The queer legacy of “Degrassi: Next Class”

The Degrassi franchise has been on television in one format or another since 1979.

Early on in that history, it was clear the show embraced LGBTQ storylines and that each was a product of its time. The latest incarnation of Degrassi is Next Class, and with Netflix not having yet signaled a new season of the show, it could be its last. Whether or not that proves to be the case, most of the show’s current LGBTQ lineup is graduating and won’t be returning.

As fans await the decision from the bosses over at Netflix, we thought now would be a good time to examine Next Class’ queer legacy, as told to us by the show’s creative team and cast.

“Part of the success of our longevity has been that we’ve just always fought to keep abreast with the changing times,” says Linda Schuyler, co-creator and executive producer of the entire Degrassi franchise. “By the time we got to Next Class, we had characters entering junior high who just know they’re gay. They’ve accepted it. And that would never have been a reality way back when it first started.”

And yet there was always something gay about Degrassi.

Really dedicated fans will already know that the show was named after Toronto’s De Grassi Street where Schuyler’s gay best friend, Bruce Mackey, lived. The show’s first episode was shot at Mackey’s home, who would go on to make several appearances on Degrassi. Schuyler describes Mackey, who passed away from cancer in 1997, as someone who pretended to be straight during the week at the school they both worked at, but then was out at gay bars on the weekend.

“It made me so sad to see somebody who had to live duplicitously like that, that it kind of has been right from the very beginning of this show, it’s been a very important mandate for me,” she says of including LGBTQ characters on the show.

Matt Huether, a Degrassi executive producer and writer who’s been with the show since 2007, knows all about the mandate that, according to him, doesn’t even need voicing.

“Degrassi’s legacy attracts a certain kind of writer, and then those writers come in and then every season we start by talking about the story areas we’re excited about and I think because of who those people are, then that leads to the creation of these characters and these storylines,” he says.

So, what resulted with Next Class?

“We wanted to reflect a more Generation Z version of high school life. And so that involved a lot of updated social media presence and tech stuff, but also we just really wanted a more diverse cast of characters in every way, including LGBT, just to reflect the way that young people are today.”

Cue Jamie Bloch, Ana Golja, Lyle Lettau, Eric Osborne and Dalia Yegavian, who play Yael Baron, Zoe Rivas, Tristan Milligan, Miles Hollingsworth III and Rasha Zuabi, respectively.

Lettau, like Golja and Osborne, has been with the show since its previous incarnation, The Next Generation. But unlike his two cast mates, he always knew his character was queer.

“I really liked his confidence and how when he came on the show he was out and proud and there wasn’t ever a storyline that had to explain his sexuality,” says Lettau. “He just was who he was and I always appreciated that about him.”

A fan of the show who had previously auditioned and didn’t land a part, Lettau would find out years later that the folks at Degrassi were so impressed by him that they created the role of Tristan for him.

In Tristan’s earlier days on the show, his struggles with weight loss were a running theme many fans could connect with. Lettau says he wishes Tristan’s very particular hardships as a gay male youth struggling to get that perfect body shone through more, but says he thinks most people got the point.

“When we did touch on it, I was really glad that we did because that’s totally relevant and it’s totally a thing that people of all genders and sexualities feel.”

Later on in Next Class, Tristan would also reveal some insecurity over remaining a virgin well into his time at Degrassi Community School.

“I think it’s important, I think it’s very realistic,” says Lettau. “I think a lot of people focus on age, or they think they get to a certain age and they should’ve done something by now.”

“There is absolutely no age at all, or time, that you are required to do anything sexually.”

But Tristan did eventually lose his virginity to his biggest love on the show, Miles.

“Of the whole time Tristan was on the show, that’s definitely the most real relationship, the most true, that he had,” says Lettau. “There was ups and downs – that’s in every relationship. And there was struggles. I think what made it so true and so strong is it didn’t just end and fizzle out.”

