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What Does Queer Gen Z Want on TV? Everything Under the Rainbow

· Updated on January 18, 2024

Two teenage boys sit together against a wall, the faint sounds of a party thrumming in the distance. Their hands drift closer and closer together.

“Would you kiss someone who wasn’t a girl?” one asks.

“I don’t know,” the other replies. Their fingers touch, and animated sparks literally fly.

“Would you kiss me?” the first asks.

The other gulps. “Yeah.”

Slowly, the two lean toward one another. Finally, their lips touch. The music swells. The world swirls with pastel illustrations. It’s magic. It’s queer teenage love.

When Heartstopper premiered on Netflix last April, this moment took pop culture by storm. The show, adapted from the graphic novel series by Alice Oseman, tells the story of Nick and Charlie, two teen boys falling in love in the U.K. Heartstopper garnered praise from viewers for its positive, innocent portrayal of teenage queerness — but it was also criticized for being unrealistic in its unapologetic optimism. 

Naysayers wondered what the point is of a sugar-coated portrayal of queerness in a world growing increasingly hostile to queer youth. Lawmakers across America are considering some 300 anti-gay bills at the state level. From the persecution of trans youth in Texas, to the banning of drag performance in Tennessee, to the infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill and its repercussions in Florida, the future can seem bleak for queer kids, especially in the United States. 

Queer portrayals can work to reflect that reality, showing young audiences how to deal with the real-world woes they’re likely to face. Or they can serve as an escape, letting viewers imagine a better world than the one they actually live in. 

Queer representation has reached a point where, finally, viewers have options. In the 2022–2023 cable season, 10.6% of recurring characters on TV were LGBTQ+ — a slight decrease from the previous season’s record high of 11.9% but still a vast improvement from the early days of queer teens on TV in the ’90s, when sidekick Enrique “Rickie” on My So-Called Life was the only queer teenager on cable, and even then, only for a single season. It took more than another decade for us to get Glee, a show many millennials and Gen Zers cite as among the first mainstream shows to not only show multiple queer characters but show them as happy and thriving in relationships of their own. 

The cast of Glee, including Chris Colfer, Amber Riley, Lea Michele, Jenna Ushkowitz, Cory Monteith and Kevin McHale. Photo by FOX Image Collection via Getty Images
The cast of ‘Glee,’ including Chris Colfer, Amber Riley, Lea Michele, Jenna Ushkowitz, Cory Monteith and Kevin McHale. Photo by FOX Image Collection via Getty Images

Queer teens are no longer left out of mainstream media and no longer tokenized when they do appear. Instead, queer kids are everywhere on TV: in cutesy romances like Heartstopper, in high school dramedies like Never Have I Ever, and in indulgent worlds of sex and drugs like Euphoria. Each portrayal brings with it a new take on the experience of queer teens and another chance for them to see themselves represented on screen — or to see their stories misconstrued.

To let queer Gen Z speak for itself, INTO hosted a virtual roundtable with queer Gen Zers from across America. We invited them to share what queer media means the most to them, and to react to queer teenage characters from modern TV that run the gamut of representation, from perfectly palatable to controversially complex.

INTO Gen Z roundtable participants Alex Chun, Olive Benito, and Rose Fyffe
INTO Gen Z roundtable participants Alex Chun, Olive Benito, and Rose Fyffe. Photos provided, design by Matthew Wexler

Their perspectives are put in conversation with queer creatives like Rasheed Newson (executive producer on Bel-Air), Lee Rodriguez (Fabiola Torres on Never Have I Ever), filmmaker Georden West (Playland), and author Tess Sharpe (6 Times We Almost Kissed [And One Time We Didn’t]), who are helping to reshape what queer representation means in modern-day media.

Heartstopper: Skip the Suffering

Beyond the central romance between Nick and Charlie (charmingly portrayed by breakout stars Kit Connor and Joe Locke), Heartstopper features a plethora of queer characters. There’s Elle (Yasmin Finney), a trans classmate who finds acceptance after transferring to an all-girls school; girlfriends Tara and Darcy, who come out as lesbians to their classmates; and Isaac, a shy, quiet character who may soon explore his own asexual arc (stay tuned for Season Two).

Yasmin Finney in a scene from Heartstopper
Yasmin Finney in ‘Heartstopper.’ Photo courtesy of Netflix

And then there’s the supportive community around them: self-proclaimed “token straight friend” Tao, Charlie’s sister Tori, and Nick’s mom, played by Olivia Colman. In the Season One finale, Nick comes out to her as bisexual, and it goes as perfectly as a queer kid could imagine: His mom wraps him up in a massive hug and says, “Thank you for telling me. I’m sorry if I ever made you feel like you couldn’t tell me that.” Cue the waterworks.

