[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “Fresh Off the Boat” Season 4, Episode 10, “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” the first season of Netflix’s “One Day at a Time” and Season 2 of Disney Channel’s “Andi Mack.”]
“What up, girl. You gay?
You play any instruments?
Holla back at me.”
That eloquent haiku, scrawled on a coffee cup, is one of the first, albeit clumsy, attempts by “Fresh Off the Boat” character Nicole (Luna Blaise) to figure out what it means to live as a gay individual. Coming out has been an incremental process for her this season, and in Tuesday’s episode, she’s taking the next step. After developing a crush on a local barista at HotJava, Nicole considers communicating in poetry via paper cup to determine if the feeling is mutual.
Mainstream TV has come a long way since Ellen DeGeneres’ character came out on her self-titled sitcom 20 years ago. And these days, shows like ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” Netflix’s “One Day at a Time,” and Disney Channel’s “Andi Mack” have put youth coming-out stories at the front and center. It’s a trend that GLAAD hopes will continue.
During a panel at the Television Critics Association press tour this past summer, GLAAD Vice President of Programs Zeke Stokes said, “One of the things we’re focused on right now at GLAAD is ensuring inclusive LGBTQ characters and storylines in children’s and family programming. There are as many as 14 million children living in families led by LGBTQ heads of household, and these children and families deserve to see themselves seen.”
Megan Townsend, GLAAD’s Director of Entertainment Research and Analysis, added, “The only place that we are starting to see some positive change, and we hope to see more is queer inclusion in all ages programming. Thanks to shows like ‘Steven Universe,’ ‘Danger & Eggs,’ and an … episode of ‘Doc McStuffins’ on Disney Junior that actually has two lesbian moms that are voiced by out actors, Wanda Sykes and Portia de Rossi.
“And then we hope to see this increased representation in all ages,” she continued. “Programming that we’re seeing right now continue to grow. And that includes both LGBTQ families, but also queer young people. Our most recent accelerated acceptance report found that 20 percent of people 18-34 in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ, and our media should reflect them and be inclusive of them.”
Enter shows like “Fresh Off the Boat.” In its fourth season, the series began to change up Nicole’s character in a way that felt organic. Although she had been the older-girl crush of protagonist Eddie Huang (Hudson Yang) since the pilot, they’ve since settled into an easy friendship. His character is the first one she came out to this season.
“She’s definitely been wondering for a little bit, but we’ve been playing her as that sort of girl next door character that started out as a crush and kind of evolved into Eddie’s friend,” series creator Nahnatchka Khan said in an interview with IndieWire. “What we haven’t been following for her character is her trying to figure out who she is. It’s confusing being a teenager, being 14, 15, and trying to figure it out and when she comes back and lets Eddie in on where she is, I think that’s a kind of end result of a lot of questioning on her part.”
The process of coming out though, is not a cookie-cutter experience. While Nicole tells her friend Eddie, stumbles into informing her stepmom, and then has an ultimate confrontation with her father, not all people, not all shows follow the same trajectory.
“Every coming-out experience is very different,” Liz Owen of PFLAG said. She pointed to Disney Channel’s “Andi Mack,” which in its second season has introduced a queer storyline for its young character Cyrus (Joshua Rush), who had just started dating a girl and enjoyed his first kiss with her, but then found himself crushing on his male friend. He reveals these feelings to his close friend Buffy (Sofia Wylie) in an emotional scene, but does not actually label himself as gay.
“I think that episode was truly, to my mind, the definitive handling of that subject matter for a number of reasons,” Owen said. “First and foremost, it wasn’t just a, ‘Hey, I’m gay,’ it wasn’t that conversation. If you notice, he never defines his sexuality. All he says is, ‘I have a crush on this person.’ And a lot of times, especially what we’re finding with youth is they don’t just come out and label themselves, right? There is an openness as far as gender and sexuality are concerned that we’re finding more and more. And that the labels that have been used in the past don’t necessarily fit the things that they feel or self-identify as.
“I also think from a from a youth-watching perspective, that they saw someone have that conversation with a trusted friend so it wasn’t fraught with, ‘How do I tell an adult?’ or ’What happens if I’m outed at school?’ The truth is, a lot of people, particularly youth, are not remotely safe to come out in any way, and we have to honor that.”
On Netflix’s reboot of “One Day at a Time,” teenage daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez) wonders about her sexuality and first tries dating a boy and then even viewing some porn. She concludes that she’s gay, and comes out first to her mother and eventually her whole family. Each family member has varying reactions to the news. By the end of the season, she wears a stunning white suit for her quinceanera, in lieu of the traditional puffy ballgown in a moment of triumph, but her father, who isn’t comfortable with her sexuality, abandons her before the father-daughter portion of the dance.
“We do see a lot of youth [coming out to friends] but we also see a lot of youth coming out to trusted adults,” Owen noted. “A lot of times it is their parents because the world is changing. There are parts of the country where parents are evolving and are more and more aware. They come to PFLAG not because they’re brokenhearted — we do have families who are there and need time to adjust, but we also have a lot of families and parents coming to us saying, ‘I’m really good with this, but I need to know what to do to help my kid come out.’”
Gomez has seen for herself how important representation is onscreen having heard from fans.
“I’ve gotten a lot of young girls coming up to me and being, like, ‘Because of Elena, I feel normal, and I feel like I can come out,’” Gomez said at TCA this past summer. “But what’s really crazy is getting adults coming up to me and being, like, ‘I wish I would have had Elena Alvarez when I was 15.’ People come to the shows, and they write me letters, and they tell me their coming-out stories. A lot of people tell me that they get their parents to watch this show and then start that conversation, and it’s truly amazing to be a part of someone’s story like that.”
Actress Stephanie Beatriz, whose “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” character Rosa recently came out as bisexual, also provides the voice for a character on the Amazon’s “Danger & Eggs,” the first children’s cartoon to be co-created by an openly transgender person, Shadi Petosky. The show introduces gay characters and issues as a matter of course in its storytelling.
“It’s so critical to me that that show and others like it are introduced to children at an early age,” Beatriz said on the GLAAD panel at TCA. “Not only does ‘Danger & Eggs’ have gay representation — I mean, literally the season finale it’s all the characters at their local Pride parade — [but also] there are non-binary characters on that show. One of the creators of the show is a friend of mine and is trans. I believe in that show so much that I literally got one of the characters tattooed on my arm. To me, that show is introducing ideas to children at a young age in this very gentle way.
“For example, the idea of consent,” she said. “Do you want to be involved in this thing that we’re doing? No? Oh, you get to have a voice and say that. Does the family that you’re around celebrate and love you? No? Then you can choose your own family. That is something that is available to you. If the people in your life are telling you that you’re hateful and wrong and that the Bible is saying that you shouldn’t exist, there’s a way for you to go out in the world and choose the people around you who will love you and support you. That’s a message I don’t ever think I received as a child. And the idea that it’s streaming on Amazon Prime right now for everyone to just show their kids is — I’m gobsmacked at that. I think it’s necessary, and I can only hope that it opens more doors for other shows like it.”