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10 Best LGBTQ+ Shows of the 21st Century

From "Pose" to "Orange is the New Black," here are our picks for the best LGBTQ+ shows of the 21st century.

Episodics from "OITNB" "Sense8" and "Transparent"

“Orange is the New Black,” ‘Sense8,” “Transparent”

Queer representation on the small screen has certainly come a long way over the past two decades, not only in terms of quality but also quantity. Back when I was a baby queer in the early 2000s, “The L Word” was pretty much all I had to see parts of my experience on TV, save for the rare gay subplots of popular teen shows — never forget Marissa’s brief but extremely hot dalliance with Olivia Wilde on “The O.C.” The stereotyped gays of “Sex and the City” and “Will and Grace” were replaced over the years by more fleshed out and nuanced queer characters across the LGBTQ+ spectrum, and, finally, we’ve seen some actually well-written trans characters played by trans performers. Its mostly been in the latter half of the 2010s and early 2020s that we’ve really seen a rise in more dynamic and diverse LGBTQ+ storytelling, with shows hosting largely queer and trans writers rooms (as they always should have), history-making series, and ones that finally put queer and trans folks of color behind the camera and in the showrunner’s seat.

Such a variety of beloved shows thankfully made selecting the best ones of the 21st century a fairly easy task, but one that still comes with some caveats. While the industry has made great progress, there’s tremendous work to still be be done — for one, we need more series with transmasculine and non-binary characters (leads, please and thank you!), shows that represent non-able-bodied folks in the community, more racially diverse casts and writers rooms (on shows that don’t get canceled right away) and generally just more.

It’s also hard to look back on the past couple decades and find many queer shows free of flaws. Queer and trans lives are, obviously, rich with nuance and so multitidinous that any attempt to depict them for mainstream audiences will typically fall short in some capacity. There’s also the fact that many of the excellent shows we have seen with authentic LGBTQ+ narratives have often not gotten the same multi-season commitments that hetero-centric series do from their networks (you’ll sadly find many examples below).

But even so, there is plenty to celebrate from the past 22 years of television. From series that have given us hot queer sex scenes to ones that have depicted painfully poignant yet vital pieces of queer history, and especially the ones that have given us romances we’ll continue swooning over for years, there’s a lot of queer TV to love. Below, in no particular order, are 10 series worth watching.

1. “Veneno”

“Veneno” isn’t just one of the best LGBTQ+ shows, but one of the best damn series of the past few years, period. The Spanish limited series from creators Javier Ambrossi and Javier Calvo chronicles the life and death of one of the most famous trans women in Spain, Cristina Ortiz Rodríguez, better known as “La Veneno,” a sex worker who skyrocketed to superstardom in the ‘90s after appearing on a late-night talk show.

“Veneno” is a show bursting with sizzling energy, bold color, and larger-than-life extravagance — a fitting approach to depict the life of a woman who lived on her own principles, often struggling to just survive. The HBO Max series jumps through time to not only tell Cristina’s life story, but parallels it with the story of Valeria (Lola Rodríguez), a young trans woman and journalist writing a book on Cristina’s life. “Veneno” also does what so few series and films have failed to: casts multiple actors to depict a trans character at various stages of their life and transition. JEDET, Daniela Santiago, and Isabel Torres portray Cristina across three different eras of her life, each giving such moving performances it’s tough to choose a favorite. It’s a shame more people haven’t raved about “Veneno,” a show that should be hailed for its thrilling and sensitive take on both the messy and intimate details of a trans icon’s life.

2. “Work In Progress”

Queers In Crisis Going to Therapy is essentially “Work In Progress”. The short-lived series from Abby McEnany is that underdog show that, despite critical acclaim, not enough people watched (hence why Showtime canceled it after only two excellent seasons), but was a rare gem that found humor in the exhausting nightmare that is just trying to get through life.

Playing a version of herself, McEnany stars as Abby, a “fat queer dyke” who’s struggling with depression, obsessive compulsion, and suicidal ideation. Dark-sounding, but “Work Is Progress” also gets credit as a show that’s consistently made viewers laugh the hardest while also deftly tackling topics around mental health. It unpacks the anxiety of moving through the world as a gender non-comforming person, it understands the exclusionary nature of many queer communities under the LGBTQ umbrella, it gets the impossibility of finding a good therapist, and it portrays a tender relationship between two non-cis people (the other played by Theo Germaine) that is so refreshingly and honestly queer. The fact that another wonderful queer show produced by Lilly Wachowski was cut short too soon will forever remain heartbreaking, but at least we got 18 episodes we can revisit again and again.

