The past decade has seen a massive shift in representation for LGBTQ characters and stories in Hollywood. Gone are the days — and good riddance — when you could count on one hand the number of queer movies or TV shows. These days, it would be unusual for a TV show not not have a queer character, or for a major indie studio to not release at least one queer film. It wasn’t so long ago that LGBTQ viewers had no choice but to rally around “Will & Grace” or “The L Word,” clinging to the few shreds of representation we had. Nowadays, LGBTQ characters abound across genre, studio size, or type of project, with only major blockbusters lagging behind. (Here’s looking at you, Marvel).
But with such an embarrassment of riches, it’s important to single out the projects truly get it. We’re finally approaching a point where queer audiences can afford to be choosy, and the mere existence of a queer character is not a compelling enough reason to watch. Similarly, the abundance of queer characters on all types of projects means there are very few solely LGBTQ shows, like “Pose” or “The L Word: Generation Q.” That’s why it’s fun and a bit more egalitarian to acknowledge the best LGBTQ characters to grace our screens this year, across film and TV.
Here are the best queer characters of 2020:
14. Mae, “Feel Good”
Sporting a stylish short haircut, tasteful tattoos, and an enviable wardrobe of Carhartt, Mae Martin is the kind of flawed dreamboat queer women rarely get to see — or be — on TV. Playing a fictionalized version of herself, the London-based Canadian comedian waltzed onto Netflix with a smart and compelling dark comedy about love and addiction. The six-episode series even features a reliably hilarious turn from Lisa Kudrow as Mae’s clueless mom. Hilariously crafted, thrillingly paced, and brimming with the kind of raw honesty rarely found on TV, “Feel Good” will certainly make you feel, if not necessarily good, then something refreshingly real.
13. Shane, “The Flight Attendant”
Phil Caruso / HBO Max
While we’re still getting to know quippy flight attendant Shane (Griffin Matthews), anyone who sneaks away from a wake to hook up with a cater waiter is an instant queer icon — that’s just making the best of a bad situation. Not to diminish the fact that the addictively fun HBO thriller also features T.R. Knight as an uptight gay dad, but Shane is clearly the fun one. His fashion is always on point, and — as evidenced by his quick dismissal of a desperate phone call in favor of a book and a glass of wine — he has good boundaries, too.
12. Aristiana, “The True Adventures of Wolfboy”
This dark coming-of-age fairytale about a boy suffering from “werewolf syndrome” is a smart little allegory for trans identity, which screenwriter Olivia Dufault absolutely intended. As Paul (Jaeden Martell) runs from his dysphoria, he encounters many eccentric characters, chief among them a wise-beyond-her-years trans girl who practically glows from the power of unabashed self love. Radiating an otherworldly confidence, Aristiana (Sophie Giannamore) is the most important character in Paul’s journey to self-acceptance. She is the rare example of a young trans character standing fully in her power, whose arc is as far from the transition narrative as Paul is from home.
11. Ma Rainey, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
We’ve never seen Viola Davis quite like this. While Annalise Keating, her cutthroat “How to Get Away With Murder” character, got down and dirty at work, her queer romances were mostly egalitarian. Her depiction of 1920s Chicago blues singer Ma Rainey sees Davis letting loose in a whole new way, as she practically manhandles the much younger Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), shooting daggers at anyone who dares to look at her girl. A grand dame in a world that makes Black people fight tooth and nail for every inch of respect, Ma may not be graceful about her desires, but she gets what she wants in the end — even if it’s just a cold Coca-Cola.
10. Ellie Chu, “The Half of It”
Netflix / KC Bailey
Alice Wu’s triumphant return to filmmaking is a queer riff on “Cyrano de Bergerac” that ultimately prioritizes friendship over romance. That’s a refreshing take for any movie, especially in the YA genre, and it sends a poignant message that is much more helpful — and relatable — for most kids than a fairytale ending. The film’s charming protagonist is Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a precocious high schooler who lives with her widower father and keeps to herself at school. When boorish Paul (Daniel Diemer) clumsily enlists her help writing love letters to his crush, the two strike up an unlikely friendship that withstands whatever obstacles that come their way — even liking the same girl.
9. Kirt, “Betty”
Newcomer Nina Moran reprises her memorable role from “Skate Kitchen,” Crystal Moselle’s 2018 film that inspired her six-episode HBO series about a group of girl skaters in New York. Rocking tie dye and backwards hats like it’s 1996, Kirt is the kind of stoner lothario only guys got to play on TV back then. While the show doesn’t reach the heights of the film, Kirt is the comedic standout in an eclectic ensemble cast. Kirt’s unabashed flirtation with any girl that moves is always good for a laugh, and she delivers these choice lines in her jargonistic faded drawl, best applied to lines like lines like: “We can’t just be fighting people’s dads like that.”
8. Ana, “Gentefied”
Based on the popular web series about a Mexican-American family struggling against gentrification in East L.A., Marvin Lemus and Linda Yvette Chávez’s peppy Netflix series translated brilliantly to the half-hour format. Funny, incisive, and oozing with homegrown charm, the bilingual half-hour comedy boldly tackled painful issues with wit and nuance. Orbiting the dueling men at its center was impulsive artist Ana (Karrie Martin), who played family peacekeeper while checking her cousins on their toxic masculinity. Torn between her community and her desire to succeed commercially, Ana’s struggle is all too familiar to many marginalized artists. Luckily, she had her girlfriend Yessika (Julissa Calderon) to call her in, offering tough love and a warm embrace. It’s one of the most realistic queer relationships on TV.
