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TV in 2017 let queer women come out on their own terms

From gay teens to bisexual detectives, this year in TV was a good one for queer women.

Denise (Lena Waithe), Elena (Isabella Gomez), and Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz) all got beautiful coming out stories this year.
Netflix/Fox

At first, I thought I had imagined them, or maybe even willed them into existence. In 2017, the year after I came out as “not straight,” television suddenly seemed to be teeming with compassionate, realistically messy coming-out stories — many of them anchored by women.

Watching so many women, in everything from family sitcoms to rom-coms to superhero dramas, grapple with their sexuality and assert themselves as “not straight” was as jarring as it was exciting. Some of these characters always knew that what they felt didn’t quite align with the norms they had been sold, and focused their energies on finding a space that would understand and accept that. Others came to terms with their sexuality in real time, their hesitation laced with the thrill of becoming more fully alive.

But it’s not just my imagination: Exactly 20 years after Ellen DeGeneres risked everything by having her sitcom character come out as a lesbian, queer women are more visible and nuanced on TV now than ever before.

Since there are too many examples for me to go through individually — which, to be clear, is an awesome problem to have — I’ve picked four storylines I saw and loved on television this year that aced their depictions of women coming out. Crucially, all these characters were shaped by queer women writers and actors who have lived — and continue to live — these stories. With any luck, they will in turn inspire more creators to treat queer women characters as three-dimensional people rather than objects of curiosity.

One Day at a Time and Fresh Off the Boat treated its queer teens with humor and heart to spare

This year in family sitcoms was bookended by two high school girls coming to terms with their sexuality. Coming-out stories on TV are most often told from a high school perspective, but these two in particular outshone many of their peers by delving deeper than any single “I’m gay” moment, instead spotlighting the ripple effects the girls’ honesty has on both themselves and their families.

In October, the fourth season of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat threw its protagonist Eddie (Hudson Yang) for a serious loop by having his longtime crush Nicole (Luna Blaise) confide in him that she’s gay. Eddie asks exactly the kind of questions that could be expected of a clueless teen boy, but eventually he comes to enjoy their new, more honest friendship. And since Nicole is a recurring character, her coming out story didn’t begin and end in the janky Saturn where she first told Eddie she’s gay. Instead, Fresh Off the Boat — created by Nahnatchka Khan, who is openly gay — returned to Nicole throughout the rest of the season as she came out to those she loves, allowing for moments both touching and uncomfortably tone-deaf along the way.

In one of the season’s best episodes (“A League of Her Own”), Nicole runs into her stepmother in a lesbian bar. Realizing there’s no easy way out of this interaction without telling the truth, she says, “I need to tell you something” — and immediately sends the bar into collective overdrive as the gay women around her prepare for either the worst or best outcome, depending on her stepmother’s reaction. Happily, her coming out goes smoothly, and the bar gets to blast some celebratory Melissa Etheridge from the jukebox. Her stepmother’s instant acceptance doesn’t hold true for everyone Nicole tells — her father freezes, while Eddie’s mother Jessica has her mind blown by the apparently stunning revelation that women can be gay, too — but the show always treats these moments with care and warmth.

I was so thrilled to see Nicole’s story unfold — and a little surprised, if only because it wasn’t the first nuanced coming out story I’d seen about a teen girl on a sitcom this year.

Back in January, Netflix’s new reboot of Norman Lear’s One Day at a Time had its teenage daughter character realize over the course of the season that she’s gay. Though her grandmother (Rita Moreno) once teased her about being a little too close to her best friend, that’s not what spurs Elena (Isabella Gomez) to come to this conclusion. Instead, she feels out the possibility herself, confiding in her little brother that she might like girls, before trying a relationship with a cool boy who thinks she’s cute, before ultimately confirming that, yes, she likes girls a lot.

As the truth trickles out in slapstick fits and starts (as befits sitcom tradition), the show is careful to stay rooted in both compassion and realism. Her grandmother is initially wary, insisting that she is a “religious woman,” before remembering that the Pope said “we are all God’s children,” and promptly making her peace with it. And toward the end of the season, Elena’s typically absent father returns — but once she tells him the truth, he recoils.

Elena (Isabella Gomez) and her mother, Penelope (Justina Machado), have a lovely, realistic relationship.
Netflix

The most interesting reaction, however, comes from Elena’s mother, Penelope (played by the endlessly great Justina Machado), who surprises even herself with her reaction. Even as she insists that she’s cool with Elena’s sexuality, she ends up admitting to a stranger in a gay bar — where she goes to test the waters of acceptance — that it’s “not what I pictured.” But when the moment calls for her support, Penelope is there for her daughter with a reassuring, completely sincere hug.

