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The cast of 90s show My So Called Life huddled together
Photograph: Supplied/ABC

The best classic LGBTQIA+ TV shows you need to watch

Do your queer culture homework with this list of definitive queer television series

Written by
Alannah Maher
Contributors
Nick Dent
,
Claire Finneran
,
Stephen A Russell
&
Elizabeth McDonald
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Representation matters. In more recent times, we've witnessed an explosion of queer representation on our screens. There’s the ever-churning engine of RuPaul's Drag Race turning out new seasons and spin-offs at a dizzying rate, incredible series like Pose bringing authentic trans POC stories to the screen, and It's a Sin finding the joy and heartbreak in queer '80s London. Then there’s children’s show Steven Universe, a delightful animated adventure featuring a race of lesbian space rock aliens. We’re also seeing more diversity in LGBTQIA+ characters, including those involved in mainstream shows. Though the fanfare around absurd adult cartoon BoJack Horseman's asexual character Todd Chavez is a testament to the fact that we still have a way to go to make sure all letter of the alphabet receive the recognition they deserve. 

While bingeing away on TV shows can be a source of entertainment and escapism, when they reflect back our own identities, or the identities of people we love, or even those we have never heard of – it can be an incredibly enlightening experience. But in a time not so long ago, before streaming and the saturation of social media, queer show recommendations were passed down in tattered DVD (or even VHS) box sets, dodgy hard drives, and knowing advice.

We've rounded up some of the best classic queer television shows of the past to put on your watch list. Go on children, do your homework! 

Recommended: The best new TV shows and movies to stream this month.

Have you seen these shows?

Angels in America
Photograph: HBO/'Angels in America'

Angels in America

Meryl Streep in multiple roles – as an uptight Mormon mother with unrealised sapphic yearnings, the scorned ghost of Ethel Rosenberg and an eldery male rabbi. Emma Thompson as a beautiful and terrifying angel and a nurse with a soft butch greaser aesthetic. Al Pacino as a deeply closeted and deliciously dislikeable corrupt lawyer Roy Cohn. The farmer from Babe (James Cromwell) as a world-weary doctor. And a bunch more actors you've absolutely seen in something. This landmark 2003 HBO miniseries has everything we deserve. There's fantasy, spirituality explored with no ties to any one faith, a critical eye on Reagan-era politics, and a depiction of the AIDS epidemic that will tear your heart out and gently hold it. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1991 play of the same name by Tony Kushner, it retains many of the more theatrical elements of the storytelling, and the drama (and melodrama) holds up today. As a friend told me, this series was released way back in the “pre-streaming” era, and made for fascinating water cooler conversations when it was first incrementally released. Binge-watching it for the first time over another lockdown weekend in 2021, I was struck by the stark comparisons between the current pandemic and the one that ravaged the queer community in the ’80s. AM

Where to watch it: You can stream it on Binge or Foxtel Now

Six Feet Under
Photograph: Supplied/HBO

Six Feet Under

Before he graduated to serial killing in Dexter, Michael C. Hall made our hearts melt as uptight funeral parlour boss David Fisher. Initially in the closet, he introduced his boyfriend, African American policeman Keith, to his family as his racquetball partner. Needless to say Keith wasn’t too impressed, but David finally worked up the courage to come out to his oddball family and introduce his soon-to-be husband. Their navigation of everyday life together avoided a lot of rusty old tropes, and filled us with hope. SAR

Where to watch it: Stan 

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Tales of the City
Photograph: Stan

Tales of the City

The first of Armistead Maupin’s nine books about life in San Francisco from the ’70s to the ’10s was adapted by Britain’s Channel 4 in 1993 with a stellar cast including Parker Posey and Laura Linney (as wide-eyed ingenue Mary Ann Singleton), although Olympia Dukakis’s casting as Mary Ann’s kaftan wearing, pot-smoking landlady Mrs Madrigal would be controversial these days (no spoilers). The series caused conservative outrage after being screened on America’s PBS, however, which meant follow-up seasons based on the other books almost never happened and casting turned into a nightmare, with no less than three actors playing the lead role of Michael ‘Mouse’ Tolliver. Don’t let that put you off: the show’s early seasons are an exhilarating window into the gay capital of the world in its heyday, while the 2019 Netflix revival brings back much of the original cast (along with delightful new roles from the likes of Elliot Page, Bob the Drag Queen and some incredible trans actors) for a very welcome curtain call. ND

Where to watch it: Netflix    

The L Word
Photograph: MGM Worldwide Television

The L Word

Talking, laughing, loving, breathing – has there ever been a more iconically ridiculous ear-worm of a theme song? The L Word was on air in the US for a mere five years but the crumpled DVD box sets of its six seasons have been shared hand-to-hand around the world. The shareability of this show speaks to how there wasn’t anything like it for decades, it lived in the hallows of a pass-it-on community until the dawn of the internet helped grab this niche lesbian soap a cult status. This wildly funny and wildly horny serial drama followed the lives of a group of LA lesbians, bisexuals and occasional straights (fast-forward through those bits, sorry Kit) navigating their careers and romantic battles. You had your powerful career women like Bette, Helena and the closeted Dana, your gender-fluid stud, Shane, your energetic “media personality”, Alice and a dark soul that would haunt the annals of queer history: Jenny. A lot of the L Word’s storylines have aged badly, but what early ‘00s show hasn’t? Utterly bingeable, a very high sex scene per episode ratio and unforgettable character arcs (some deranged, twisted, funny bad not funny ha ha: again, Jenny) make this show one you’ll wish the world was watching at the same time so you could tweet about it. It is, after all, the way that we live…. And looooove. CF