Of course, Heartstopper’s characters face some hardships along the way, including bullies, miscommunications, and near breakups. But by the first season’s end, every character is in a good place. Heartstopper rejects the idea of portraying queer suffering. “Let the kids be happy!” it seems to shout with every burst of adorable illustrations.

It’s that idealism that so many critics and viewers have fallen in love with. One of those viewers is 18-year-old Rose Fyffe, a Heartstopper fan from Orlando, Florida.

“I absolutely adore that show,” Fyffe tells INTO. “To be honest, I don’t really watch so much real-world stuff. Because I just like to escape from that, and that’s what I like to use media and all that for.”

Escapism like that provided by Heartstopper is an important function of queer media, says Fyffe. Her home state of Florida “is a mess right now,” she says: Proposed expansions to the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which already prevents discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms up to third grade, would extend that limit through eighth grade, dramatically expanding Florida’s censorship. The expansions would also require all public schools to follow a policy that “a person’s sex is an immutable biological trait and that it is false to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to such person’s sex,” preventing students from using pronouns different from those they were assigned at birth and potentially preventing all discussions of transness. 

“The LGBTQ+ community faces a lot every day: A fear of homophobia, our community is being attacked, berated,” Fyffe explains. That’s why escapism is key: “It’s just being able to go somewhere just to run away from all that for a while, to see queer people on the screen happy.”

Kit Conner and Joe Locke lay on the beach in a scene from Heartstopper
Kit Conner, left, and Joe Locke in ‘Heartstopper.’ Photo courtesy of Netflix

Nick and Charlie’s first kiss is a perfect example of how idealistic shows like Heartstopper can be inspirational for young queer viewers, ​​says Fyffe.

“When I first reacted to that scene, it definitely made me feel like I’m not alone. There’s people out there like me who understand that experience,” she says. “It makes me feel so happy. It’s like, realistic or not, it’s just a very magical scene.”

Eighteen-year-old Olive Benito, another roundtable participant from Northampton, Massachusetts, says hopeful portrayals of queerness like Heartstopper’s helped to change her general outlook on queerness.

It’s important to show people that there can be a happy ending because sometimes queer youth don’t have any actual queer people that they know in real life. Even if those shows are cheesy to some people, I think that we need all sorts of queer media — especially cheesy love stories where everybody ends up happy.

Olive Benito, INTO Gen Z roundtable participant

“When I was younger, I thought that being queer was a sad thing and nothing good would come out of it, and I have to try really hard not to be it, because there’s no cute, optimistic thing that can happen from it,” Benito tells INTO

That’s where shows like Heartstopper come in: They can show the possibility for queer happiness in a media landscape historically flooded with queer suffering.

“It’s important to show people that there can be a happy ending because sometimes queer youth don’t have any actual queer people that they know in real life, and what they’re getting is just from media. And if media is all grim, that’s not really helpful,” Benito says. “Even if those shows are cheesy to some people, I think that we need all sorts of queer media — especially cheesy love stories where everybody ends up happy.”

Those “cheesy love stories” have been on an upswing. Love, Simon, the 2018 film and first movie from a major Hollywood studio to focus on a queer teenage romance, and its 2020 television spinoff, Love, Victor, helped popularize the gay rom-com for a mainstream audience. And in other forms of media, like YA novels, queer teen romances like The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper, 6 Times We Almost Kissed (And One Time We Did) by Tess Sharpe, and What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera have been flying off the shelves. On- or off-screen, everybody loves a love story.

Book covers of The Gravity of Us, 6 Times We Almost Kissed (And One Time We Did) and What If It’s Us
“[Queer teens] want to see queer people fighting sci-fi monsters, they want to see the queer people having rom-coms, they want to see them in college, they want to see all of these things,” says author Tess Sharpe.

But pervasive optimism like Heartstopper’s is a double-edged sword. Shows like Heartstopper that could be described as sanitizing the queer experience can “feel homonormative,” says Alex Chun, a 21-year-old from Maple Grove, Minnesota. A concept from the field of queer theory, homonormativity references the replication of straight ideals in queer culture: marriage, monogamy, the traditional nuclear family, etc. Under homonormativity, queer people’s goal is to assimilate with cis and straight people, rather than to embrace their own unique culture.

“It feels like you could copy-paste that and put in a cis hetero couple, and it would relatively be the same story,” Chun tells INTO. “And to me, that’s cool, and that’s representative, but it’s not as queer as I would like for it to be.”