Sense8

“Sense8”

Murray Close / Netflix

3. “Sense8”

If there was an award for the Queerest Show of the 21st Century it would undoubtedly go to the wacky, the wild, and the unabashedly horny “Sense8.” This bold sci-fi fever dream from the minds of Lana and Lilly Wachowski and J. Michael Staczynski is the one show that comes to mind when one thinks of what television should look like when it celebrates the multifaceted beauty, and at times struggle, of loving and being loved as a queer person.

Beyond giving us a trio of queer orgies, “Sense8” gave us so many different variations of what being queer can look like. Lito and Hernando’s love story explores the pressures of coming out as a gay celebrity in a hypermasculine industry — and eventually introduces a poly triad with Dani. Nomi and Amanita are the sweet yet fierce lesbian activist couple, with Nomi’s arc alone giving us much-needed representation of a fearless trans woman fighting her oppressors in a sci-fi universe. There’s Kala, Rajan, and Wolfgang’s surprisingly exploration of a sexual poly dynamic.

But beyond all that, “Sense8” at its core is a show about love and the many types of intimacy that bind us together, be it romantic, sexual, and/or emotional. It’s a show that uses the sci-fi notion of a cluster to explore the significance of queer community, chosen family, and untraditional, non-heteronormative forms of connection. It simply doesn’t get queerer than a finale ending with a used rainbow strap on after a slow-motion orgy.

4. “The L Word”

For better or for worse, “The L Word” was the lesbian bible of the 2000s. Ilene Chaiken’s series brought so many elements inherent to lesbian culture to the screen for the first time, and that alone makes it deserving of joining this list. It showcased gay women starting a family, navigating fidelity, embracing desire, stirring up endless drama, U-Hauling, dating their exes and their exes’ exes, and most importantly, sex. “The L Word” was a treasure trove of hot sex scenes in almost every location and dramatic scenario you could ask for, and every queer certainly has their favorite (for this one, CeCe Peniston’s “Finally” will never not trigger joyous memories of Alice and Dana’s long-awaited hookup).

As much as “The L Word” gave the lesbian community a show to call their own, it was also a deeply flawed series in many ways, from its very white, cis, and privileged lens on queer female culture (not all lesbians are bougie skinny white women living in Hollywood!) to its cruel treatment of transmasculine identity and a healthy topping of cringy stereotypes. Thankfully the recent “Generation Q” has made efforts to atone for past sins by featuring a more racially diverse and gender inclusive cast (and writer’s room) that attempts to depict a broader and more authentic queer world. Most queer media of the early 21st Century is imperfect, but “The L Word” has both defined a culture and learned from its mistakes to better represent one.

5. “Pose

“Pose” gifted us so many magnificent firsts. It was the first series to star five trans lead actors, as well as the show that made M.J. Rodriguez the first trans performer to win a Golden Globe. But beyond those historical accolades, “Pose” was also a show that depicted something incredibly rare and authentic on television for the first time: the intimate experience of moving through the world as Black trans women and Black queer HIV-positive men. Over the show’s three seasons we’ve seen so many beautiful and harrowing slices of these realities, from Blanca’s HIV diagnosis to Elektra’s painful backstory to Pray Tell’s heartbreaking death, and so many more moments big and small.

“Pose” has also done what so few series have in acknowledging queer and trans history and those that came before us. Throughout its run the series paid homage to and kept the memories of many real-life women from “Paris is Burning” alive, from episodes that allude to the skeleton in Dorian Corey’s closet, Venus Xtravaganza’s death, and Octavia St. Laurent’s modeling career.

Though “Pose” was never shy when it came to the extreme melodrama, it should be remembered most for its most down-to-earth moments. It was a series that was as eager to showcase the opulence and joy of being seen and loved, as it was unafraid to dive into the more painful parts of surviving as a queer or trans person of color in this country. It was honest and real, and you can’t ask for much more than that.

