any girls that were wearing a lot of dark clothing and makeup. Angst-filled women who got pulled into something bad. Sara Gilbert was who I wanted to be. I wanted some hot Drew Barrymore type to show up and destroy all of the men around me.
Joel Kim Booster, Comedian
This is such a basic-ass 101 answer to this question but unfortunately I have to say the X-Men animated series was definitely the first time I’d seen a queer or othered narrative. I was way too into the drama beyond all the superheroics and I didn’t know why! [I liked] literally any woman who inhabited the action/superhero/science-fiction space. I loved playing video games as women—I loved the mix of feminine with traditionally “masculine” traits like kicking ass. Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager was an early pop culture “beard” for me. I told my family I had a huge crush on Jeri Ryan, but, for me, it was very much about loving and relating to that character—overwhelmingly competent but an outsider trying to break in. Also very hot! Xena and Gabrielle answered a question for me I never even knew I asked, namely how could the [Hercules: The Legendary Journeys] be improved. Also every single Bond woman who ever had a fight scene.