Euphoria: Disruptive. Messy. Dirty. We Want it All

A teenage girl lies in bed, browsing through Grindr on her phone. After swiping through a sea of headless torsos, she comes upon an intriguing profile: “DominantDaddy.” He wants to meet up tonight for drinks. The girl smiles and cancels her plans.

That night, she sits on a motel bed, staring up at the much older man.

“How old are you?” he asks.

“22,” she lies.

This encounter comes from the first episode of Euphoria, an Emmy-winning HBO drama. The show centers on the relationship between Rue, played by Zendaya, and Jules, her trans best friend and sometimes girlfriend played by Hunter Schafer. The scene described above sees the underage Jules hooking up with a man off of Grindr. Watching their sexual encounter is uncomfortable. It’s violent. And it is, unfortunately, painfully relatable for many queer Gen Zers.

“One thing that I really liked about Euphoria was the way that it was disruptive,” says Chun, who cites the show as being queer in both subject matter and storytelling techniques. “I felt like it was really messy. It was often really dirty, and it was also super sexy. I just thought that that was a really unique form of storytelling that was representative but also indulgent,” he says.

Messy, dirty, and indulgent are all apt descriptors for Euphoria. The show may be about teenagers, but it’s certainly not for kids, tackling such intense topics as drug abuse, abortion, and hypersexuality. But these are the topics, says Chun, that actually speak to his and his other queer friends’ experiences growing up.

“You see a lot of your straight friends have romances and relationships, and then as a gay person, in the suburbs especially, you don’t experience that,” explains Chun. “So then when you get access to a queer community — or seeming access — you kind of go all-in, especially when you’re a touch-starved 16-year-old.”

A scene from Euphoria, shirtless men dance onstage
A scene from ‘Euphoria,’ Season 2, episode 7. Photo by Eddy Chen/HBO Max

Seeing one’s own story, however dark, play out on screen like this can be validating and comforting. At the same time, just because portraying hypersexuality may be accurate doesn’t mean it’s healthy or something to be encouraged for queer teenagers. 

Portrayals of hypersexuality have plagued queer media since long before Euphoria premiered in 2019; Chun points to Queer as Folk, a raunchy gay drama from the early aughts that put sex front and center, and the plethora of low-budget movies on Netflix that were one step up from porn, like the American Pie-esque Another Gay Movie, as some of the only queer media he discovered while growing up.

“In middle school, I think a lot of the queer media that I consumed was super sexual, or felt super illicit in a lot of ways,” recalls Chun. A unilateral portrayal of queer people as hypersexual made it hard to imagine a future outside the context of sex, he says: “I think that having more media that isn’t necessarily focused around that, but more so about nonsexual intimacy, but also just what it means to live as a young queer person is really important too.”

Never Have I Ever: What Comes After Coming Out?

A teenage girl sits in a velvet suit, her face wet from tears. She’s run away from the school dance to fix her robot. “Come on, Gears, come back to me,” she says, futzing with its controls to no avail. 

Enter her friends to ask her what’s wrong: “Fabiola? Why are you crying?”

“I just thought it would be easier after coming out. But even with the queer girls, I feel like I’m constantly trying to fit in,” she laments. “I guess I’m as bad at being a lesbian as I was a closeted straight person.”

“I think what you mean is that you’re bad at being Sasha and Eve,” says her friend. “Being gay, you’re fine at. You like girls, right?”

“Very much so,” she replies. “I had a dream the other night that Dua Lipa was feeding me grapes.”

That scene is from the Season Two finale of Netflix’s Never Have I Ever, a high school dramedy from creator Mindy Kaling following a friend group’s ups, downs, and in-betweens. It’s near the end of main character Fabiola’s seasonlong arc of trying to fit into queer stereotypes after coming out as a lesbian in the previous season — but Fabiola is more into robotics than King Princess.

Actress Lee Rodriguez sits on a bed in a scene from Never Have I Ever
Lee Rodriguez in “Never Have I Ever.’ Photo by Lara Solanki/Netflix

Fabiola is played by 23-year-old Lee Rodriguez, who not long ago was a Gen Z consumer of queer media herself, rather than an actor behind it. “I think it’s awesome that there’s so much more queer representation, and I’m so honored to be a part of that representation too,” Rodriguez tells INTO. “Sometimes I don’t really realize it, but just hearing the way that Fabiola’s storyline has helped people is just — it blows my mind, honestly.”

Rodriguez has felt that impact on viewers since Never Have I Ever’s first season premiered in 2020. That season included a touching coming-out storyline for Fabiola, which Rodriguez says fans frequently DM her about to say it inspired them to come out themselves. 

