Commentary: LGBTQ characters on TV used to keep family at arm’s length. Not anymore

Annie Murphy, left, Noah Reid, Dan Levy and Emily Hampshire in "Schitt's Creek," one of a spate of TV series to integrate queer themes into family comedy or drama.

When it comes to queer stories on TV right now, family is king.

The groundbreaking LGBTQ shows of the ’90s and early 2000s focused not on the nuclear family but on what writer Armistead Maupin called one’s “logical family.” “Sooner or later,” he writes in his memoir, “no matter where in the world we live, we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us.”

Close to three decades since Maupin’s own “Tales of the City” was adapted as a TV miniseries, though, his idea of that kind of “logical family” — the community in San Francisco’s fictional Barbary Lane — has given way to heartwarming stories with a modern twist on the hallowed nuclear family.

In Freeform's "Everything's Gonna Be Okay," series creator Josh Thomas, left, plays a young gay man who takes over the care of his two half-sisters, including Kayla Cromer, right, when their father dies.
(Tony Rivetti / Freeform)

Maupin’s “Tales,” in its various iterations, including its recent Netflix sequel, merely amplified an all-too-common experience for many in the LGBTQ community: a chance to live among fellow queers who aimed to make a life for themselves away from their own families, mostly out of necessity. On TV through the late ’90s and the early 2000s, you saw this quite openly, if not as melodramatically, in shows including “Will & Grace,”Noah’s Arc,” “Queer as Folk” andThe L Word.”

At the center of these ensemble-driven series were powerful friendships that were just as valuable and sometimes more nurturing than any familial ties. “Will & Grace’s” gay male protagonist (played by Eric McCormack) may have had a strained relationship with his father, but he had a roommate and a neighbor he could dependably rely on. “Queer as Folk’s” Michael (Hal Sparks), who had Debbie Novotny (Sharon Gless), a PFLAG-waving mother who unabashedly loved him for who he was, was the exception: Debbie served as a surrogate mom to Michael’s friends who hadn’t found such support in their own homes.

Queer life, those shows suggested, necessarily took place outside the support and strictures of the nuclear family — both a radical political proposition and a sobering reflection of real-life circumstances. At the height of the AIDS crisis, the call for “family values” placed gay men and women outside of society’s idea of what a family could and should look like. Rampant homophobia meant many LGBTQ people had no choice but to live away from the people who raised them, while lack of legal protections for same-sex couples when it came to marriage and adoption made it difficult to replicate those very same values.

Melissa Barrera and Mishel Prada in "Vida."
Melissa Barrera, left, and Mishel Prada in “Vida.”
(Erica Parise / Starz)

But in the last decade, which saw wins for marriage equality at the Supreme Court and an increase in LGBTQ representation on TV, the medium began to bridge this divide. Characters like Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) in Amazon’s “Transparent,” Stef and Lena Adams Foster (Teri Polo and Sherri Saum) in Freeform’s “The Fosters” and, more recently, sisters Lyn and Emma (Melissa Barrera and Mishel Prada) in Starz’s “Vida” have put queerness at the center of heart-tugging family dramas where the issue of navigating one’s choices as a queer person and as a member of one’s family are not mere backstory. They are the story.

On the comedy side, a number of new shows have pushed past the success of the Emmy-winning “Modern Family” — which features a suburban gay couple with an adopted kid — and the failure of Ryan Murphy’s “The New Normal” — which centered on an affluent gay couple eager to have a kid — to establish a new kind of gay family sitcom. Each of these new comedies offers an all-too-tidy version of progress: Here are families wholeheartedly embracing their queer sons.

In the world of “Schitt’s Creek,” David Rose (Dan Levy) finds plenty to nitpick about his eccentric parents but his pansexuality is never a concern for either party; in Comedy Central’s “The Other Two,” Cary Dubek (Drew Tarver) finds the support of his own family embarrassing (and also possibly a career booster) when his younger brother releases the viral hit “My Brother’s Gay and That’s Okay!” And in Josh Thomas’ latest sitcom, Freeform‘s “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay,” his character, who is gay, becomes the legal guardian of his two teenage half-sisters when their dad dies of cancer.

Heléne Yorke and Drew Tarver play the siblings of a YouTube sensation-turned-pop star in "The Other Two."
(Jon Pack / Comedy Central)

These are not stories of the many but of the one. Long gone are the tight-knit visions of gay community that the likes of “Queer as Folk,” “The L Word” and, more recently, “Looking” envisioned. Instead we have narratives about how to live one’s life alongside one’s parents in a dingy small-town motel, one’s newly famous brother in New York City or one’s half-siblings in California. Modeling a new kind of acceptance, these onscreen families would have been unimaginable a few decades ago.

But in their near-myopic focus on the family, they also risk reproducing a hetero-normative ideal that can only imagine queer people as worthy of our time and our sympathy so long as they are our relatives. At an institutional level, nuclear family structures still exclude members of the LGBTQ community at large — which means the “logical family” disappearing from view in favor of the biological one is a double-edged sword, at once progressive and conservative.

Not so in FX’s “Pose,” arguably the most radical revision of the family drama on American television. The series, created by Steven Canals, is set amid the ballroom scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s, a place where queer people of color found comfort in chosen families, in “houses” that served as safe havens for a community under siege. Following a number of characters who had to leave their own homes behind, “Pose” is anchored by both a “mother” and a “father” figure, Mj Rodriguez’s Blanca and Billy Porter’s Pray Tell.

Mj Rodriguez as Blanca, left, Jeremy McClain as Cubby, Dominique Jackson as Elektra and Ryan Jamaal Swain as Damon in “Pose.”
(JoJo Whilden / FX)

But that’s where any simple comparisons to a nuclear family unit end. Instead, “Pose” dreams up an expansive vision of what a queer household can look like, keenly balancing everyone’s personal concerns with broader community-wide issues. There’s a fluidity to how Blanca and her “children” see one another. They’re not just an example of Maupin’s “logical family” ideal but an embodiment of the very communities the ballroom scene depended on. In this, “Pose” is a living reminder of the ways queer people have succeeded not only in retooling old familial frameworks but in creating new ones.

Whether making room for queer characters within well-worn family narratives or reshaping those narratives to make them more inclusive, this ever-growing canon of LGBTQ shows is making sure “family values” are never again seen as independent from an out-and-proud gay life.