Miles is bisexual and out, and, for his part, Osborne is very aware that out bi male teenagers aren’t something you see on TV every day.

“At first, he wasn’t even really labelling it as anything, so it was mostly just about the way he was feeling, which I thought was an interesting thing and also something that’s maybe not super represented, is kind of like this feeling of, ‘Okay, I’m choosing people,’” says Osborne. “At least that’s what he thought he was doing at the beginning and later on came out officially as bisexual.”

“We’re always trying to reflect high school life and reflect reality,” says Huether, who together with other Degrassi writers has taken inspiration for the show’s bisexual, gender fluid and other LGBTQ characters from speaking with real students. “It just felt like we were getting to a point where that kind of representation was important.”

Now, Miles has made a lot of mistakes during his complicated relationship with Tristan. His sexual relationship with Zoe, one of Tristan’s best friends and later revealed to be gay herself, has certainly left a lot of fans fuming. But the takeaway for many with regards to the Tristan and Zoe friendship is that for several seasons we got to see two gay and lesbian teenagers connecting – the kind of queer friendship many in our community hold most dear.

“They went through the normal everyday struggle of Tristan wanting her to label herself and her not quite wanting to put that label on herself yet, but they just grew together and made it through” says Lettau.

“Tristan and Zoe definitely do have a complex relationship, there’s a lot of push and pull. But everything that they do and say is out of love and out of the fact that they care for one another so much,” says Golja.

Zoe’s other close friendship was not so well-received, at least not for some time.

Golja and fans found out Zoe is gay in the summer movie Don’t Look Back. In it, she falls for Grace Cardinal (played by Nikki Gould). That dynamic continued into the following season, but when Grace ultimately dumped Zoe, backlash followed.

“There’s been a lot of valid criticism of that storyline,” admits Huether.

“There’s a thing that happens between writing and shooting and airing that you can’t always account for,” he explains. “Where we were kind of angling towards was they both get too close for comfort, and for Grace it’s not where she is sexuality-wise, and for Zoe it’s sort of her realization about where she is in some ways.”

“But the thing you can’t account for always is the chemistry, and how exciting it is for the fans.”

“I just think that the underlying romance of the story came through more than was intended, so when it came time to unravel the relationship and have Grace state her feelings and have Zoe be upset, I think the fans were really with Zoe and were really upset, and reasonably so,” he continues. “I think we might have missed an opportunity for a story from Grace’s point of view at the end of that, to hear where she was.”

Huether won’t label Grace, but says it was always the writers’ intention for the two girls to rekindle their friendship, which they eventually did, and to have Zoe embark on a new relationship. In any case, he says there was really no way to go back and revisit the Zoe-Grace romance, as they were already so far ahead in filming by the time fan reaction began to pour in.

“There isn’t really a way to adapt on the fly,” he says. “We were also learning the binge watch model as we were doing it.”

“Moving to Netflix right now has been a very big change for us,” agrees Schuyler, who says the change is “definitely impacting storytelling”. She cites the loss of months of buildup for why fans may have felt especially cheated by the failed romance between Zoe and Grace and others on the show.

“People feel cheated that it went too fast. They didn’t have enough time to stay with the relationship. And that was a real big lesson for us,” she says. “If those episodes had been parsed out with a week between each one of them, I don’t think it would have necessarily felt as rushed or as cheated.”

“That was a very interesting – I guess you can call it a relationship. It’s tough to put a label on it,” adds Golja. “For Zoe, it was she just really felt close to Grace, and they just really connected on a deeper level. And that’s something that happens, that unrequited love.”

“Everything happens for a reason, and I’m glad Zoe went through that relationship and then continued on and found another love.”

Zuabi’s Rasha would be that new love. A Muslim refugee from Syria, she’s still one of few queer Muslims ever shown on fiction TV.

At the time those scripts were being written, Toronto high schools had already begun welcoming Syrian students.