JoJo Whilden

6. “Orange Is the New Black”

Back in 2013, Jenji Kohan gave us the most fun and deliciously melodramatic show about queer women since “The L Word.” Piper Chapman and Alex Vause’s seasons-long love affair was the initial gay crux of the series, and the type of messy relationship you get a thrill from rooting for like the urge to get back with your toxic ex. But “Orange Is the New Black” also gave us a sea of queer romances across Litchfield, and a ton of queer sex scenes. There was Nicky Nichols and Morello’s romance across the series, Nicky’s endless hookups, Poussey’s unreciprocated love for Taystee, as well as Poussey and Brooke’s sweet romance, and the endlessly horny Big Boo. And of course “Orange” broke ground with Laverne Cox’s Sophia Bursett, a character I’m grateful existed for bringing the reality of incarcerated trans women to the screen, but who, over the course of seven seasons, never got nearly enough screen time.

7. “Transparent”

While the memory of “Transparent” has been tainted by the allegations of sexual harassment experienced by multiple trans women, and the unsavory fact that its trans protagonist was in fact played by a straight cis man ( the same man accused of said harassment), it still remains one of the most groundbreaking shows of its time for trans storytelling. As entertaining as the Pfefferman family drama could be, “Transparent” shined the most when it broke away from their day-to-day lives to spotlight its trans supporting cast.

There was Shea’s (Trace Lysette) “I’m not your adventure” episode, which touched on the difficulties of dating as a trans women, disclosing HIV status, and sex work. Ian Harvie’s Dale hilariously burst the bubble of Ali’s hyper-masc expectations of trans men early in Season 1. Hari Neff’s guest spot in Season 2 brought the 1930s history of Magnus Hirschfeld and the first trans clinic to the screen. And of course there’s every scene-stealing moment from the wonderful Alexandra Billings, whose Davina finally got her own origin story in the fourth season.

Like many shows on this list, “Transparent” certainly wasn’t without its flaws — no one show can fully speak for a community — and we can and should look back to critique its missteps. But at the time it undoubtedly gave mainstream audiences an introduction to various aspects of trans lives with both humor and sensitivity.

8. “Her Story”

Unlike most series on this list, “Her Story” didn’t debut with A-list names, a large production budget, or even on a network. The 2016 Emmy-nominated web series from Jen Richards and Laura Zak was crowdfunded and released straight to YouTube for anyone to watch for free, and six years later it remains one of the very best and most earnest shows about the romantic lives of trans women. It follows Violet (co-creator Richards), a waitress who begins falling for a queer woman (Zak’s queer journalist Allie) while stuck in an abusive relationship with a man, and Angelica Ross’ Paige, a lawyer who we watch navigate the difficulties of dating and disclosing her transness to new partners. In just six episodes, all clocking in around nine minutes, “Her Story” packs in more authentic storytelling about relationships than most major series accomplish in a full season. It’s a gem of a show not enough people have seen, and the only shame is we never got more of it.

9. “Vida” 

Tanya Saracho’s “Vida” suffered the same fate as many excellent queer shows on this list — getting canceled by its network far earlier than it deserved. But its three seasons gave audiences some of the most heartfelt, the most full of life, and the sexiest episodes about Latinx queer women. The dramedy, which came from an all-Latinx writers room, explored gentrification in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights through the eyes of two sisters, the high-strung Emma  and the free-spirited Lyn (Melissa Barrera), who return home after the death of their mother. At its core, “Vida” was a series about family and community, and the complexities that come with confronting old wounds and learning to grow through them. But it also was the rare show that represented Latinx queer women as they beautifully owned their sexuality and desires.

10. “Sex Education”

Yes, I’m aware that technically “Sex Education” isn’t a queer show. But if you were to ask, what’s a show about young people that brazenly tackles sex and relationships with wit and maturity while representing various LGBTQ identities? It’s undoubtedly “Sex Ed,” one of the queerest non-queer shows there is right now.

Ncuti Gatwa’s Eric may fall into the frustrating Netflix gay best friend role, but “Sex Ed” has continued to explore his identity in various ways, from learning to embrace his queerness in his religious home to the messy arc of dating Adam, his former bully who’s learning to reckon with his own internatalized homophobia. There’s Ola discovering her pansexuality and, in season 3, navigating role-playing and communicating sexual desires with Lily. The latest season also introduced two non-binary characters, ​​Dua Saleh’s Cal and Robyn Holdaway’s Layla, and began to broach on the subject of dysphoria and sex as a young non-cis character. There’s even a whole damn episode about anal douching; I mean, how much more queer do you want it?

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