“It just, I think, has taught me how important telling stories like these are,” says Rodriguez about hearing the show’s impact on viewers. “Stuff like that always moves me, and it always just makes me feel proud of who I am and what I’m doing.”

Never Have I Ever has championed a nuanced portrayal of queerness across its first three seasons. With Fabiola, the show has explored diverse sides to queerness: pressures of coming out, challenges fitting in with the queer community, and the messy feelings inherent to teenage romance. Rodriguez says the show’s fourth and final season, which releases later this year, will show yet another “different side” to Fabiola, and with it, an end to the character and a goodbye for Rodriguez.

“I’ll of course miss working on this show. But it’s also how the show has progressed, and how many people have connected to the show, and how many different people have felt seen, and the doors that this kind of show I feel like will open,” Rodriguez says. “It’s definitely bittersweet, but also, I’m glad that a show like this exists and will be able to live on.”

Queer Stories, Straight Audiences, and a Rocky Media Landscape

Beyond what queer folks themselves want from media, there’s a straight specter to telling queer stories: Queer people won’t be the only ones watching.

“I think a problem with the way that nonqueer people especially consume media that has a queer character is thinking that the one that they see represents everything,” says Benito. Her point speaks to the burden of representation, the idea that when there are limited portrayals of a given identity in pop culture — say, of a certain sexuality, race, or gender — additional pressure is put on that portrayal to represent that identity in a positive, holistic light.

That can lead to backlash for any portrayals of queer folks who make mistakes, or are outright bad people. Characters like Mickey on Showtime’s Shameless and Adam on Netflix’s Sex Education act as both homophobic bullies and closeted love interests for their shows’ other queer characters. Some criticize these portrayals for perpetuating harmful stereotypes about queer people, including Haggard’s Law, the idea that the more actively homophobic somebody is, the more likely they’re actually just secretly gay. 

Connor Swindells, Asa Butterfield in a scene fron Sex Education
Connor Swindells, left, and Asa Butterfield in ‘Sex Education.’ Photo by Sam Taylor/Netflix

But as Chun puts it, “some queer people suck,” and pop culture ought to be allowed to portray that. “There isn’t one type of queer person,” he says. “Having a singular representation, or trying to put the onus on media to represent an entire community of people, is just impossible.”

The idea of a queer monolith is impossible by definition, agrees Georden West, an independent director whose latest film, Playland, blends fantasy and history to tell the story of Boston’s oldest gay bar. Queerness has no concrete definition, and “that’s the coolest thing about it,” they say.

Having a singular representation, or trying to put the onus on media to represent an entire community of people, is just impossible.

Alex Chun, INTO Gen Z roundtable participant

“When someone says queer, whatever comes to mind is not going to define the queerness of every single person,” West tells INTO. “It’s so slippery. It’s ungovernable. It means so many different bodies and experiences.”

It’s a case where quantity might trump quality when it comes to queer representation. “I think as we get more and more mainstream pieces of media that include queer characters of all sorts, that problem can be lessened,” says Benito. “They’ll see a spectrum of flawed and idyllic queer characters, the same way we have spectrums of flawed and idyllic straight characters.”

The burden of representation extends to those behind the scenes too, says West. They recognize that not many queer creatives have a platform like theirs, creating pressure to set a good example: “If I mess up, does that mean someone else isn’t going to get financed? Is someone else not going to get the same opportunity if I don’t do what I set out to do?” West asks.

Rasheed Newson, writer and creator of Bel-Air, Peacock’s modern reimagining of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, agrees with West. Newson’s Bel-Air adds queer themes to its classic source material, including Ashley, the youngest member of the Banks family, exploring her sexuality.

In Bel-Air’s writers room, Newson says he feels seen and able to freely express his perspective as a gay Black man. But that hasn’t always been the case: “Earlier in my career, I’ve been in rooms where I was the only person of color. I’ve been in writing rooms where I was the only openly gay person there,” Newson tells INTO. “You’re taking on the responsibility of speaking for everyone, which is just sort of impossible and ridiculous.”

Now, though, Newson says things are looking up. “If you are Black and queer, boy, there’s never been a better time,” he says. “This is it. The world is more open to what we have to give than it’s ever been before. It still has a long way to go, but the progress is real, and the opportunities are there for the taking.”

Expanding the Queer Canon

Why, exactly, is representation so important, especially when you’re young? It’s difficult to quantify the value of being seen, of feeling validated in who you are — but when you feel it, you feel it.

“Being able to relate to a story, being able to connect with it — it means something,” says Rodriguez. “Even though a TV series or a movie, it only lasts a couple hours of your life, those couple hours are very, very impactful.”