“It was a reality we wanted to reflect,” says Huether. “We were like, ‘Well, the best way that we can show our version of the Syrian refugee crisis is just to say these are just teenagers, they’re just people. Like they need help and they’re coming.’”

Huether says the Degrassi writers were inspired to create the Rasha character specifically after visiting a queer mosque. “We just wanted to put some of that on screen.”

“I think that was like a really important part, is just humanizing this person,” says Yegavian. “She’s a person, she’s coming here and she wants – she’s really excited to see what Canada has to offer.”

As for Zoe and Rasha, Yegavian says she too is a fan of “Zasha”.

“It was really interesting to see their chemistry though because I liked how they related on like a certain level where like Rasha couldn’t really come out to her family and the people she was with, and then Zoe, it was hard for her to do it with her mom too.”

If the character of Rasha was a big move for Degrassi, Yael would prove to be a major first in the show’s long history.

“We knew right from the start that Yael was going to have a struggle with gender in one way or another. And because in the first couple of seasons they aren’t featured that much, when we decided in a concrete way we wanted to do the genderqueer story, we really set out to do it with Yael,” says Huether.

“I think for me it was, the main thing was just educating me,” says Bloch about playing Yael. “I had to do a lot of research just to make sure I was doing the character justice and making sure that everything that I portrayed and the way that I played Yael was accurate to a real gender fluid person who’s going through that kind of identity struggle.”

“It opened my eyes to a whole world of identity and gender identity that I just really didn’t know exists, because as a cis straight girl it’s never been something I’ve questioned or researched because I’ve never felt the need to in my personal life.”

“It’s been really nice to see the response.”

Yael hasn’t graduated yet, so should the show return, Bloch could be back. So could Yael’s gay friend, Vijay (Dante Scott), who’s got a lot more to show for himself on the show.

“Vijay was a character, a new character, who hasn’t gotten into the spotlight yet,” says Huether. “We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg with Vijay’s story.”

It’s reasonable to expect new, bold storylines from Degrassi. For instance, we’d be remiss to not mention the polyamorous relationship that developed on Next Class between Zig (Ricardo Hoyos), Esme (Chelsea Clark) and Frankie (Sara Waisglass).

“Ten years ago I don’t think we would have even thought about telling that story,” says Schuyler.

However, Huether concedes: “I think there’s a version of a polyamorous story that still could be told on television in a more long-term, complicated way.”

“I don’t think it’s the definitive polyamory storyline.”

But he also says he doesn’t want to discount whatever romantic or sexual feelings may have existed between Esme and Frankie, or how they’ll see themselves on the spectrum in the future. “It was circumstantial and then kind of ends so quickly that they don’t really get to explore those feelings. But I would say at the very least they’re open to them.”

For now, we wait on all that and more.

“We are all wondering when Netflix is going to make a decision,” says Schuyler. “We have scripts developed and the creative process is continuing on, and we’re at the mercy of their timeline.”

“I think they’re doing a lot of internal thinking about how they’re going to move forward. That’s the sense we get from them,” she continues. “We’re certainly very optimistic right now that we will continue our storytelling with Netflix.”

It’s possible, however, that, even if Degrassi stays with Netflix, the Next Class incarnation could be over all the same. If that’s the case, its showrunners say they’re proud of the queer legacy it leaves behind.

“I think that all the different incarnations of Degrassi are of a time, so taken in the moment in which they were created and for which they were intended, I think they’re all about equal,” says Huether. “If there’s an LGBTQ legacy, it’s just that more people and more young people were able to see themselves on screen.”

Finishes Schuyler: “I continue to be very, very proud of our show. And I’m very proud of the fact that the writers in Next Class have completely put their arms around, embraced the necessity to keep very strong LGBT storylines alive, and find the new ones that are appropriate for the times.”

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Seasons 1-4 of “Degrassi: Next Class” are currently available to watch on Netflix.


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