As per the One Day at a Time team, Elena’s story was inspired by input from Michelle Badillo and Becky Mann, two of the show’s two queer women writers, and co-creator Mike Royce, whose daughter had recently come out to him. “I became aware of this happening in her life at the same time as we were writing it,” Royce told Vulture. “The things the writers were talking about, their own experiences, made me understand things I was seeing in my own life with her.”

In other words: Elena’s story came from a personal, lived-in place — and it showed in the nuance of the storytelling. But what season two (due out in January 2018) will have to contend with is something that not many other shows make the room to do after having a character come out: the question of what happens next.

Master of None and Brooklyn Nine-Nine showed how coming out is a lifelong process

Denise (Lena Waithe) comes out to her mother (Angela Bassett).
Netflix

For as many high school coming out stories as there have been on television, there have been far fewer that explore what happens when someone comes out as an adult, or even sticks around long enough to show what happens next. But both Netflix’s Master of None and Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine made a point of doing so this year in standout episodes that let queer women drive their own narrative.

Master of None’s “Thanksgiving” — which follows several alternately fraught and joyful Thanksgiving gatherings — instantly made an impression when the series released its second season in May. As with many of the best Master of None episodes, it tells a one-off story in a structurally ambitious way, while keeping humanity center stage. But this one told the story of how Denise (played by Lena Waithe, who is openly gay and co-wrote this episode) came to both understand herself and convey her sexuality to her family over the course of her life.

We see Denise as a kid wrinkling her nose at the dresses she keeps getting forced into, as a teen gazing longingly at a poster of Jennifer Aniston circa Friends after coming out to her best friend, and then as an adult, steeling herself to reveal the truth to her intimidating mother, Catherine (the one and only Angela Bassett).

This coming out scene is as beautifully done as it is devastating. Catherine hears her daughter say she’s gay, but she refuses to understand it until Denise forces her to, staying firm even as her mother weeps. “I just don’t want life to be hard for you,” Catherine finally says through tears, and though Denise knows it’s coming from a place of love, she winces, anyway.

But the crucial component that makes “Thanksgiving” stand out is that this scene isn’t where the episode ends. Instead, it dives right back into another Thanksgiving, and another, and another, in which Denise tries to make her family reconcile with the fact that she’s a lesbian. As she tells Aziz Ansari’s Dev with a sigh, it’s not like her mother disowned her, but it’s not like she immediately accepted her, either. So it takes time for Catherine to stop eyeing her daughter’s love life with wary confusion, but as the episode shows us, she does get there, eventually.

It’s the kind of conflicted, overarching story that queer women rarely get on TV, not to mention a crucial one to understand what it means to be openly queer. As Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya wrote at the A.V. Club, “Coming out isn’t a straightforward, linear process. It’s something we do all the time.”

Portraying this quandary is exactly how Brooklyn Nine-Nine slid into the pantheon of all-time great coming out stories right under the buzzer this year. In “99” and “Game Night” — both of which aired earlier this month — the show revealed that take-no-shit detective Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz) is bisexual. In “99,” Rosa reluctantly comes out to one co-worker who overhears her talking to her new girlfriend; in “Game Night,” she takes a deep breath and comes out to everyone, including her skeptical parents (Olga Merediz and Danny Trejo).

Rosa’s sexuality was apparently considered for a long while in the writers’ room, mostly because Beatriz herself recently came out publicly as bisexual and regularly bats down the pernicious myths that come with the territory. She knew not just how this story could be better told, but how this story feels.

In coming out as bisexual, Rosa faces a different set of questions and problems than she would have if she had come out as gay. Her parents try to brush off her honesty by dismissing bisexuality as fictional, and then rationalize it away by figuring that there’s still a good chance she’ll marry a man and have the picture-perfect heterosexual life they always pictured for her.

But when Rosa continues to grits her teeth and push back, even in the midst of what’s supposed to be a friendly game night, it doesn’t end in a family group hug. Her father acknowledges that their response was lacking in the kind of compassion Rosa had wanted from them, but, as he puts it with a resigned shrug that makes his daughter reel back in dismayed shock, her “mother needs more time.”

Still, the episode manages to end on a happier note without sacrificing plausibility, as Rosa’s co-workers rally to support her by staging a “family game night” of their own. It’s a quick coda, but it speaks volumes to an experience many queer people know well, of finding a “chosen family” who will accept us for who we are. It’s the kind of detail that simply wouldn’t be onscreen if queer voices behind the scenes hadn’t gotten the chance to be heard — the kind of detail that makes stories like Rosa’s, Denise’s, Nicole’s, and Elena’s feel realistically, beautifully human.