That’s why “expanding the queer canon” is critical, says Tess Sharpe, an author of YA fiction. Sharpe has become an expert on young queer audiences in her decadelong career: Her novels featuring queer characters, including her 2014 debut Far From You, her 2021 smash hit The Girls I’ve Been, and most recently 2023’s 6 Times We Almost Kissed (And One Time We Did), explore genres from romance to spy thriller to murder mystery, delivering on the “rainbow of queer stories” Sharpe says queer teens are after.

“They want to see the queer people fighting sci-fi monsters, they want to see the queer people having rom-coms, they want to see them in college, they want to see all of these things,” Sharpe tells INTO. “This is really one of those cases, I think, of the market not listening to the readership, and instead catering to what they view as the paying customer.”

Those forays into genres besides romance or drama are growing more common — take the brutal survival mystery Yellowjackets, which casually includes a lesbian romance in the wilderness, or the prematurely canceled First Kill, a star-crossed sapphic love story between a vampire and a monster hunter — and Sharpe herself is contributing to the upcoming Netflix film adaptation of The Girls I’ve Been, produced by and starring Gen Z icon Millie Bobbie Brown.

The cast of Yellowjackets
(left to right) Courtney Eaton, Sophie Thatcher, Liv Hewson, Sophie Nélisse, Samantha Hanratty, and Jasmin Savoy Brown in Season 2 of ‘Yellowjackets.’ Photo by Lorenzo Agius/Showtime

Regardless of the medium, the challenge of making content aimed at young people, says Sharpe, is that the market cycles out every eight years or so, creating a new audience that’s “way more evolved and progressive than the last batch.” That means creatives have to move fast to adapt — especially with teens who won’t be shy when you’re not meeting their needs.

So, what do queer Gen Zers want next? As portrayals of queer people become more and more common, queer Gen Zers are paying more and more attention to what’s going on behind the scenes. Queer characters alone don’t mean much if they aren’t equating to success for real-world queer writers, actors, directors, and producers — not to mention that employing queer people to tell their own stories makes accuracy in representation that much more natural.

The amount of times I’ve seen queer people portrayed in the media by how a straight person views them is very high. If you want to be honest and very true to those experiences, they need to come directly from the people themselves.

Rose Fyffe, INTO roundtable participant

“The amount of times I’ve seen queer people portrayed in the media by how a straight person views them is very high,” Fyffe says. “If you want to be honest and very true to those experiences, they need to come directly from the people themselves.”

Chun agrees, adding that under the umbrella of queer representation, stories that speak to a specific intersectional identity should come from creators who hold that identity. “For me, seeing queer people of color or specifically Asian people on screen, hopefully that means that it’s being written and produced and created by an Asian person,” he says.

Yes, there’s more queer representation now than ever before. But that’s no excuse to stop creating queer media, says filmmaker West, who rejects the use of current representations of queerness as a justification for not needing any more. “It’s said with this expectation of complacency, as if this little crumb that we’ve gotten is enough to fill a hunger — and at least for me, I feel ravenous! I feel starved for great media!” they say.

Ultimately, there’s no one portrayal of queerness that will meet the needs or expectations of every queer teenager. Instead, the queer media landscape should simply keep growing, telling more and more stories until there’s something for everyone. Whether that means Fabiola finding her own way of being queer, Jules making the same mistakes you did, or Nick and Charlie sharing the perfect first kiss you’ve been dreaming of, that rainbow of stories can become a reality. And with them, our real world can get a little queerer too.

“Moments between Nick and Charlie like that can exist,” Fyffe says. “We can have that. The community can have that happiness one day. I truly do believe it.” ♦

GLAAD Media Award Nominee

Jude Cramer is a pop culture writer covering all things queer, from movies to music to drag. He’s previously written for LGBTQ Nation, Queerty, and Fast Company. Outside of journalism, Jude is a playwright focused on the melodrama of queer men and their relationships to masculinity and sexuality.

Featured image: (l-r) Kit Conner and Joe Locke in ‘Heartstopper’ (Netflix), Darren Criss in ‘Glee’ (FOX Image Collection/Getty Images), Liv Hewson and Jasmin Savoy Brown in ‘Yellowjackets’ (Kailey Schwerman/Showtime, Imani Lewis in ‘First Kill’ (Netflix), Alexa Demie, Barbie Ferreira, Maude Apatow, Sophia Rose Wilson, and Sydney Sweeney in ‘Euphoria’ (Eddy Chen/HBO), Wilson Cruz and Claire Daines in ‘My So-Called Life’ (film still/YouTube). Illustration by Kyle Neal

Interview with Rasheed Newson conducted by Joshua S. Mackey.

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