Where to watch: All seasons are available on Stan (thank you, Gaia) alongside the recent reboot The L Word: Generation Q

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My So Called Life
Photograph: Supplied/ABC

My So Called Life

This super ’90s slice of high school strife launched the big screen careers of Clare Danes and Jared Leto as awks ‘will they, won’t they’ lovers, but it was Wilson Cruz as bestie Rickie Vasquez who really stole the show. Portraying a loving young latino gay man facing family violence, the storyline and his deft performance felt so far ahead of its time. He was so much more than the template gay BFF sidekick. Cruz, out and proud at the time he played ther role, has often reflected on the sheer volume of correspondence he has received over the years from queer people who had never before felt as seen. SAR

Where to watch it: Disney+

Tipping the Velvet
Photograph: Supplied/BBC

Tipping the Velvet

If the sight of Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo does things to your libido, then you’re going to want to check out this gloriously saucy UK show set in the Victorian era. An adaptation of popular lesbian novelist Sarah Water’ book of the same name, it leans heavily into sapphic symbolism and heaving drama. Rachael Stirling plays a lowly oyster girl who is sept up into the arms (and the act) of Keeley Hawes’ male impersonator. It pretty lush, and the sex scenes are petty steamy too. Even the author was surprised by just how far the BBC went with strap ons and what not. Hot. SAR

Where to watch it: you can buy it on iTunes 

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Will & Grace
Photograph: supplied

Will & Grace

Honey, what is this? What’s going on? Essentially the first primetime sitcom to feature gay principal characters, Will & Grace has been credited with improving public opinion of the LGBT community. Originally airing from 1998-2006, the series follows co-dependent best friends Will (Eric McCormack) a gay lawyer, and Grace (Debra Messing) a straight interior designer as they pursue life and love in New York City and sabotage themselves and each other along the way, even considering having a baby together – in a situationship probably eerily familiar for some gay-guy and straight-girl (or perceived-to-be-straight girl) best friends. The true star duo of the show, however, is Karen (Megan Mullally) and Jack (Sean Hayes). Mullally’s rich, boozing, pill-popping, and fabulously dressed socialite and Hayes’ flamboyant, free-spirited and cluelessly unsuccessful actor consistently steal hearts and scenes. It’s not hard to see why this easily binge-able series was revived for a stint from 2017-2020, with some mixed success. When this show is at its best it gives great comedy and manages to address some very real issues – even claiming tv’s first gay kiss – but it is also notable for never really fleshing out a lesbian character beyond a two-dimensional bit. In the recent series, it does attempt to make amends for its earlier more careless treatment of characters of different ethnicities. Much like Karen Walker herself, the show’s a lightly problematic fave you can’t help but hold a flame for. AM

Where to watch it: All seasons are available on Stan (tip: the old and new series are filed separately)

Xena Warrior Princess
Photograph: Studios USA Television Distribution

Xena Warrior Princess

Xena Warrior Princess aired from 1995-2001, carving the way for strong female protagonists and nerdy cosplay alike. Throughout the series, Xena herself has a number of male love interests but her sidekick and “very good friend”, Gabrielle is the one constant in her life. The two women have an intense bond of friendship and by season six, things appear to have become a little more than platonic. While the two heroines never officially become a couple, some particularly steamy ‘mouth-to-mouth’ moments leave the audience knowingly nodding their heads. EM

Where to watch it: seasons 1-3 available on 9Now

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Queer as Folk (UK)
Photograph: Supplied/Channel 4

Queer as Folk (UK)

It’s easy to forget just how big a deal it was when Russell T Davies (not yet at the rebooting Doctor Who stage) exploded gay men’s sex lives onto the small screen in a way that hadn’t really been seen before. It was rampant, and while the club bathroom throwdowns certainly raised eyebrows, there was more love than furious complaint letters hurled its way. So much so that two of the three leads went on to really big things: Aidan Gillen in Game of Thrones, and Charlie Hunnam in Sons of Anarchy. It’s got big geek energy too, and the gay strip lining Manchester Canal has never looked better. SAR

Where to watch it: available on Stan 

The Golden Girls
Photograph: Stan

The Golden Girls

Screw your star sign – I want to know if you’re a Rose, Dorothy, Blanche or Sophia. While this ’80s television gem might not have any explicitly queer main characters  – the gay houseboy didn’t make it past the pilot – the fact that Sydney’s prominent LGBTQIA+ bookstore The Bookshop Darlinghurst stocks Golden Girls themed tarot decks is a testament to the show’s ongoing adoption by the queer community. There is a very plausible rumour that the main characters, four ‘older’ single women living together in a house in Miami, were actually supposed to be gay men. Along with plenty of zingers, during its seven-year run, the show also provided perhaps the most progressive look at queer issues and many other prickly topics on network television at the time. Golden Girls aired as many LGBT-themed episodes as it had seasons, including a transgender politician, a gay brother, and a lesbian college friend. Every episode is like a warm hug, and just like an embrace, some episodes might stir up bigger feelings than what you dipped in for. AM

Where to watch it: available on Stan

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