7. Townes, “The Queen’s Gambit”
Phil Bray / Netflix
It’s easy to see how Beth Harmon could so easily be charmed by the dashing chess-player-turned-journalist D.L. Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd). Townes may have broken Beth’s heart, but he stole a few million more once it was revealed that he preferred the company of scantily-clad men to female chess prodigies. And while Beth was intriguing enough to make him consider it (whom amongst us has never been tempted?), she didn’t stand a chance against Roger with his green short shorts and dinner reservations.
6. Nico, “Vida”
The half-hour Latinx dramedy was cut too short when Starz canceled it earlier this year after three seasons, just when creator Tanya Saracho was starting to fully lean into the show’s queer identity. Saracho handily addressed themes of queerness, sexuality, Mexican-American identity, and L.A. gentrification — all imbued with an enticing dose of bruja magic. The series follows sisters Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera), who couldn’t be more different as they attempt to save their family bar after their mother’s death. Waltzing into Season 2 on her motorcycle was swaggering bartender Nico (Roberta Colindrez), who arrived just in time to amp up the sexy queer vibes and sweep Emma off her feet. Colindrez is beloved by queer audiences for turns in Broadway’s “Fun Home,” “The Deuce,” and “I Love Dick,” and LGBTQ viewers will watch anything she is in.
5. Joe and Nicky, “The Old Guard”
Where Marvel was too scared to go, Netflix will boldly sally forth. Not only did “The Old Guard” deliver a badass Charlize Theron doing her “Mad Max: Fury Road” thing, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s smart sci-fi thriller featured the kind of tender and committed gay relationship rarely seen on film — much less an action movie. Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) are two members of the titular Old Guard, a group of assassins who can never die. Not only are they just as fearsome killing machines as the rest of the bunch, Joe and Nicky have stayed true to one another over the many immortal years. And unlike most blockbusters with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nods to inclusion, the couple makes their romance explicit with a grand profession of love, topped off by a passionate kiss.
4. Victor, “Love, Victor”
Based in the same universe as “Love, Simon,” the first studio movie to center on a teenage coming out story, this sweet Hulu series manages to elevate the lily-white source material by shifting its focus to a Colombian-American family. The refreshing magic is thanks to Victor Salazar, played by adorable newcomer Michael Cimino, whose earnest nature and puppy dog eyes could melt even the most jaded queer heart. “Love, Victor” sees the eager teenager exploring his sexuality slowly but surely, dipping his toes into a straight relationship before eventually succumbing to the charms of a shaggy-haired barista. It’s easy to root for Victor as he attempts to navigate familial duty with self-actualization, and Cimino is so warm and charismatic that he oozes teen TV dreamboat. How lucky for all the LGBTQ youth that get to grow up watching him.
3. Walter Mercado, “Mucho Mucho Amor”
Courtesy of Sundance
OK, so we don’t know exactly how Walter Mercado identified. Whether spoken out loud or not, there’s no world in which an astrologer who owns that many capes can’t be read as queer — no matter what his longtime assistant says about their relationship. Though Latinx folks have known his name for decades, the late Puerto Rican icon reached new renown with the release the entertaining and uplifting Netflix documentary, “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado.” The first and most widely televised astrologer in the world, Mercado graced TV screens and radio stations in every Spanish-speaking market for nearly four decades beginning in the 1970s. After disappearing from public view amidst an arduous legal battle over the rights to his name and work, he retreated to a fortress-like villa in San Juan. His outsized personality, dazzling capes, and uplifting message of love earned him the arduous devotion of millions of fans the world over.
2. Eric, “Sex Education”
With his megawatt smile, thunderous laugh, and colorful fashion sense, it’s hard not to fall for Eric Effiong (Ncuti Gatwa). Fiercely loyal to himself and his best friend Otis (Asa Butterfield), Eric is a standout in a show that is jam-packed with uniquely delightful characters. While Otis is the driving force of the heartfelt teen comedy for adults, Eric is its heart and soul. Out and proud from episode one, Eric is so far beyond a hackneyed “gay best friend” archetype; he drives the narrative with his own hopes, dreams, and romances.
“It’s really nice to have a gay character, a black character, be at the forefront of this story on a show like this that has the reach it does on Netflix,” Gatwa told IndieWire earlier this year. “It matters, I hope, that other little black boys round the world can be like — ‘Oh, Eric is like this, and it’s cool.’”
1. Abby, “Work in Progress”
There has never been a queer person on TV that looks like Abby McEnany, and yet every queer person knows at least 10 people who do. “The thing about our show is it’s not all palatable queers,” creator Abby McEnany told IndieWire earlier this year about her subversive semi-autobiographical dark comedy. “For middle America or whatever America, I’m not a palatable queer. Right? I’m this fat, loud, gray-haired, masculine, queer dyke who’s a mess. But the goal of this show is, hopefully — for folks out there that feel isolated — to show that there’s a life out there without shame, and just stick in there.”
In eight half-hour episodes, the Showtime comedy follows the self-identified fat queer dyke as her plans to commit suicide are complicated by an unexpected romance with adorable trans boi Chris (Theo Germaine), who’s 20 years her junior. The developing relationship challenges her to open up about her obsessive compulsive habits, suicidal ideation, self-loathing, and sexual hang-ups. If that doesn’t necessarily sound like the stuff of side-clutching comedy, that’s exactly what makes “Work in Progress” so damn brilliant, and so radical.